I’m about to commit generational heresy. I can already hear the criticisms from my boomer compatriots ("Good manners never go out of style," etc.). In fact, I have done my fair share of kvetching about the lack of good customer service in retail (I’ve probably posted half a dozen articles on this subject over the years). But, this battle is being lost and I am accepting reality (maybe I’m becoming a Buddhist?).
I now believe "the problem" is a blameless generational difference in world views. I’ll get to some theories about origins, but first I’ll attempt to describe the respective behaviors. My generation believes (and behaves as such) that a welcoming smile and a "hello" are not only good manners, but good business. We believe people should a priori acknowledge and appreciate one another suggesting a world view that people are basically well-meaning and friendly. These on-the-surface (superficial) actions connecting one to another are fundamental to our value systems (at the very least, life is about being pleasant to each another).
Not so fast. The younger generation does not put much stock in perfunctory warm greetings and sociable body language. They are responsible, hard working, value professionalism and creative output, but simply don’t care as much about being friendly to strangers. I’ve been in the belly of the beast – Google headquarters, online marketing summits where I am by far the oldest person at the table, young successful architectural firms, etc. – and these very smart and successful young people, graduates of the country’s top universities, are not so much arrogant (like many of my friends contend), but simply highly focused on their work and less interested in unrelated chit chat. They don’t care about "how you are", and are fine if you skip "how are you?"
Before we get all bent out of shape about the decline of Western civilization, take a breath. I employ 48 people. Only a handful of us are over 40. I work with these "kids" every day, and by and large, they are good people, reliable, rightly proud of their accomplishments and contributions. True, they don’t greet customers in the manner that I’d ideally like to see, but my reconstituted goal, as their boss, is to train them to be ambassadors from their generation to ours (older people are not "right", but they are customers). By the same token, people from my generation can be ambassadors to the younger generation. For example, tipping a waiter or waitress who is efficient (but not friendly) on the basis of service, not smiles (or lack thereof).
Tolerance and acceptance of this sub-cultural distinction will come more readily if we understand how it came about. Being older and wiser, and the parents of these kids, it behooves us to try and understand them whether or not they reciprocate. We can be role models in building bridges toward understanding one another. Furthermore, we lived through, as well as contributed to, the environment that resulted in the cultural changes that we are now criticizing:
1. Our society drilled these kids with the fear-based message "Don’t talk to strangers." (By contrast, we would hitchhike fearlessly, and talk with most everyone.)
2. Generally speaking, the personal lives of these kids have been more complicated than ours. Although the Father Knows Best/Leave It To Beaver/Ozzie and Harriet depiction of American life was never really accurate, this archetype is long gone. Heroes like Beavis and Butthead, South Park, The Simpsons, etc. are wry, laconic, ironic, impolite, often disconnected from the dominant culture. Given their personal experiences, this is a more authentic depiction of modern life and therefore gets emulated.
3. Our educational institutions devalued teaching Humanities in lieu of subject matter that was necessary for standardized test taking. (Hypothesis: There is a correlation between this generational change of behavior – i.e. reluctance toward perfunctory politeness – and academic achievement).
4. The lives of our politicians, media personalities, clergy, etc. don’t contribute to the creation of a society where one’s default assumption about "us" is necessarily positive. When these kids were young and impressionable, our President’s explanation of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the truth that ultimately came to light must have been disillusioning. [Drawing any conclusions about my politics will likely be incorrect.] Perhaps our right to "respect" needs to be earned, and not assumed.
Whether this list even scratches the surface of an explanation is not the point. Whatever the reasons for these generational changes in behavior, they exist and are come by honestly. It is what it is (I am a Buddhist!).
There are advantages for each generation – besides the Kantian imperative of understanding each other for its own sake – in appreciating the other’s sub-culture. In business, a polite 30-something may get the job, or get the sale, or get the client when engaging a 50+-something. A 50+-something, by accepting the values of the 30-something, stays engaged (helping to avoid crotchetiness), learns new tricks. By giving "this pass" to the younger generation, we can quickly move on to less superficial content, where we just may be surprised by what we’ll learn.
Where does this leave me with regard to a business/retail strategy? As I alluded earlier, instead of trying to change anyone’s behavior, my goal is to be an ambassador and encourage diplomacy, training employees to be ambassadors as well. When visiting another’s culture, shouldn’t we be respectful while working to understand who we are dealing with? To some extent, we try and adopt their style and learn their language. I’d be satisfied with that outcome.