Have you ever paused after writing a message to a colleague, pondering whether you used a smiley-enough but not-too-excited emoji? If you used too many full stops? If you need to follow up with a GIF to take the edge off?
Welcome to the 21st century.
Language barriers have been a hurdle for millennia, but language barriers when you’re both speaking the same tongue and dialect? They’re becoming more prevalent as you read this. As digital-native, bushy-tailed Gen Zeds hopped aboard the career train over the last few years, the gap between senior staff and interns and junior members has been getting wider – not just in pay scales, but in the way they communicate too.
One area where this has caused (often internalised) anxiety for young people in the workforce is in relation to the humble full stop. Gone are the days when a little black circle at the end of a sentence reflects just that – the sentence has ended. Now, a whole new layer of meaning has been attached to this item of punctuation.
End a message with a full stop and no smiley face and you may have just caused an anxious ‘90s baby (like me) to question whether “That’s fine, you can do it tomorrow.” really means “You’ve disappointed me, your team and your family – and your P45 is in the post.” No, really. It’s that bad. Countless contributors online have shared that they feel that the full stop is a symbol of passive aggression, abrupt and unfriendly.
Linguist Owen McArdle from the University of Cambridge observed that “full stops are, in my experience, very much the exception and not the norm in [young people’s] instant messages, and have a new role in signifying an abrupt or angry tone of voice.”
How has this happened? For younger people, the enter key has replaced the good old-fashioned full stop. Rather than typing out pristinely punctuated paragraphs to send all at once, those of us who grew up online divide almost every thought into a different message, each one picking up where the other left off. It is the enter key, the nifty button that shoots our words out into the ether to appear on someone else’s screen, that decides that a thought is finished.
The cultural, linguistic divide between the more senior generations and Gen Z is one that is often perceived by the latter alone – many senior professionals are completely unaware that their punctuation holds these subtle, emotional nuances. In fact, I’ve had to explain this phenomenon to a number of managers in previous jobs who just didn’t understand why their messages were being perceived as passive aggressive. But we still love you, full stop.