Boomer vs. Millennial in a battle of words on energy change

Bill-WhitelawOverheard this recently as a human fly on the wall…

Energy “transition” and “transformation” were being used as sharp blades in a verbal fencing duel between a Baby Boomer and a Millennial. At a guess, 25 years separated them. The “match” occurred over Chinese takeout during lunch hour at a downtown Calgary food court. The iron rings adorning their respective pinkies identified their professions. Matching golf shirts identified them as corporate colleagues.

Back and forth they went, between mouthfuls, bobbing, weaving and deking each other’s thrusts and parries in a trans-generational match of perspectives: “transition this … transformation that … from where I sit … all my buddies say ….”

Their duelling seemed focused on how their company is communicating its future strategic sustainability and transition plans to internal and external stakeholders, including investors.

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Photo by Natalia Blauth

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The younger engineer clearly favoured “transition” as the best way of articulating the corporate change plan, stressing “transition is all about doing the right thing.” The older engineer scoffed at “transition,” arguing it implies a shift away from oil and gas and hinting it is a favoured word among the “energy woke warriors”. “Transformation,” he argued, conveys a more incremental approach to change, one that preserves jobs, the economy and the role petroleum products play in people’s lives.

But one thing wasn’t clear to either: they were talking past each other. Well past.

The words were the same, but the “language” wasn’t.

Something significant was being lost in translation. Even as members of a disciplined profession, they just couldn’t anchor their talk in a contextual foundation that allowed it to progress constructively. Instead, the discussion regressed destructively, and lunch ended less amicably than it had begun. It was clear the conversation’s outcome was measured in magnitudes of frustration from both sides. They sure didn’t bond over the fried rice.

And as sure as the sun rises in the east, as the discussion grew more animated (read heated), an old and weary argumentation trope emerged.

“That’s just semantics,” declared the Boomer, as the Millennial tried to make the point that transition and transformation are often interchangeable, depending on context.

But that isn’t semantics. Not by a long shot. The Boomer made the mistake most folks do when they deploy the “that’s-just-semantics” tactic. They believe they’re arguing about nuanced shades of sameness, the minutiae of an insignificant technicality. But, unknowingly, he is a semantics abuser.

That’s because technicalities and nuances are not what semantics is about. Not at all.

Had the two engineers paused to reflect on the differences in their language use, they may have realized both were coming from different places of meaning – in this case, around the whole idea of what energy means to them at a deeply personal level, not at some abstract notion of universal meaning.

In other words, they didn’t understand the semantics of energy – and how semantics underpins the notion of Energy as a Second Language.

For linguists and language folks, understanding semantics is foundational to understanding how people communicate. Semantics is the study and analysis of how meaning is made and conveyed. It focuses on words, signs, and signals – fun fact: “sema” comes from the Greek for sign. It is the assessment of where meaning is intended, and how meaning is lost. In many ways, semantics is the foundation for effective communication. Get meaning wrong, even slightly, and any hope of consensus – or message integrity – disappears.

For the two engineers, there was a significant disconnect in understanding what “energy change” means to each other. Had they paused to get their respective sense of meaning out of the way, to negotiate a mutually acceptable definition of change and set a tone and framework for their chat, their luncheon might not have ended with indigestion.

But semantics is just one dimension of Energy as a Second Language. Linguists and other social scientists also pay close attention to pragmatics – the dimension of language study that focuses on the importance of the contexts (usually social) in which meaning is made. When combined, semantics and pragmatics deepen understanding of what goes wrong in language exchanges.

For the two engineers, their context is the way their company is approaching its future – and how that future is being communicated. Both were making meaning (their own) around that corporate purpose.

For energy discourses in particular, the two toolkits offer a lot of analytical horsepower to help energy folks understand a broad range of how energy talk can dramatically veer off an intended pathway.

The two engineers and their interaction “around energy” is merely a microcosm of what plays out countless times daily as the forces of change-driven energy dynamics pervade society and more and more people engage in all types of energy dialogue. We live in times of profound energy complexity and confusion. Energy dynamics weave into our daily lives in many ways – politics, technology, economics and the environmental – but all are bound by a singular truth: “the stuff of energy” is changing and society is changing with it, for better or worse.

When change is described as transition, transformation, evolution, diversification and so on, it is about people crystalizing their meaning about what those changes mean to them. These modifiers of change become linguistic crutches unable to bear the weight people place on them. As a result, all too easily, the labels simultaneously become weaponized as various meaning-spheres collide. In other words, energy change is contested, and it is protested. At a time when common societal progress is so critical on so many energy fronts, failure to find common ground via meaning will thwart and derail consensus and collaboration.

The notion of Energy as a Second Language attempts to tease out why so much talk on the energy landscape is politicized, polarized, and personalized. The notion of a second language is intended to develop an appreciation for the importance of deeper appreciation for the complexities of communicating across and beyond often-personal barriers.

Learning a second language isn’t easy: it requires a shift from a form of unconsciousness to a different consciousness paradigm. All languages have rules of engagement; some rules down in the weeds at the language’s technical and structural roots, others more in the art of the language than in its hardcore science. Learning a second language means learning to encode and decode meaning in different ways to ensure ideas, concepts, intentions, and motivations are communicated more effectively.

From that perspective, energy might be considered worthy of second language status.

For Energy as a Second Language, an appreciation of semantics and pragmatics is critical for anyone who wants to effectively “speak” outside the immediacy of their particular energy lifesphere and contribute to effective progress going forward.

For the Boomer and Millennial engineers, this means pre-determining meaning before they flip a coin to figure out who buys lunch.

Bill Whitelaw is the Managing Director of Strategy & Sustainability with Geologic Systems.

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