I never used the smiley face in middle school, when all the other kids were doing it. Nor did I try it much in high school and college. No—I became addicted to the smiley face during my professional career.
I used to work in a department with five other Gen Y women. Four of us had gone to the same college and graduated within a year of one another. And we all found ourselves in project management positions for the first time.
Despite the closeness of our cubicles (we shared walls no higher than our noses) we preferred to communicate via email and chat.
Hi, Jessica! I just wanted to see if you had finished that article yet If you don’t have time just let me know and I can find someone else or do it myself!!Thanks!!!!Acree
By the time I realized I was abusing the smiley face, I couldn’t stop. I worried if I did, my coworkers would assume I was bossing them around, or that I thought I was better than they were.
I tried reading through my emails and deleting the smiley faces along with their cousin, the exclamation mark:
Hi, Jessica. I just wanted to see if you had finished that article yet. If you don’t have time just let me know and I can find someone else or do it myself.Thanks.Acree
Without the smileys, my demands seemed too direct. I worried I would hear Jessica scoff over our cubicle wall following the pleasant ding! of my email arriving. After the scoff might come the sound of her fingers clacking angrily against her keyboard, penning a nasty IM to Liz:
Jessy428: OMG Liz. I just got the bitchiest email >:|
Then I might hear a pause. Then the sound of Liz typing back. Clackety clack! Clack!
In Girl World, confrontations are handled in silence. Each word, ellipsis and period must be examined for hidden meaning.
Does this sound like high school? I thought so too.
PART II. I HAVE A QUESTION.
Not only did I have trouble asking my coworkers to perform tasks, I also struggled with how to state my opinions in meetings and brainstorms. I found myself trailing off or criticizing my own idea before I had finished presenting it. Unless someone smiled and nodded at every word out of my mouth, I became overwhelmed by self-doubt.
When talking to other Gen Y females, I realize this kind of communication anxiety isn’t isolated to my previous place of work.
A TNGG colleague, Andreana Drencheva, confesses that her office communications look a lot like mine. “Almost all my e-mails include a . Some even start and finish with it.” In work meetings, especially when older men are present, she finds herself saying, “I have a question,” instead of disagreeing outright.
A friend of mine from college took a business class consisting largely of group projects. It always seemed like a guy took the leadership positions in those groups, she recalls. “The women would put forward ideas and then say, ‘I mean, that’s just what I was thinking… I’m open to other ideas, though.’”
As Gen Y women, we are supposed to be the most educated, liberated and technically savvy females in all of history. So why do we communicate like we’re still wearing hoop skirts?
If women had been socialized differently and learned to deal with rejection at a young age—as, perhaps, our male counterparts did—would we be more courageous in the workplace today? Are Gen Y men more comfortable speaking their minds because they were socialized in overtly competitive activities like football and fighting?
Or is it simply that Gen Y men grew up seeing other men in positions of power—President, CEO, novelist—and Gen Y women didn’t? And no matter how often our parents told us we could do anything we set our minds to, a part of us didn’t believe them?
While there has been little research regarding Gen Y women specifically, the Myers-Brigg Personality Test tells us that 70% of female test-takers of any age rank as “feelers” rather than “thinkers.” What does that mean? A feeler:
- makes decisions less objectively;
- is thin-skinned;
- is usually warm, gentle and diplomatic;
- calls people by their names;
- avoids arguments and conflict;
- and is sensitive and easily insulted.
No other area of the test is so polarized between genders.
PART III: THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE.
Of course, all this is to say nothing about the forms in which we grew up communicating. Email, instant messages, private cell phone calls and texts are the hallmark of the Millennial generation. Most of us would rather spend twenty minutes trying to track down some information on the web than suffer a two-minute phone call to customer service.
So is it possible that our fluency with electronic communication has caused us a delayed development in face-to-face interactions?
The average Gen Y-er sends and receives over 740 text messages a month. Instant messaging, which we’ve used since we were preteens, is now celebrated in the workplace. We are known as the generation most in touch with online social networks and mobile platforms.
Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation and my college English professor, wrote last year in the Wall Street Journal:
We live in a culture where young people—outfitted with iPhone and laptop and devoting hours every evening from age 10 onward to messaging of one kind and another—are ever less likely to develop the “silent fluency” that comes from face-to-face interaction.
Obviously, this topic requires more probing. Do our linguistic expressions—“like,” “um,” “you know”—trample our confidence? And do women use these verbal crutches more than men? If we had grown up writing letters instead of instant messages, would we be more comfortable communicating orally? Are we unsure of how to act because we lack women role models in our offices?
What do the men have to say about this?
Until Psychology Today publishes a study on the matter, I’ve vowed to end my statements boldly, with a period instead of a question mark. I will hack the emoticons and exclamation marks from my emails. And if I have the chance to approach a coworker personally, rather than digitally, I will.
In brainstorms, I will tell myself, there is a reason I’m here; it’s because I am smart and I have good ideas.
Then, I will start acting like it.
Photo by anniebee