Posted by: Martin Fox | September 17, 2009

How lack of nonverbal cues hinders cross-generational communication

The following blog topic is from Phyllis Weiss Haserot, a noted expert on cross-generational issues. In short, she is a very cool woman – so listen to her message my friends.

While no surprise to the people who know me, I love working with young people. That stated, I also encounter the nonverbal cues challenge in my work with Gen Y’ers (aka the millennial generation.)

Nonverbal communication skills will be critical to your success – and awareness is the start to improving those nonverbal skills. And yes, I also see the same issues in some of the Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers I work with – including the Gen X’er I see when I look in the mirror. More to come on this topic in our upcoming programs…

Peace out – Martin Fox with the Center for Global Leadership


by Phyllis Weiss Haserot

Spending so much time with texting and e-mail as well as Facebook from a young age, Gen Y has developed less skill than previous generations reading nonverbal cues and interpreting tone of voice, pauses, etc., that can be experienced in person or on the phone. Gen Yers use cell phones more for texting than for voice calls. It seems the lack of nonverbal communication experience would impede interviewing skills and negotiating skills. The primarily electronic communicators are missing expressive behaviors which transmit feelings, attitudes, reactions and judgments. This becomes even more significant and potentially damaging in the cross-cultural circumstances of a world of global economic and political dependency.

And many Gen Yers don’t realize that others, particularly other generations, do see non-verbal meaning in behavior such as checking e-mail, etc. during meetings and not looking at a person who is talking to them because they are multi-tasking.

While it may reduce tensions for other generations to realize that this behavior is not intentionally rude, but rather is just young people acting on what they know (or don’t know), the fact is the latter tend not to be well equipped for negotiations, interviewing, navigating the “political” dynamics of the workplace, or even their own job interviews. These have always been vital business skills.

I suppose one could argue that as more business is done electronically, skills in reading nonverbal cues won’t be as important. How valid is that? Will interaction become so depersonalized?

For the time being, negotiating, interviewing and influencing skills remain central to success for professionals and other knowledge workers. Employers and managers need to be sensitive to teachable moments and to provide training early on in what we might term “holistic” communications skills.

* The generational chronology for easy reference: Generations are defined by the similar formative influences – social, cultural, political, economic – that existed as the individuals of particular birth cohorts were growing up. Given that premise, the age breakdowns for each of the four generations currently in the workplace are approximately:
Traditionalists: born 1925-1942
Baby Boomers born 1943-1962
Generation X born 1963-1978
Generation Y/Millennials born 1979-1998



  1. Thanks for spreading the word, Martin. This e-Tip got a lot of interesting response. I’d love to have a dialogue with you on your blog and on mine at

    Looking forward to meeting in person.

  2. This article is right on target. It’s my belief that if, as parents, we take responsibility for teaching proper behavioral skills to our children while we raise them, they will not be facing these “social shortcomings” when the time comes for them to hit the workplace. I’m not denying that all the technological advancements have not placed added responsibility on each of us for staying on our toes (and in turn, staying on our kid’s backs!) but that shouldn’t matter. I think it still comes down to good manners and accepting no less from your child. Being well-mannered will equip them with the knowledge it takes to know that not looking someone in the eye who is speaking to them is rude ALWAYS and not giving one’s full attention where it ought to be because one is multi-tasking is unthinkable. By setting rules and guidelines now regarding their cell phones and computers, they won’t be confused later about what is acceptable behavior. We should each take responsibility for laying the foundation of good manners in our children and that must also include technological etiquette.

  3. Linda – I totally agree that politeness and good behavior taught by example by parents and others is crucial for children to learn vital inter-personal communication skills.

    But beyond that, for those who have already arrived in the workplace or are anticipating entry, self-interest should motivate them to learn these skills, including the non-verbal body language that is revealed at in person interactions, including job interviews, salary and deal negotiations and any transactional activity. In this ever more consumer-focused society, we need to appeal to young people’s self-interest. (Even saving the environment is in their own self-interest.)

    Looking forward – optimistically – with best wishes for good health, peace, fulfillment and joy in the new year,

  4. We absolutely need to appeal to young people’s self-interest in this matter; on that I could not be more agreeable. In fact, appealing to a young person’s self-interest in general is pretty much key in our job as role models—that and the ability to “see around the corners” in life to prepare them for possibilities that they are not yet equipped to comprehend. As a mother of a pre-teen son with autism and 2 neurotypical daughters, the issue of social skill ability is one that has maintained a front burner priority in my life for the last 11 years as we have fought tooth and nail to pull and keep him out of the private world he somehow inhabited after his first birthday. The “gift” of communication and human interaction that comes naturally to my daughters and most of the rest of us, is one that has had to be taught to him. It has meant staying CONSTANTLY on top of him and forcing him to act and react in the manner that is dictated as acceptable in our society in order to prepare him for an adult life that he will be responsible for himself in. Social give and take and the skills expressed in the article are completely foreign to him and will come only with diligent hard work–something he has known for the past 11 years. If I can expect this from him, I don’t think it’s presuming too much for other adults to have a role in expecting the same from the young people in their lives and yes, when possible, appealing to the young person’s own self-interest as well.

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