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the rogue linguist

Online Etiquette: 6 Things Baby Boomers Get Wrong


Image: Carolyn Hiler

Breaking down the digi-linguistic faux pas of senior citizenry

Kids these days can’t string a sentence together.

Literacy has gone to the dogs.

Back in my day, grammar was hammered into us.

You’ve heard it from your parents, who heard it from their parents, who got it from their parents in turn. Grousing about youth language is a way of expressing nostalgia about a lost past – an idealised one that never actually existed. For gripes about the deterioration of language are a thing of all time.

Picture the person doing the grousing and words like “grizzled” and “curmudgeonly” come to mind. But what our esteemed elders are getting their bloomers in a bunch about is not in fact language in general, but register. A student opening an email to professor with “Hey,” for example – the fact is, it takes time to learn the right register for a given situation.

Old people these days

Here’s the thing: plonk them in front of a screen and older people are prone to making the very same sorts of faux pas. Baby boomers didn’t grow up with the internet and social media. The linguistic and sociocultural norms are foreign to them, which leads to what linguists call “pragmatic failures”. For sake of brevity, I’ve whittled the list down to my top six.

6     Writing like a sociopathic monster

This covers a multitude of sins, such as someone who’s known you since you were knee-high to a grasshopper emailing you with salutations like “Dear [full name]” and “Best regards”. Or using standard capitalisation and punctuation in WhatsApp – “I look forward to seeing you on Friday.” – like a robot doing its best impersonation of a human being.

What’s gone wrong: Difficulty recognising and applying the appropriate register, resulting in excessive formality.

5     Using words wrongly or just totally making them up

A catch-all category for a raft of vocabulary-related phenomena, such as calling all smartphones iPhones, saying something is “in the clouds” or fusing related terms into one: “interweb”.

What’s gone wrong: Think of the baby boomers in your life as like toddlers or foreign language learners: they’ll use all sorts of compensatory strategies (semantic expansion, regularisation, coinages) to fill gaps in their lexical knowledge, often with adorably cringeworthy results.

4     Emailing you at all known addresses

At a minimum, you’ve got your work email, your private one and your rubbish one for spammers. Baby boomers are liable to use all three at once, “just in case”.

What’s gone wrong: Unfamiliarity with the workings of different communicative modes (e.g. that email forwarding is a thing). This is a digital relative of repeating oneself over and over to someone who doesn’t speak English, only louder, unawares that it doesn’t work that way.

3     Being well-meaning but useless/just kind of wacky

A friend of mine was in a government office asking for information on Very Important Topic X. The nice older gentleman at the counter tapped away for a bit then handed her a piece of paper. Turned out he’d googled Very Important Topic X and printed out the first page of hits.

What’s gone wrong: This is a bit like asking someone with aphasia what time it is, and them answering “You go purple telescope cry what?” You can’t hold it against them.

2     Dominating your Facebook wall

You know how your uncle once gave you one of those totem tennis contraptions and you pretended you liked it? That’s now coming back to haunt you: every post in your feed is from that same uncle linking to eye-wateringly boring articles from the sports section of the local paper.

What’s gone wrong: Turn-taking obliviousness. This is akin to cornering someone and ear bashing them without pausing to gauge their interest level, wait for them to reply or let others “have a go”.

1     Recreating awkward family dynamics online

You post a photo of you and your besties all dolled up, and your friends obligingly populate the comments thread with “Miss u girlz” and “Lookin’ hottttttt”. Then your mum chimes in: “But you don’t like dresses”.

What’s gone wrong: Difficulty distinguishing between public and private spheres and the communicative behaviours appropriate to each.

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Alison Edwards PhD

I am a linguistics researcher, translator, editor, writer, and lover of tennis, infrastructure, and collared shirts done all the way up. Read more

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