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Why internet slang is a riddle for bosses

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I can’t pinpoint the precise time it happened but my transformation from a great parent to an embarrassing one was reinforced the other day when I casually dropped “rizz” into a conversation at home. It was an experiment to see my son’s familiarity with internet slang. “Don’t say that,” he said. “You sound terrible.”

In terms of ego, it was a failure. But as a test of generational differences in the use of language, it was a success. I had discovered “rizz” in the fustiest way imaginable: I read in a newspaper that Oxford University Press had chosen it as the word of 2023. Short for charisma, rizz is defined as “style, charm, or attractiveness; the ability to attract a romantic or sexual partner”. (I realise I am but a heartbeat from explaining “the Beatles are a popular beat combo”.)

I expect some ribbing at home about being out of touch about new words, but should I be prepared for it at work? Or should junior staff be expected to bend to linguistic norms set by their more, ahem, experienced workers? 

This touches on a broader issue of generational divisions played out in workplaces around the world. Laura Empson, professor of management at Bayes Business School, told me recently that senior executives in professional service firms said they were baffled by younger staff’s priorities. One managing partner of a Big Four firm was taken aback when a junior associate said she had never been prouder to work for the firm than when it announced they were getting rid of plastic straws in the staff canteen. When he was her age, he remembered, he was most proud of the firm when it won a major new audit.

As with so many of these issues, it is not necessarily a matter of one generation yielding to another, but coming to a tacit understanding. Stephen Carradini, assistant professor at Arizona State University, who looks at the effects of emerging technologies on professional activity, says: “If language obscures the meaning, that seems like a big problem. If people aren’t familiar with the concept, there is a danger of miscommunication.” It works two ways. Jargon such as “blue-sky thinking” or “kick it into the long grass” were always a bit daft and may seem opaque to younger generations. 

In the past few years, the workplace fashion for authenticity suggests people should be themselves at work. This was always a lie. No one wants to see your true self at the office. If that were the case, I wouldn’t bother wiping the toothpaste from my top. Authenticity can include a professional version of yourself. In reality, we have multiple guises, adjusting tone or appearance according to the situation. So too with language. A WhatsApp group of twenty-something colleagues is very different to a presentation to the board. 

Much depends on context. A Gen X director working in, say marketing, catering to Gen Z consumers, will feel more relaxed about hearing slang in the workplace than the managing partner of a buttoned-up law firm. 

That does not mean they should be trying to drop “rizz” into conversation. As my son pointed out, it is cringe-inducing. Partly it seems phoney, but also because it is hard to keep up to speed with the way language changes if not immersed in it. Tony Thorne, director of the Slang and New Language Archive at King’s College London, says Gen Z is “heavily influenced by viral trends and memes, [it] is not strictly only verbal . . . it always has one eye on visual metaphors and allusions too”. Moreover, the humour is “amazingly self-referential and allusive, [assuming] knowledge of influencers, in-jokes, celebrities [and] previous fashions”.

Resistance is futile. Technology makes quirks and humour more important. Slang, says Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language, “can create intimacy with colleagues when body language is no longer the primary communication”.

Workplace norms evolve. Just five years ago senior leaders were complaining about headphones in the office, Dhawan points out. “Now they’re normal.” So too with language. Slang slips into common usage pretty quickly. Oxford University Press’s past years’ words include “vax”, “toxic” and “climate emergency”, all of which seem fairly mainstream now. Who signs their emails with the formal “Yours faithfully”? Far more common is: “Thanks”, “Kind regards” or “Best wishes”.

I still cringe when I see abbreviated signoffs like KR or BW — but give me another year, Thx.

emma.jacobs@ft.com

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