Like most people, I spend hours every day desperately hoping a teenager will tell me I'm cool. It has never happened to me before, but god willing, it will one day soon.
I think it becomes more likely as I get older.
As a side effect of this, I have spent a lot of time thinking about teens and studying them and muttering while creepily watching them from afar. Experience that has made me more or less an expert on their ways. I thought I'd share some of what I know with you, knowing how mysterious they remain to many adults. Here then, for your conversing pleasure, are five important tips to remember when talking to teens.
#5. Don't Try To Talk Like Them
The first thing to remember is that you should never, under any circumstances, attempt to talk like teens do themselves. This is something adults forget all the time.
Teens invent new words. It's one of the only things they can do, really; we're not going to let them run a bank or drive a crane or anything. And that's fine -- they can have their new words. But just because they use them doesn't mean you need to when talking to them. They understand regular words too.
They might not listen to them, but they understand them.
Worse, their boss new words are going to sound terrible coming from you, even if you get the meaning and tone and context and all that exactly right. Words mean different things when they come from different people. A simple compliment -- "Nice shirt" -- is embarrassing when it comes from our parents, appreciated when it comes from our friends, terrific when it comes from our crushes, and potentially sarcastic when it comes from our enemies.
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Why is she being nice to me? I smell treachery.
So when you, the gross non-teen, uses their slang, it just sounds wrong because of your gross non-teenness. Worse, if you're correctly using teenage slang that means you have studied it, which is just about the lamest thing anyone has ever done.
So what should you do? Talk to them like an adult. This is a pretty safe play, because teens want to be adults, due to how shitty being a teenager is. They won't necessarily respect or listen to you ...
"WOMP WOMP WOMP. WAHM WAHM wah WAM WAMP WAMP."
... but at least talking to them this way won't actively insult them or embarrass you.
#4. Don't Remind Them That You Were Young Once Too
Yes, you were their age once. And yes, you know what they're going through. And yes, you made all the mistakes they're about to make. And goddammit, if they would just listen and accept your wisdom, they might just make a better life for themselves. It's a great theory, and has just one problem.
You're old and you suck.
Coolness is subjective; it's entirely in the eyes of the beholder. If you see someone who does things you want to do and hangs out with people you want to hang out with, that person is cool in your eyes. Which means that, as a non-teen whose body is visibly decomposing, you probably aren't cool in a teen's eyes. You don't hang out with people they want to hang out with, or do things they want to do, or have things they want to have. You might have a car, but that's about it. More importantly, this is all a present-tense calculation; things you did in the past don't count. And even if you tried doing cool things today, as is the case with slang, you're limited by age appropriateness considerations.
Past a certain age, about 31 or so, it becomes less cool to smoke behind the gym.
Also, no you don't know exactly what they're going through. There are big differences between now and when you were that age. Hell, there are big differences between now and 10 years ago. Remember when kids weren't supposed to post pictures or talk about their personal lives online? A teen trying to avoid that these days would be pecked to death by their peers.
And not only is your life advice unwelcome and inaccurate, it's also potentially counterproductive. Because ...
#3. We Shouldn't Tell Them Anything
Teens don't just want to figure stuff out on their own, they need to. It's a necessary part of growing up; when you're an adult, you have to figure things out on your own all the time.
This is a big reason why teens seem to tune out adults, even when we have really smart things to say. Studies have shown that all our efforts to educate teens about the risks they take with drugs and alcohol and unprotected sex don't seem to change their behavior at all. As soon as the school assembly is over, the damn fools rush out to the parking lot to engage in risky behavior like siphoning MDMA off each other's gonads.
Or levitating dangerously into the air.
So let them figure things out on their own. If you have something to say to a teen, don't just say it with words, like some kind of asshole. Lay out an elaborate system of riddles and clues that they have to decipher. They'll tune you out if you try to sit them down at a kitchen table, but they will never forget the madcap dash they made across the country, piecing together a cipher that lead them to a dusty tomb and a weathered scroll that read "ALWAYS WEAR A CONDOM."