Can We Communicate Depth without Words?

There’s a cultural divide on how different generations communicate, but we may be a lot closer than we think.

I read a study recently that Generation Z uses approximately 300 words in day-to-day speech. The professor had used this (along with the rapidity of social media visuals and laconic text messages) to explain why there has been a steady decline in critical reasoning skills. As someone who loves vocabulary, I jumped on this idea. But after having my moment of feeling vindicated that words are essential to intelligent discourse, I wondered if I wasn’t falling victim to my own cognitive biases.

Certainly, words are not interchangeable, regardless of what the thesaurus tells you. Succinct, terse, curt, and pithy all have different connotations – and it’s this nuance of language that allows us to get our message across. But there are other ways that we convey meaning and while Gen Z may be the first to embrace them to a level where they are omnipresent, we all use non-lexical forms of communication. Here’s a look at how we can retain meaning without using words.

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    A picture (or video) says a thousand words

    I recently watched a video on the mounting prevalence of homelessness. And while the statistics and commentary were weighty, it was the visual of displaced family that brought the message home. Visuals can deepen our connection to a message either through shared humanity or by evoking visceral emotion. While visual memes don’t necessarily strive for transcendence, they do bring us into a shared universe of humor, sympathy, or joy. So, the next time someone responds to your witticism with a meme, take it as its meant – an acknowledgement of connection.

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    Music is the language of love (and every other emotion)

    Music has become such a ubiquitous part of the cinematic backdrop that we don’t consciously notice it. But imagine watching a film with no score – it would have a vastly different emotional tenor. A film soundtrack can cue us that a jump scare is coming, the punchline to a humorous scene has arrived, or reinforce and amplify a deeply moving scene. Even without the visual element, music alone can bring us to tears. When someone shares music with you, they reveal their emotional perspective.

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    Emojis make language more accessible

    I’m the first person to admit that I’m not a fan of emojis. They feel a bit silly, and sometimes the ones in Teams or Slack are almost diabolical looking. But then I remember how often I read an email or instant message and try to contextualize the information to understand the tone. And that’s a challenge at which we often fail. Otherwise, why would we all say, “emails or texts are easily misunderstood.” That’s where an emoji (or the stray LOL) provides the necessary clue. While I doubt anyone is frequently laughing out loud or howling to the point of tears, that single icon takes the message from neutral (which is easily misinterpreted) to obvious.

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    Brevity is the soul of wit, speech is silver, silence is golden, and other aphorisms

    Perhaps Shakespeare (via tragically verbose protagonist, Hamlet) was correct – that laconic speech is where true wisdom lies. And there is a lot of chatter these days. One might say an unwarranted level of it. Gen Z may have embraced (whether intentionally or by accident) that fewer words provide the necessary space to discover meaning.

I’m never going to eschew words. As part of Generation X, I was nurtured by them, taught to use them to convey subtle shades of meaning. But loving vocabulary doesn’t mean an abjuration of other forms of communication. We should embrace younger generations’ smart and concise approaches to sharing information. We should add it to our repertoire. Because what matters isn’t necessarily how we are communicating, but that we are revealing ideas – ideas that can bring us closer together, that can shape culture, and that can instigate social change.

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Pierce Mattie

Pierce Mattie is a full-service marketing agency that interacts with consumers and key stakeholders at every stage of the journey. With a focus in beauty, health and wellness, we are immersed in the marketing landscape, able to powerfully communicate a brand’s point of difference to acquire and maintaining customers. The content team is obsessed with what's trending in the digital world, and how it intersects with consumer behavior. We are passionate about the changing landscape of the world, including how emergent technologies affect brand attachment, how diversity and inclusivity are critical to success, and where humans fit into the equation.

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