Workplace Communication Etiquette: Better than Explaining Slang, Avoid Using it

Have you heard a 20-something coworker shout “Slay!” to celebrate a job well done? Or would you admit to exclaiming this, or something similar, yourself? If so, you’ve encountered Gen Z slang in the workplace. This style of communication is ubiquitous in today’s social media culture, but is it suitable for a professional setting? Or should we keep following a minimal communication etiquette?

Gen Z is the first generation of true digital natives. They’ve been exposed to smartphones, high-speed internet access, and viral social media content from an early age. In fact, they don’t even know a world without mobile technology in the palm of their hands. They’re also starting to enter the job market in droves. Recent projections estimate that 30 percent of the total workforce will be comprised of Gen Zers by 2030.

Social media platforms such as TikTok, which are built for a young audience, have normalized many slang phrases. These are now part of the typical Gen Z lexicon. With this comes a new dilemma for these young professionals: understanding what’s appropriate and not appropriate in the workplace.

The state of slang in Gen Z communication

According to a 2022 survey, 98 percent of Gen Zers communicate with slang. Furthermore, 30 percent use a slang word in nearly all conversations. In addition:

  • 35% of Gen Zers use slang even if they’re not sure what it means
  • More than 30% has used a slang term they later realized it’s offensive.
  • 90% of Gen Zers had to explain at least once the definition of a slang term to someone from another generation.

While almost 70 percent of Americans see no issue with slang in friendly conversation, 84 percent feel it doesn’t belong at work.

When it comes to generational buzzwords in the workplace, there are two schools of thought. According to Kevon Martin:

Older colleagues can benefit from being more adaptable and relatable to their younger coworkers, so they know how to appeal to a younger customer base. However, Gen Z must also recognize you can’t come to work and use whatever slang words you use with each other because it’s not the same environment.

The majority of U.S. workers in the poll referenced earlier agree with Martin’s evaluation. While 56 percent do use slang words in front of their colleagues, almost 90 percent think this behavior is unprofessional.

So the question is straightforward. Should Gen X and Millennial employees simply adapt or should Gen Zers refrain from using slang while on the clock? As most workplace communication etiquette dictates, it’s best practice to avoid jargon that can confuse or isolate others on the team. This includes Gen Z slang.

The case for avoiding slang in the workplace

Many companies have their own shorthand terms or abbreviations for industry-specific matters or internal memos. But you wouldn’t use this terminology with a consumer who is unfamiliar with it, right? Chances are, they won’t understand, which leads to confusion. This is also true when using slang words that only members of a certain age bracket understand. This form of communication can feel exclusive.

Casual office socializing combats loneliness and creates more opportunities for authentic, satisfying connections, research shows. Yet, a water-cooler chat with your work friends is not the same concept as slang used in an email, meeting, presentation, or Zoom call. If your choice of words to convey work-related information has older employees asking for a basic definition, it’s time to refrain from using them. In turn, you’ll enjoy an improved work communication.

What’s worse, slang can lead to a sense of exclusion—rather than inclusion. According to McKinsey’s recent “Great Attrition” poll, more than 50 percent of employees will quit a job if they don’t feel like they belong in the environment. The easiest way for Gen Zers to contribute to a professional setting without creating confusion, isolation, or exclusion is to be mindful of how they communicate.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Gen Z employees have to eliminate all traces of slang from their entire lexicon. Slang is a normal part of everyday conversation with others who share a common generational frame of reference.

Follow common sense work communication etiquette

The bottom line is that slang words are not practical or considerate in professional settings in the workplace, like meetings, emails, and calls.

Gen Zers are on-track to be more highly educated, socially conscious, and ethnically diverse than generations before them. Finding ways to adapt them to the workplace, without alienating older generations, is key to a connected, inclusive, and happy workplace.

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