Do You Speak Gen Z?
Notes from the Cusp
Generational differences can sneak up like targeted ads: one minute your mom is trying to zoom in on a tap-only post, the next, a family member pronounces “meme” wrong (you know how). When these knowledge gaps are exposed, we get a peek at just how fast communication morphs. Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to explain what TikTok is, and still don’t know the difference between Rita Ora and Bebe Rexha (or Dua Lipa¹ for that matter). If you’re like, “who?” then you’ve also experienced that shoulder-tap-prank feeling of cultural dissonance.
Though I still consult my peers for meme clarification on occasion, I was born a year prior to the alleged GenZ tipping point. With this qualification, I’m interested in looking at what makes my generation click — all while retaining a bit of older-sister outlook. If this generation keeps you guessing, I’ll let you know what I think makes GenZ stop, stare, and double-tap.
Theater of the Absurd: Delivery vs. Content
The older you become, the less exposed you are to youth culture — it’s a tale as old as Vine (RIP). Trying to speak GenZ can lead to a classic trap: assigning typical youth culture identifiers like “hedonist” or “risk-taker” out of habit. This, of course, doesn’t go over well. We’re tired of scrolling past generic avocado toast headlines and politicians tweeting “Boy Bye!” for relatability points.
Instead, GenZ is obsessed with the absurd. The less sense it makes, the more likes we’ll throw at it. And it’s only an added bonus that our memes might leave those in power as confused as an adult Stormi Jenner² tracing her family history.
GenZ likes to bend the everyday into something unrecognizable, creating 15-second video clips on TikTok like this one. Our specific kind of absurdity can also be found in the Cheddar video that went viral for its headline: They Did Surgery on a Grape. As a non-GenZer, you may be asking yourself: who are They? What kind of surgery did they perform? Why? To a GenZ audience, none of this matters. The joke lives on because of its obfuscation, and still receives a relative amount of attention past its 15 minutes of fame.
Part of this theater of the absurd are the deep-fried³, glitchy, distorted versions of the meme (and many others) making the rounds. These absurdist trends tell us one thing: canon Boomer figure Bill Gates was wrong in this case: content is not always king. To GenZ, delivery is bae⁴. It doesn’t really matter what you’re saying, but how.
#NoFilter, But Like, Actually
Besides finding comfort in the off-kilter, GenZ craves sincerity. We’re the chill Megan Markle to prior generations’ prim and proper Kate Middleton. Not to pit women against each other, though — we’re not into that either. Instead, we’re motivated by honesty, a value 81 percent of us say we care the most about.
Instead of putting up a front, GenZ is ditching semi-professional work attire for more casual wear, steering rap in a more emotive, confessional direction, and avoiding companies that promote inauthentic social causes. We want to break down the walls that were put up to make sense of things. A contrived, corporate tone will make us scroll past as quickly as Fenty⁵ lip gloss sells out, but a laid-back, unpretentious Tweet might get our attention.
A recent article in The Atlantic digs into influencers seeking sincerity, veering away from the staged. It highlights how GenZ is opting for a more candid, even purposely ugly, aesthetic. “It’s not cool anymore to be manufactured,” a teen is quoted as saying in the piece. Brands have taken note of this to blend in with regular schmegular⁶ content for clicks. This is, naturally, leading to an increase in micro-influencers as middlemen for products. I can tell you with certainty I click through most spon-con⁷ when it looks like it’s a friend’s post.
Three Little Words
Though GenZ’s interest is piqued by both the absurd and sincere, just because you abide by either doesn’t mean we’ll click. Another general rule of thumb is: keep it simple. Sometimes, the most direct and least elaborate methods will get us to engage.
This tactic worked for Moonpie when they tweeted “Lol ok” at a competitor, and Merriam-Webster, who defined the word “fact” during a presidential debate. You can do a lot with a little, and should really be brief since we can only pay attention to you for eight seconds tops.
Other examples of recent cultural icons keeping it simple to earn GenZ’s momentary devotion are musicians Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Nas X. Both employ three words to make sure their messages stick. As I’m sure they realize, quick nuggets also lend themselves well #ToHashtags.
Lil Nas X’s trifecta is, of course, “Old Town Road.” The phrase is his titular single that has been remixed and re-re-remixed, almost to the effect of an absurdist deep-fried meme. Appealing to GenZ compactness, the Tweeter-turned-artist told fans that his new release was made extra short to increase listenership. His Twitter name (“nope”) speaks to the same brevity.
Similarly, Megan Thee Stallion assigned herself a pithy slogan: Hot Girl Summer. Don’t be fooled, though, the phrase can’t be taken at face value — Hot Girl Summer⁸ doesn’t mean “cute women from the months June through September.” Instead, it’s a movement adopted across the internet to signal carefree acceptance. Again, her brand is simple yet abstracted.
A GenZ Mnemonic: Strange, Simple, Sincere
As I type this, 61 million GenZ-ers are entering the workforce — don’t worry, not all at once. Though it may seem easiest to dismiss us as another speed bump in the quickly-cycling internet vortex, understanding our language is crucial to growing audience relations. Like the teacher who went viral for his anthropological list of GenZ slang, we should all aim to adapt even when we’re not direct participants.
To hold our collective interest, keep it strange, simple, and sincere. With these tools, you’re more likely to appeal to the key elements that make GenZ who we are. We care about authenticity, prefer our meaning-making muddled, and tend to skim rather than dive deep. If you follow this formula you’re likely to fare well in our eyes or, at the very least, not end up a thread on r/FellowKids.
Rita Ora, Bebe Rexha, Dua Lipa: They make up the soundtrack at any Forever 21 with their throaty pop songs, and are known for their multi-vowel names and second-tier pop status.
Stormi Jenner: Kylie Jenner’s daughter, whose birth sparked confusion for three reasons: her mother’s young age, hazy paternity, and… I’ll let you guess that last one.
Deep-Fried Meme: An image that has been shared by so many people online that the quality becomes unintelligible. Though a deep-fried meme used to signal tackiness, it has now taken a humorous slant, with people deep-frying memes on purpose.
Bae: Term of endearment that stands for Before Anyone Else. It’s bae-sically outdated in GenZ years.
Fenty: Rihanna’s makeup and lingerie line, which has been (unfairly!) critiqued for how quickly certain items go out of stock.
Regular Schmegular: Shortened version of pop star Cardi B’s opening line back when she jump-started her career on the reality TV show Love and Hip Hop.
Spon-Con: Sponsored Content — nothing more, nothing less. :)
Hot Girl Summer: As stated above, this was a phrase coined by up-and-coming rapper Megan Thee Stallion. It brings her fans together with the common goal of having a fun, confident attitude this season. Also, a great hashtag for cute selfies.