Recognizing the Digital Generation Gap
My husband Jon and I are only 12 years apart in age (I’m 52, he’s 40), yet we are from profoundly different generations, with very different ways of viewing the world. Simply put, I am a digital immigrant, born in the pre-Internet days of yore, whereas Jon is an early digital native, meaning he has lived the vast majority of his life in a tech-enhanced world. For me, the Internet and related technologies are a useful tool for research, a place to share information with colleagues, a venue where I can both promote and receive feedback about the treatment programs with which I am affiliated, and a way to reach and educate a wider audience than I otherwise might (via outlets like Huffington Post). I also use Facebook to stay in touch with family and close friends, though I’m not exactly on it 24/7. For my hubby, however, digital technology is an integral part of his entire life. Social media, texting, gaming and the like are the primary ways in which he connects to friends, family, and the world at large. Essentially, Jon is every bit as comfortable in the digital world as he is in our home, whereas for me the digital world is (and always will be) a slightly foreign venue.
Unlike many older professionals, I believe that digital technology is a powerful tool for human social development, reflective of where we are heading as a species. As such, I try to use it as often and as wisely as possible. I like to think that for an older dude, I’m pretty hip in this regard. In fact, I feel so comfortable with my digitally driven socio-psychological insight that I just coauthored a book, Closer Together, Further Apart, on this very topic, repeatedly making the point that digital technology is simply the next right step on the pathway of human development, no different than any other evolutionary advance (technological or otherwise), except for the speed with which it’s occurring and the degree to which it captures our attention.
Nevertheless, despite my technological street cred and extensive research-based knowledge, I am still occasionally reminded that in comparison to my younger, digital native partner, I can still behave like a lost puppy in the digital universe. It seems that no matter how much effort I put into learning, using, and enjoying digital technologies, I will probably never “get it” the way that Jon does. This is most likely because my most profound period of brain growth — birth to approximately 5-years-old — occurred in an analog rather than a digital world. As such, despite my constant efforts, Jon engages much more fluently and naturally in the online world than I, and he probably always will because, having grown up with digital technology, he innately understands online cultures in ways that are simply beyond me.
Crossing the Line Online
As Ellen humorously reminded us during the Academy Awards telecast, after a lengthy dry spell in Southern California we finally got several days of heavy rain. As it turns out, this rain was heavy enough to wash torrents of mud down the hillside behind our house and into our pool. While I was out of town for work, Jon rather naturally posted a picture of the muddy mess on his Facebook feed so friends and family could see what he was dealing with. Later that day, when I logged onto Facebook, there was the picture of our pool, filled with mud, along with a selfie of my poor husband trying to clean up.
As a licensed clinical social worker and a person who respects that not everyone has had the educational support and advantages that my parents offered me, I carry a modest amount of shame about the fact that I’ve done rather well financially. As such, I tend to downplay my success in any kind of public forum. After all, people are people regardless of their net worth. So when I saw my muddy pool on Facebook, a part of me immediately thought, OMG, I really don’t want colleagues of mine who’ve chosen a less financially rewarding pathway to know I have a pool. I don’t want to be judged by those with less, nor do I want to be viewed as flashy. So, half-jokingly, half-seriously, I responded to my husband’s post by saying something like, “This seems like a bit of a high-class problem, doesn’t it, dear?” Basically, in a joking manner (or so I thought), I said that he shouldn’t be airing our quality problems on Facebook for all to see. Yes, I was serious about not wanting that picture on social media, but I worked very hard to make my point a lighthearted way.
I’m not a baseball sort of guy, but I think that baseball players might call my attempt at humorously giving my opinion a swing and a miss. Simply put, Jon was pissed, feeling as if I’d publicly humiliated him. Later in the day we had a conversation about the situation, which didn’t go so well. He said I should have messaged him privately, or texted, or emailed, or anything else that didn’t make fun of him in a public forum (Facebook). In turn, I felt that he was being far too sensitive about the whole thing, and that he was making much too much out of a statement we both would have laughed about in person. Even in a later conversation I stuck to my guns, arguing that I was merely being funny in response to an uncomfortable moment, and that I’d behaved appropriately. He still disagreed. Finally he showed me the half-dozen or so private messages he’d received from friends asking, “What’s up with you and your husband? Are you guys fighting?” Ouch!
Virtual Rules Are Different
As a therapist, it is imperative that I understand the history and culture of my clients. If I’m dealing with a gay man born and raised in Latin America, for instance, I need to recognize that he has a very different understanding of what it means to be a gay man than, say, a Caucasian gay guy born and raised in Manhattan, Los Angeles or San Francisco. I need to completely comprehend that his parents and the society around him instilled in him an entirely different set of values, rules and consequences. If I don’t appreciate this, and if I don’t then learn what those values, rules and consequences are, I am likely to make a therapeutic faux pas somewhere along the way. And let me assure you, if social work school didn’t fully impress this fact on me, then more than 20 years of treating intimacy issues and sexual disorders certainly has.
Apparently the time has come for me to apply this real-world lesson to the virtual world. And I’m learning that it’s not just Facebook that has its own culture and rules of etiquette. In reality, the ways in which I can effectively communicate on Facebook differ from Twitter, and from LinkedIn, and from Pinterest, and so on. In other words, behavior that is perfectly acceptable in one virtual venue may be completely inappropriate in another. Word choice, tone, writing style, word count and more all can be significantly different depending on the virtual terrain I’m traversing. As such, it is absolutely imperative, if I’m planning to wander around and interact in these various online settings, that I become familiar with each of their unique cultures, lest I commit another digital faux pas.
Embarrassingly, it wasn’t Jon who convinced me of this. Instead, it was a colleague with whom I was lunching. After hearing my version of the muddy pool story, she politely pointed out that venues like Facebook, Twitter, and the like are far more Jon’s natural habitat than mine, and in his world(s) he knows the rules of etiquette far better than I do. Thus, the fact that I could have made the exact same semi-joking statement face-to-face without upsetting him didn’t mean I could post it on Facebook or any other social media site without repercussions. Essentially, I had done exactly what Jon accused me of: I had publicly put him down by saying, essentially, “I think you shouldn’t have posted this,” in a venue where all of his friends and family could see.
The simple truth is that communication in virtual worlds is different than communication in person. Furthermore, each virtual world has its own specific culture and set of rules. Things that are perfectly OK to say face-to-face, even in front of friends, aren’t necessarily OK online — and vice versa. And interactions that are OK on LinkedIn might not be OK on Facebook, etc. Of course, for digital immigrants like me it is difficult to keep up with the various forms of digital media, the ways in which they operate, and their rules of engagement. Nevertheless, as both a husband and a social worker, I know that these are my next lessons. Mea culpa, Jon. Message received.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, Mr. Weiss has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.