IT WAS SUNDAY AFTERNOON, the final day of the 2023 Glastonbury festival.
On the Pyramid Stage, seventies band Blondie were about to launch into their first number. Wearing Doc Brown specs, singer Debbie Harry, the original Sunday Girl, grasped the microphone and half-sang, half-shouted:
“Ἐν θυρίδι εἰμί, αὕτη δ᾿ ἐστὶν ἡ πέραν τῆς ἀίθουσης. (En thyridi eimi, haútē d’ estin hē perían tēs aíthousēs).”
For that is how it might have sounded to the majority of the audience, most of whom would have been born in the first decade of the 21st century. To them, so antiquated and obscure would these words have sounded, that Ms Harry might as well have lapsed into classical Greek.
She wasn’t, of course. This was Glastonbury not Glyndebourne. What she actually sang was:
“I’M IN THE PHONE BOOTH, IT’S THE ONE ACROSS THE HALL!”
Hence the audience’s confusion. How many of those festival goers would have encountered a phone booth? Let alone know how to navigate one of them. Would they even know what the “pips” were.
Then came the second line. Things were about to get even more historical:
“IF YOU DON’T ANSWER I’LL JUST RING IT OFF THE WALL!”
Sorry, Debbie. Ring what off the wall?
For Generation Z, the days when phone calls took place in public, are as distant and unfamiliar as national service and food rationing are to Generation X. For the youngest generation, communications have always been instant, personal, and mobile.
These days, it’s only the Boomers and die hard Gen X’s who’ll you’ll hear referring to a “mobile” phone. For anyone born this century, it’s just a phone. Get over the mobility bit. Apple no longer markets the iPhone on the basis that its users can walk and talk at the same time.
Each of Blondie’s first three songs that afternoon contained “BC” telephone references. “BC” as in “Before Computers”. Eventually, Debbie realised that the game was up. Since those early days of Blondie a new world had dawned, a world of ubiquitous information, ubiquitous technology, ubiquitous communications.
Removing her cyborg specs, she addressed the audience:
“We had to get those phone songs out of the way because none of it is relevant today. We all have our phones in our pockets.”
And that was it. Seamlessly, the band moved on to “The Tide is High”. The Glasto audience breathed a sigh of relief. This was more like it. Finally a song about climate change.
And yet you’d need a heart of glass not to sympathise with Blondie as they tried to navigate the canyon of misunderstanding that exists between today’s generations.
At times it can feel as if older and younger generations speak different languages. As Boomers and Generation X have discovered, expressions which for them are self-explanatory can all too easily be indecipherable to Millennials and Generation Z.
Phrases like “bite the bullet”, “cut the mustard”, “flogging a dead horse”, “throw in the towel”, “let sleeping dogs lie,” and (we’re back to the phone booth again): “dial the number.” Unless explained and placed in context, terms like these can easily confuse and even alienate younger workers.
So if you want to have the career longevity of Blondie, my advice is to do what Debbie Harry did at Glastonbury that afternoon and audit your language from your customers’ perspective.
They’ll thank you for it, one way or another.