We’ve written extensively in the past about how younger generations communicate visually - whether it be through emojis, memes or GIFS, the digital and cultural landscape of today has created a generational gap in language that we haven’t seen before. As Matt Klien put it - “For Gen Z, everything is content and all content communicates. Sharing a headline is a message. A photo is a vibe. A video is a mood. For a generation which holds such complex, nuanced sentiment, these nonverbal but colorful mediums are required to get across what's felt.”

But it’s not just creative communication that is distinct among younger generations. From hand signals to talking policy, this week’s 52INSIGHTS explores some of the codes and shifts Gen Z are spearheading in cultural communication.


Have you heard of the 7-38-55 rule? The work of Dr. Albert Mehrabian on verbal and non verbal communication finds that 7% of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and 55% through body language. Basically 93% of all communication is ‘nonverbal’.

Many say the importance of non verbal communication skills has risen in the pandemic. We have had to learn to communicate more in the virtual world, with masks on and largely without physical touch. This springs across TikTok, teens were sharing their honest takes on life - posing in a position to look like you’re checking your pulse, while sharing your truth about a parent that you might not necessarily want them to hear. This trend went viral, initially starting as a secret code among teens. When you know you know. As older generations clued into the trend, it became a parody of itself.

What makes these visual codes more significant is they go beyond just viral TikTok dances, jokes or memes. The rediscovery of the power of body language can be seen in safeguarding individuals from harm. The #FreeBritney movement has been dedicated to deep dives investigating hidden codes behind Britney’s visual social media presence (in order to seek help). With an increase in domestic violence as a result of the pandemic, due to often being stuck in close proximity to abusers, visual cues were created and spread across TikTok (and subsequently other platforms, just search #signalforhelp on Twitter) to help victims call for help without alerting abusive partners or family members. This week the story of a missing teenager in Kentucky who used hand signals she saw on TikTok to alert a driver to call for help, drove deeper cultural conversation about the power of non verbal communication in a digital age.


This week, Instagram Stickers launched with a bang. One ‘sticker’ in particular spread like wildfire. It encouraged IG’ers to share a photo of their pet, and in return a tree would be planted. Cute animal pictures plus tree planting. What could go wrong? Plenty. The post garnered such traction that sceptics started investigating the source behind the sticker. Twitter threads like this one, worked to drive the conversation forward, and pretty soon the trend was debunked.

“Looking forward to seeing the four million trees from all those pet pics get planted in a timely and legitimate and definitely very real manner.” Kate Lindsay via Twitter

As the trend spread and spread, more and more young people were questioning the legitimacy of the source. Who was planting all these trees? While the action of sharing a picture of your pet is a simple act and taps into the mindset of social media activism (sometimes referred to as slacktivism) of participating in digital trends that have little or no impact on actual problems or real lives. For Gen Z, there is a need for more action, even if sharing a picture of your dog is pretty cute.

“the “for every pet pic we’ll plant one tree” ig story is giving the same energy as the ig challenges at the beginning of the pandemic are u all ok?” @vickiwhale

Despite the fake sticker, the story reveals clearly how willing younger generations are to experiment and adopt brand new functions and trends - especially when it's visually led and easy. This means that older generations are quickly left behind, missing meaning and jokes that travel FAST.


With rising concerns about the inaction of government and leaders, youth activism (IRL and online) is heating up in a big way. COP26 has seen tens of thousands take to the streets, and now (at time of writing) with a dismal draft proposal on the table, young leaders are petitioning the UN to declare a ‘systemwide climate emergency.’ Reflecting youth’s growing desire for transparency and accountability (and ability to dissect & read between the lines), this action is reflective of youth-speak trends today. It’s not just about voicing up and out for specific issues - it’s the manner in which this voicing out manifests.

Gen Z does not adapt their communication style to make you feel more comfortable, they want to tell and hear it like it is. And they don’t owe anyone ‘nice’. ‘Generation Emergency’ don’t have the time, or the energy.

Realness trumps politeness. Authenticity trumps tradition. Action trumps hierarchy.

This refusal to shift to make their communication more palatable to others and older generations is increasingly reflected in the world of work where younger generations are changing the rules of business speak. Older generations used to more formal and polished conversations and appearance in the workplace are struggling to get to grips with the more relaxed (authentic) and equitable/non hierarchical approach of youth. In essence - generations are clashing in the workplace more because they are not speaking in the same language codes. Nicky Thompson, a London-based business psychologist with a background in linguistics, says to the BBC- Creating a more diverse and inclusive workspace is about language, tone, who I am as a person, and being able to actually express that in the workplace.”


More overt communication signs and language are becoming more important - especially considering all of our pandemic communications learnings. From TikTok to Zoom, youth are making very clear how they feel, think and what they need - without softening the message or adapting to suit older generations' needs. To understand younger generations it’s crucial to get to grips with how they communicate. Codes and trends change quickly - the meaning of an emoji can change in hours.

Two-way mentorship in the workplace is a great way to align older and younger generations’ goals and communication styles/codes. Having empathy to the fact that younger team members are literally speaking in a different language can help to overcome many day-to-day challenges.

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