When I was growing up, my family ate dinner together every night. Yes, that’s right. Every. Night. Much of the meal was “Comedy Hour.” My father, a civil engineer, worked with someone who had an apparently endless supply of jokes. You’re probably not surprised; engineers have a legendary reputation for their wacky sense of humor.
At every dinner, my dad would tell us the jokes he had heard that day from Morty (who we began to refer to as the Great Morty). There almost always were two or three new ones. Many of them were corny, Borscht Belt-type shtick, but we didn’t care. We laughed long and hard, often until it hurt or we choked on what we were eating.
After a while, we developed favorites and would make requests. We had memorized every word of these favorites, yet still delighted in hearing our dad tell them from start to finish. As time passed, we developed a shorthand. We didn’t need to hear the full joke. My dad, or one of us, would say the punchline and the four of us would laugh as heartily as if we were hearing the entire joke for the first time. “Don’t blame me if you get a ringing in your ears.” “Oh, you want Greenberg the spy. He’s on the fourth floor.” “You stupid yenta! Everyone knows the number 3 bus doesn’t go to Coney Island.” None of these mean anything to those of you reading this, but I promise you I am laughing as I type these punchlines I first heard over 50 years ago.
As my father delivered his routine, we paid rapt attention to every word. We didn’t want to miss his delivery or the joke. Fast forward to 2017. Imagine a dinner at which, miraculously, every family member is present. It might go something like this…
Me: Tells joke. Waits for reaction.
Me: Looks around the table and sees this—
Me: Hey! Zombies! Can you all look up from your screens for a minute?
They raise their heads, eyes glassy and unfocused as they adjust their vision from staring at something a few inches from their faces to looking at me at the other end of the table. They are as disoriented as when I wake them in the morning for school.
Son #1: Wait, what?
Me: Did either of you hear the joke I just told?
Sons #1 and #2 exchange a glance.
Son #2: Oh yeah, sure Mom. It was hilarious.
Son #1: I heard it. It just wasn’t funny.
Son #2: Sorry Mom.
Son #1: Mumbles something I can’t hear.
Me: Any possibility we can get through a meal without the two of you checking your phones?
Son #2: I’m making plans for tonight.
Son #1 Doesn’t even bother to answer.
Eye rolls from both, then they look back down at their phones again.
I am more than certain that many of you have had similar experiences. Often, when I try to communicate with my offspring, I feel as if I am a dinosaur who has somehow been teleported from prehistoric times to the present. Mostly I feel that way because my kids tell me this, or something equally as insulting.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the concept of “the generation gap” entered the vernacular. It was a hot topic for the nightly news, magazine cover stories, newspaper feature articles and opinion pieces. Our parents and their friends were confounded by this rupture in their lives that now had a name. Girls no longer wore sweet, tidy dresses to school; these were replaced by bell bottom jeans, frayed at the hem from dragging on the floor. Boys’ neatly combed crew cuts gave way to long hair, often past shoulder length. Instead of the tolerable music of The Beach Boys, our transistor radios blared the harsh, dissonant sounds of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.
Then there were the words and idioms we used, verbal tools to solidify the wall we were building (that no one had to pay for) between us and them. Some of our favorite (and rather ridiculous) adjectives were “groovy,” “right on,” or “far out.” Events or activities we enjoyed were “out of sight” while those not to our liking were “not my bag.” You could “dig” something without needing a shovel, and you avoided “the fuzz” at all costs, because they might find the “grass” hidden in the pocket of your Wrangler jeans.
Communication is fundamental—in fact critical—to forging connections with other human beings. In our teens and twenties, we recognized this, and made up words and phrases specifically intended to block (or at least hinder) communication with the older generation. And who did we consider the “older generation”? A popular expression warned us not to “trust anyone over thirty.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at that. From my current perspective, people in their thirties are babies.
Forty plus years removed from our youth, we try to show our kids that hey, we’re not as “lame” (i.e., old and out of touch) as they believe we are. We watch Netflix and Amazon and Hulu rather than broadcast television. We know who Drake and Sia are. We use social media, and believe the way we dress strikes a perfect balance between up-to-date and age appropriate. But deep down, we know we have stepped into our parents’ shoes. The generation gap is alive and well, patently obvious in the way our kids communicate with one another, using a set of conventions that make us feel as if we are sitting on the sidelines without a play book. Our kids have modern, shiny objects at their disposal to assist them in disassociating from old people like us. All we had were words and music. Different means, but the same message: Hey old people, you are not invited to the party.
Remember what a godsend we thought answering machines were, enabling us to either (a) not miss an important call from an actual or potential significant other if we weren’t home, or (b) screen our calls to avoid telemarketers, crazy ex SOs, and parents? Answering machines are relics of the 20th century; now voice mail serves the same purpose. Well, maybe not for everyone. Here’s a scenario that both educated me, and made me feel old at the same time. Kudos to my son for being efficient and killing two birds with one stone!
Son #1: Did you call?
Me: Yes I did. How are you today?
Son #1: Fine. Why did you call?
Me : Didn’t you listen to my message?
Son #1: No, I never listen to voice messages.
Me (after a moment of stunned silence): May I ask why not?
Son #1: I can see on my phone that you called. If I’m gonna call you back, why should I listen to the same thing twice?
I proceed to repeat everything I just said into the phone a short while ago. I guess the takeaway from this encounter is that it’s better for me to say the same thing twice than for him to have to listen to the same thing twice.
Son #2 and I recently had an in-person, face-to-face, real live conversation! True story! He told me he had a date with a girl he recently met at a party. I then asked what I believed was a simple question. Hah!
Me: So, you guys talked at the party and then you called her and asked her out?
Son #2 (eyes narrowed with derision, mouth clamped to stifle loud, mocking laughter): Mom, no one calls anymore. (Unable to keep his composure any longer he snorts.) We text.
Me: Why? Isn’t it easier just to talk to someone?
Son #2: No. (Shakes his head and rolls his eyes)
I hang my head and shuffle off in disgrace. As I leave, I hear him ask, “Hey mom! What are you making for dinner tonight?” Why is he asking me, I wonder? Wouldn’t it have been easier to send me a text?
I quickly deduced that if you want to connect with your kids, texting is the way to go. (Warning: Do NOT send an email if you want a response any time before the year 2025. It is the rare millennial who checks his or her email with any frequency.) However, this means of communication is not without its frustrations, as illustrated by the following conversation (conducted entirely via text messaging):
Son #1: Do you know where my birth certificate is?
Me: Sure. Why?
Fifteen minutes pass with no response.
Son #1: I need it to get my new driver’s license. Also, do you still have my Sega Genesis games?
Now even I know that Sega Genesis is from the 1990’s. I know I threw those games away a long time ago. I also know that, like myself, Son #1 is a saver of things of marginal/no value, and will pitch a fit if the answer is no. I decide to buy myself some time.
Me: I don’t know. I’ll have to look in the basement. Why do you need them?
Again, nothing new appears on my screen, this time for twelve minutes. Yes, I am just that petty and annoyed that I actually time it. I have watched my sons text their friends, and I know there is no pause in those conversations.
Son #1: I saw an old console on Craig’s List and I thought I might buy it if we still have the cassettes. Let me know.
In all likelihood he did not type “let me know.” He undoubtedly typed “LMK.” Which brings me to my next topic—the pervasive replacement of real words with acronyms. When they first began appearing in messages and yes, even emails, I thought this was quite clever. I applauded the convenience of substituting letters for commonly used phrases. OMG, acronyms were so great! IDK how we ever managed without them.
However, those original acronyms appear to have been a bit promiscuous, spawning hundreds of next generation acronyms. Presumably, using them saves time. But how much? I would like to ask my kids, “How much time could you possibly be saving? Enough to make a great scientific discovery or write a highly acclaimed novel?” As I said above, I do get it–but in moderation.
In addition, using an acronym can misfire if the recipient is unfamiliar with it. One time I was texting with Son #2 and he used the acronym “SMDH.” I hit the ceiling. The only words I could think of to fit those letters were pornographic and not something you should say to your mother.
Me: What was that? What does that mean?
Son #2: Shaking my damn head. What did you think it means?
Me (relieved): Never mind. (Had I instead typed NVM, I could have saved myself at least two seconds. Hopefully I won’t make that mistake again.)
I can imagine one of my kids having the following text chat with a friend…
Friend: SFLR. AFK.
Son: NP. WU?
Friend: NM. CYT?
Son: GTG. POS.
Friend: TBC. TTYL.
I would love you to hear your guesses regarding what the above means. Send me your thoughts via the Comments section of this site. In other words, LMK. I will share some of the answers in my next post, as well as translate the above for you.
In the meantime, I continue to SMDH.