I have observed that many millennials and centennials don’t get ahead in life because they don’t know their audience. I’m not talking about a social media audience. Rather, I mean the people around them. More specifically, different generations. In the same way that the older generations have to adjust their natural style of relating to connect with the younger generations (I myself have had to learn this!), the younger generations must be aware that not everyone thinks like they do and make the necessary adjustments to connect with everyone. This is crucial to success in life. It will help them get jobs, opportunities, and glean from the wisdom of those who have gone before them.
Just last week, I was talking to one of my millennial friends who told me about a meeting he had with an older gentlemen. There was a massive generation gap here—one of these men was 26, and the other was 76. It was intended to be a casual meeting, so my millennial friend balked when he was headed out the door and his wife made him change his entire wardrobe.
“You need to dress nice!” she told him.
“I am dressed nice!” he replied. He was wearing his nicest jeans and a casual collared shirt. “This is way nicer than how I normally dress!”
His wife returned with a pair of slacks, a button-down shirt, belt, cologne, a high-end watch, and the shoes he had not worn since their wedding.
My millennial friend called me after the meeting ended. What was supposed to be a one-hour meeting with little outcome had lasted over four hours and resulted in a new business relationship that would generate recurring income for my millennial friend.
“You know,” I told him later, “You probably wouldn’t have gotten that account if you hadn’t let your wife dress you.”
My millennial friend laughed. “I know,” he replied. “But now I’m going to have to dress like that all the time!”
“Not all the time,” I told him. “Just all the time when you go to see him.”
I went on to explain to him that dress is very important to that generation, those born before World War II. “It’s not that it’s right or wrong,” I said. “It’s just the way you look” has a lot to do with what that generation thinks of you. It’s not that they think you’re better or worse than them; it just says a lot to them about who you are as a person—and it especially makes an impact when almost no one else in your generation is doing it. You didn’t have to dress like that. You didn’t have a dress code. But the fact that you understood your audience communicated to him a high degree of respect and professionalism.”
“The only thing I’m having trouble with,” my millennial friend said, “is it feels so fake.”
“I understand,” I said, realizing that authenticity is very important to the younger generations. “But think of it this way. Most guys your age look at someone that old and think, ‘Forget what you think; I’m going to dress how I want.’ But the fact that you stopped and considered (well, with your wife’s help) what he would want is actually more authentic, in my opinion. There’s definitely value in not caring what people think, to not get your value and worth from the opinions of others. But that’s not what you were doing here. Instead, you were communicating your wisdom in understanding your audience and your willingness to adapt for the sake of building a bridge of relationship. I’m not sure if you can get more authentic than that.”
Zach Thomas is an entrepreneur, Chick-fil-A franchisee, business/life coach, public speaker, blogger, and author of Leader Farming: Growing Leaders to Grow Your Business. His next book, Pioneer Parenting, is expected to release in 2020.