Workplace communications and relationships are impacted by diversity. Three facets of diversity are age, gender, and ethnicity.


There are six generations alive today. Each generation operates out of its own distinct values, heavily influenced by world events and both shared and personal experiences as they came of age.

The oldest of these is sometimes called the GI or “Greatest” Generation (1901-1926). They lived through the Great Depression. Some felt the impact of the first World War, others fought in the second World War. They voted, saved their money, and married for life. They started labor unions. Many grew up without electricity, on farms, and they listened to the radio. They had a strong sense of civic duty. After winning the war, they came home to build a nation.

The Silent/Mature Generation (1926-1945). The big band, swing music generation that came of age during and following WWII. If women worked outside the home, it was in a traditionally feminine job (teacher, nurse, or secretary). Men took a job with a corporation and kept it for life. A generation of avid readers, especially the newspaper. Traditional, conservative, disciplined and self-sacrificing, yet fairly affluent in their retirement years.

Baby Boomers (76 million) were born after the soldiers came back from WWII (1946-1964). Rock ‘n’ rollers. Vietnam War.  The first television and divorce generation. Most plan to remain active into their retirement years. They still represent about a third of the workforce, particularly the C-suite and upper management. And they have a democratic and teams approach, are open, dedicated, experienced, confident, knowledgeable, optimistic, driven, and service-minded.

Generation X (46 million) was a much smaller generation, but still represents about 34% of the workforce. These folks were born 1965 to 1980. They are genuine, direct, reliable, a bit jaded and sarcastic, independent, adaptable, self reliant, and creative. Many Xers grew up as latchkey children and have had to work hard for what they have. They are entrepreneurial and individualistic. They are materialistic and heavily in debt, and many of their marriages have suffered from imbalances of work and home life. They make 7 career changes on average.

Amy Lynch’s website, The Generational Edge

The Millennial Generation (76-80 million, also called Gen Y) was born between 1981-2000. The largest generation since the Boomers. Many have strong relationships with their parents, who have been accused of hovering and enabling them. Most connected generation with all access to information. They are team-oriented, socially and service minded, positive, tenacious, eager to learn, tech-savvy, have a can-do attitude, and are highly adaptable. Their tendency to multitask was initially viewed as a plus, but is now trending toward the negative as an inability to focus.

Millennials with strong skill sets and leadership ability will have incredible work opportunities as Silents and Boomers retire from the workforce where there aren’t enough Xers to fill the open spots.

Trailer for In Good Company, a movie that has several scenes of workplace generational awkwardness.


Gender also has an impact on relationships.

Deborah Tannen is a linguistics professor (and author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation) who has studied gender communication styles. She says men operate out of deeply held values for status and power, which heavily influences how they exchange information and deal with others. Women operate out of a deeply held value for relationships.

I’m Sorry, but Women Really Need to Stop Apologizing (Jessica Bennett, Time)

See this YouTube video of Deborah Tannen explaining how young boys manifest a value for status in their conversation on a playground, and how young girls manifest a desire to be equal.

Great article by Deborah Tannen, The Power of Talk.

The Hidden Battle of the Sexes at Work (WSJ article, Women in the Workplace)


Cultural values also have an impact on how people deliver and interpret information, which has an impact on relationships in the workplace.

Geert Hofstede is a Netherlands social scientist who formulated the cultural dimension theory. He says there are 5 cultural dimensions:

Power Distance – In some cultures there is a wide distance of hierarchy. A person with low status would never approach someone of high status as an equal. In other cultures, there is a more even distribution of power (low distance), such as in democracies.

Individualism vs. Collectivism – Some cultures value individual rights, freedoms, and accomplishments. Others celebrate their place in a group or affiliation and act out of loyalty for the good of the larger group.

Uncertainty Avoidance – This reflects a society’s tolerance for ambiguity. Someone in a high uncertainty avoidance society would feel strong emotion and anxiety at the prospect of change and would seek to minimize it by following rigid standards. Someone in a low uncertainty avoidance society, on the other hand, would feel more comfortable in a low-rules society where change is taken in stride.

Time Orientation – Long-term orientation societies place high value on the future and what working for the future brings…pay-off for persistence and hard work, for example. Short-term orientation societies place more value on tradition and history…like being steady and fulfilling one’s commitments.

Masculinity vs. Femininity – Some cultures value assertiveness and the pursuit of power. Others place a higher value on relationships and quality of life.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall suggested another cultural difference: High Context vs. Low Context. In a high context culture, the situation surrounding the message is more important than the words spoken. Actions speak louder than words, in other words. But if you’re not part of the culture, you may not understand the inferences around the words. In a low context culture, words should be chosen with care because they are taken at face value.

The southern U.S. is higher context; New York City is low.

Recently there have been several events to remind us all that race relations are still an issue here in the United States. If you’ve never seen the movie Crash, it’s a powerful testimony to the prejudices we all carry.

People are more alike than they are different. We all want love, security, peace, and the chance to live free from inequity.

Another resource you may find insightful is Clint Smith’s TED Talk: How to raise a black son in America. (Clint has another excellent TED Talk: The danger of silence.

An understanding of and sensitivity to cultural differences and values can improve cross-cultural communications and relationships.

If you want to be a better communicator, be sensitive to issues of diversity in the workplace, and increase your understanding of age, gender, and ethnic viewpoints.

Additional info on diversity: Mentorship | Age_Gender_Ethnicity.

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