‘Double Speak’ was coined by George Orwell in his classic novel, 1984. Saying one thing and meaning the exact opposite. We all recognize that in current life. “Bad” is the highest form of compliment among teenagers. The Pentagon Budget is built on a necessary stockpile of war materiel. “Academically challenged” means a slow learner. Some contradictions begin to make sense after awhile.
While Double Speak has become a part of our living language, an interesting new phenomenon seems to be emerging. Let’s call it Generation Talk. Using words and concepts that have little meaning for other generations. Consider this scene: Two couples in their sixties are seated in a booth waiting for the table server to appear. A young woman, in her early 20’s, approaches and cheerily asks, “How are you guys tonight?” Aside from the unisex usage of ‘guys”, is that supposed to put the two couples at ease? A sort of inverted compliment. We’re all in this together, even with that sprinkling of gray hair. The ubiquitous ‘you guys’ is one of the signature phrases of Generation X.
Americans are living longer these days. Thus, the Elders, the respectful term among Native American tribes, are in their 60’s, 70’s and over. They would like to be considered wiser with this age and experience advantage. But it doesn’t always work that way. Elders need a sense of humor and perspective to communicate effectively with the younger generations. When they refer to the London Blitz during World War II, or rationing of food and clothing, ‘victory gardens’ and “ F.D.R.‘s fireside chats”, most of these terms have to be explained.
“Two pairs of shoes a year! Are you kidding, Grandma? No way!” So responded a teenager when ‘rationing’ was made vivid in terms of her lifestyle. Would you believe five different types of sneakers in her closet? Plus dress shoes. And an assortment of play sandals and boots for one sixteen year-old. Just a normal array.
How about explaining curfews in the colleges in the 50’s. The outside dormitory doors locked at 10:30 on weekday nights. Midnight on Saturday for the women’s dorms. No visiting privileges above the first floor. “You can’t be serious! Our dorm is co-ed. Only the bathrooms are off limits. And we’re free to come and go whenever we want. After all, we’re adults, aren’t we?” Is that a rhetorical question? If it is a real question, some elders would love to answer it. Yes. They may have found the dorm rules too restrictive. But, they’re not sure the pendulum swinging 180 degrees is the answer. They know that ‘unisex’ was not a word in their vocabulary then. Now, they’re getting used to it in clothing and haircuts. It may take a little more time to convince them that unisex dorms are an improvement in the halls of learning.
Child rearing is another mine field of Generation Talk. For elders, “time out” means a break in the basketball or football game. Today, it is the primary form of discipline and/or punishment. Sitting in a chair for a proscribed period of time; it is aimed at bringing about a change in behavior — often in a sullen and resentful child. In the old days, spanking was taken for granted. It was only a matter of who administered it, how hard and how often. Did it work? We’ll never know. Now, it is likened to child abuse. “Mother, we would never use physical force with Bobby!” Mother may be tempted to respond with, “Give me a break!”, a favorite cry from Generation X.
Dr. Spock gave confidence to decades of unsure new parents. “Trust yourself”, he said. And they did. Of course, parents certainly made some mistakes. Then, Chaim Ginott, the child psychologist, brought comfort with the soothing, “Parents are not perfect.” Today, a pantheon of experts give parents the latest child rearing advice. Many of the new theories make good sense. Perhaps reading books to three month-old babies needs more research. But teaching them to swim sounds like a good idea.
Generation Talk may be encountered with adult children when they marry. It used to be taken for granted that after the engagement was announced the couple started calling their in-laws to be, ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad”. It was a given. There was no getting used to the idea. It was expected and it just happened. After the hugs and kisses all around, the new honorary titles were launched. This scenario appears to have changed in some families. There is a new expectation by the young couple. They plan to call their in-laws by their first names — Ellen and Jack. They work from the assumption that they have to be comfortable, rather than what their in-laws want to be called. “That shows we’re all equals in this new extended family, doesn’t it?” Well, that’s the rub. Parents expect recognition and respect for years of raising the new groom or bride. And the first name salutation does not do it for many of them. Working this subject out can be a tricky business. And it can rankle, unfortunately, for decades.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Since each generation grew up in a different era, in fact in a different world, there is a need for give and take in the use of language and understanding. Finding out that one’s givens pull a blank stare from the listener is a sure clue that Generation Talk is taking place. The words we use convey the thoughts and feelings we have. Most important in communication is the skill of listening. Not just hearing what the other generation is saying. But listening for their meanings, their concerns and their world in the language they use.
Generation Talk can be about trivial matters. It can also mirror the values we treasure most. The trick would seem to be in “sorting out” as the British say, which is which. The next time two or three generations get together, listen for Generation Talk. Is it on the surface? Or does it dig deeper? Are the generations listening to each other? These are important questions and interesting to pursue. They can lead to meaningful answers that could improve communication and living within families — and our society as a whole.