Throughout my long life, I thought I’d encountered every form of negative communication possible. Growing up with two older sisters, I early learned about anger, bullying and put-downs designed to shut up their much younger sibling who eternally wanted to be included.
As a teen and young woman, I dated charmers who tried to pursue their own agenda regardless of my opinions. Bosses argued to force me into longer, lower paid work hours. A few friends and family members preferred to watch TV rather than converse with me when I visited.
All in all, these seemed like typical scenarios that I imagined most people had experienced. But a new form of baffling communication blindsided me recently. At work, I met with a few young people in their twenties and early thirties and found myself struggling to comprehend their standard American English because they spoke at two or three times the rate of me and my older friends.
In my early years, vinyl records played at several different speeds. For fun, we sometimes upped the dial a notch so the singer resembled Alvin the Chipmunk. This was exactly what these young people sounded like to me. I found myself leaning my good ear towards them while I stared at their lips, trying to discern a word here or there that I could comprehend.
I’d studied Spanish in high school. With these young colleagues I strained the same way I did when trying to converse with Hispanics in their language. All my senses perked up on high alert attempting to understand key words. After a few hours, I felt exhausted. During dinner with my new work buddies, I fanaticized about being home with a good book, surrounded by peace and quiet.
I first remembered quick-paced repartee in the TV show, West Wing, in its 1999-2000 season. As I tried to focus on President Bartlett and his team, I found I could barely comprehend words because of their speed-talking. I concentrated hard, but through my riled feelings, frustration ruled. I understood about half of the language, my senses and emotions on overload. It made a big impression because I’d travelled six hours by airplane to visit relatives. I felt shocked when the cousins hushed my warm “Hellos” and placed me in front of West Wing. I’d never owned a TV and hadn’t seen the show. An onrush of emotion overwhelmed me: dismay and confusion that my family ignored me when I’d come so far. However, I realized that not everyone valued conversation over TV and I tried to adapt to their ways, remembering the advice of the old cliche, When in Rome, do as the Romans.
That first experience with fast-chat remained memorable. I saw it as an aberrant TV-show phenomenon that would end with the series’ demise in 2006. But, apparently, it educated the Millennial generation and Gen Z in the way to appear important and smart: hyper-speed speech.
Although my current young friends didn’t appear to be intentionally rude, it seemed they and their social group had established rapid-fire communication as their dominant style. Speaking to friends my age with kids in their twenties and thirties, my buddies laughingly noted the same traits in their adult children. Their lingo proved to be indecipherable most of the time. The reason I felt like I tried to comprehend a foreign language when with the youngsters was because the Millennials and Gen Zs had evolved a cultural trait distinct from their parents’ generation. It’s been an odd experience and sad for me because it limited my communication with young people, just as my peers did with our elders. As we sat at dinner, I tried to track a spew of rushed words. I mentally flailed and felt thick-headed and inept when I missed the meaning of the conversation. It seemed that Millennials and Gen Zs carved out a way to be unique with their fast-talk.
In my teens and twenties, my generation began the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when we famously rebelled against our seniors, protesting the Viet Nam war. Our hip-hugging bell-bottom jeans, love beads, radical politics and new lingo – “far out,” “wasted,” “cool, man,” “groovy” – alienated our elders.
Fifty years ago, we styled ourselves as “cool” radicals, the ones who knew better than our parents. We had the added reckless energy engendered by suffering from seeing our fellow students coming home in body bags from the war. Our rebellion tore many families apart.
My Mom proved to be the exception. She decided the hippies had a good thing going. She moved to San Francisco, adorned herself in mini-skirts and waist-length beaded necklaces, celebrated free love and joined the stoners. When I visited her in the City by the Bay, I found her weird, more of a hippy than me. My constitution couldn’t tolerate booze or drugs; they made me feel sick. Mom ridiculed me for that. She was the cool one which left me as the “square,” an opposite kind of estrangement from most kids and their parents. It proved to be a sadly enduring division between us, impairing deep communion and making my heart ache for a lifetime.
I had friends who moved to Canada and became permanently withdrawn from their families as a result of the cultural upheaval. Social differences became so strident, other friends never spoke to their parents again, even though they stayed in America.
With their swift tongues, Millennials and Gen Zs found a way to set themselves up as superior to their elders, without the brutal edge of my generation. For that, I’m thankful.
I have hope that I can adapt to their swift dialogue, at least a little. In the past, when I’ve spent a few days with Spanish-speaking people, my ear got used to their familiar speech patterns and I comprehended more and more of their language each day. Indeed, after a week in my young friends’ company, I suddenly found myself rapidly trilling words together and pushing them out in a rush. I barely recognized my voice.
Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.