Pardon me if I sound like a broken record, but I’m about to climb up on my soapbox, so don’t touch that dial! If that sentence made sense, you probably need to adjust the way you talk with colleagues and customers. If it didn’t make sense, you’re the reason why.
As with nearly every other aspect of life, language is constantly changing. English is full of colorful expressions, but when the situations that inspired those expressions go away, the phrases gradually become meaningless. And, when people are born long after the inspiration has faded away, the phrases make no sense at all.
For many years, members of the Baby Boom generation dominated popular culture. Now, as Boomers grow older, they’re finding that many of the expressions that were a part of their culture (and that of their parents) result in blank stares from younger folks in the workplace.
Take my reference to “soapbox.” Way back when products were shipped in wooden crates, people who wanted to be heard in public places would often stand atop those crates. Boxes used to ship soap were the perfect size for rising above the crowd, so “climbing up on a soapbox” became a synonym for speaking in public, particularly when advocating for a certain position and cause. Although wooden crates have gone the way of buggy whips, the expression has lived on. You’ll still hear businesspeople talk about getting up on their soapboxes or saying that they’ll make a “soapbox speech,” unaware that most of their colleagues under age 40 have no idea what they’re talking about.
My favorite example is “toll-free call.” It’s been at least 40 years since I heard anyone mention a “toll call,” which is how your grandparents referred to what your parents called long-distance calls. In the pre-wireless days, calling someone who was more than a few miles away would result in an extra charge, or “toll.” While we no longer talk about toll calls, commercials and print ads still encourage us to call “toll-free.” Other archaic phone-related terms that refer to ancient concepts are “hang up” as the way to end the call, “dial” for pressing the keypad when placing a call, and “dial tone” for the sound that let you know a landline is working correctly. (And when folks under 50 hear about a “party line,” they assume it’s a reference to a political stance.)
The “broken record” reference is another that doesn’t make much sense to non-boomers, most of whom never knew the horror of a scratch in their favorite vinyl Rolling Stones effort. The scratch caused a skip, leading Mick Jagger to sing the same phrase over and over. Those who were raised on cassette tapes, CDs, MP3s, or streamed music have no familiarity with that issue, so the phrase becomes meaningless.
Another media channel that birthed expressions that no longer make sense is television. Boomers have been admonished not to “touch that dial,” they’ve all “flipped through channels,” they’ve “taped programs,” and referred to the TV itself as “the tube.” In an age of digital remotes, DVRs and streaming, and TVs constructed without a single tube, those terms make no sense to a growing number of people.
There’s a host of similar expressions that Boomers continue to use that mean little or nothing to younger listeners or readers. Most have never “rolled down” a car window. If you’ve never seen Great-grandma’s washing machine, how could you appreciate someone being “put through the wringer?” Giving a “clean slate” to someone who attended school in an age of tablets and smart boards may not be seen as an obvious favor. And if you tell them to push the “pound sign,” they’re probably not going to know you were referring to the hashtag.
What’s my point? Most people assume that everyone else understands what they say or write. Boomers in particular have a tendency to believe that the rest of the world follows their lead. But if your audience is made of people from a different age group or cultural background, you’re probably not getting the understanding you expect.
It isn’t their responsibility to understand you, either. You have the responsibility for making sure that your audience understands. That means speaking or writing in language that’s familiar to them. Even if you choose to reject that responsibility, you’ll want to do it because it’s the only way to ensure that your communication will be effective. It’s also better than going on like a broken record.