A major facet of any business is communication. Don’t faint. It’s true. But how well are you incorporating new language into your company?
According to a very brief and not-at-all-thorough bit of research, we add around 1,000 words to the English language per year. There are 13 or so ways new words come about, including “conversion,” which is where a word means one thing but we end up using it for some other use. I might like you but my Instagram photo only got 34 likes. (Not to mention how certain people use “like” the way others use “um.”)
On top of this, social and cultural changes and the Internet at large are pushing language changes at a much faster rate than ever before. On the serious side, inclusivity and personal pronouns around gender matter a great deal to people and are finally being discussed and seen as important.
Meme culture (which is highly visual but still about language) now shifts the meaning and understanding of words and phrases faster than most sane people could ever hope to maintain and manage. This accelerates faster all the time. Gone are those quaint articles talking about textspeak (“If they type ‘lol,’ they mean ‘laugh out loud’”) and here instead is the realization that words might forever more be a lot less concrete than ever before.
Language is at the Root of Inclusivity
One change in culture is that people are pushing harder for inclusivity (including people who otherwise feel excluded or marginalized). Racial and sexual and gender definitions matter more to people than ever before, and there are more variations and concepts to consider. For instance, people care a lot more about the pronouns used to identify them. You may have even heard someone say, “Hi, my name is Taylor. My pronouns are ‘they/them.’” What happens next matters a great deal to that person and to your organization.
In matters like pronouns (a great resource for this is mypronouns.org), there might be emotions and discomfort attached to learning more about it. Internally and externally, this is a matter of courtesy and respect and goes a long way to showing that you value individuals. Are your forms and paperwork set up to accept these kinds of changes?
Memes are More Than Funny
Interestingly enough, the term “meme” is a conversion. The original meaning simply meant that it was information passed to people to be learned, especially through imitation. “Do this thing the way I’m doing it.” When you see this word (rhymes with “dream”), it now means a small piece of media (picture, text, video) shared rapidly and spread far.
More and more, concepts that started in memes are floating into business language, or being referenced as if the original concepts are universally known. Someone might casually drop a mention of Tide Pods, referring to the 2018 meme of kids supposedly eating them for a YouTube challenge. (Eventually, Tide Pod-like candies became a popular gag product and more recently Glenlivet whisky released “capsules” that are essentially Tide Pods of liquor.)
The advice here isn’t that your company must now talk only in memes or send out funny ads imitating these concepts (in fact, don’t do that or you might end up being mocked for it on reddit), but rather that without at least a passing understanding of which memes are floating out there, you’ll miss some language and communication cues. A great site to help you keep up (because this all changes so quickly) is KnowYourMeme.
Even More Tactically, Language and How We Use it Has Shifted
Language, even business communication, is much more conversational and informal than ever before. While there’s always a level of what is considered appropriate, a lot of business communication still reads as if it’s someone’s best attempt at a high school essay, where you’re graded on using big words, formal structures, and a lot of filler that generally wastes the time of the reader.
Brevity is the soul of wit, said Shakespeare. In the modern business world, everyone is busy. They need fewer words to read than more. I prefer to say “Brevity is.”
In writing emails to customers, prospects, business partners, colleagues and more, pare down the interaction to something more succinct. Remove as much backstory, side notes, and explanations as possible before hitting send. Even if this forces a follow-up email to add back in the detail, the majority of the time, you’ll learn that the extras weren’t as necessary.
Realize that formal salutations, prefaces, and closings now clog the flow of interaction. For instance, after greeting someone in an email, never write “I hope all is well” or similar. At the end, shave off the generic “I look forward to hearing back at your earliest convenience” and the like.
Consider that text messages, Twitter, and countless small screens in our lives have shaved down our attention span. We read the Netflix summary, then decide. Make your general business communications barely larger than a few tweets and you’ll see them serve you better.
Ultimately, Stay Open to Change
Language is a living entity. It changes. Suddenly the word “cancel” means that some celebrity or another is no longer acceptable to discuss. “I can’t with you” means something like “you’re too much.” The particulars aren’t important. The trick here is to be open to shifting and learning and evolving.
In some cases, like inclusivity and pronouns and the like, it’s more than a “nice to have.” In other instances, like staying up on memes, it helps you better understand references people are throwing around.
Watch your mouth. It needs to learn some new tricks.