Are you “Woke” to Slang? (and why those who know what “woke” means think that’s a bad blog title)

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Ashley Leone

Not too long ago, my younger sister and I were talking to our dad when he grumbled something about us being “woke.” We looked at each other and telepathically decided in a way that only sisters can that our father had no idea what “woke” meant. In a weird parent-child freaky-Friday reversal, we asked him where he heard that word before. He grumbled again and tried to walk away while his two precious daughters chided him that it didn’t mean what he thought it did.

Knowing Slang is Key in a Social Media World

Slang isn’t anything new; generations have been dealing with it since the dawn of time when one teenaged cave-dweller grunted something to his mother. But I would go on to bet that it has gotten worse with technology not only introducing emojis (please don’t use the eggplant emoji) and abbreviations (think “TL;DR,” “AF,” “143,” etc.), but also allowing slang to cross the generational divide much more seamlessly than before.

Companies with social media accounts who interact with consumers are smack dab in the throes of slang meeting business, and being able to understand this new terminology, and respond to it appropriately, is paramount.

You Don’t Have to Know a Gen Zer to Learn Slang

Still, if you run across slang when trying to communicate with your audience, don’t panic. Slang isn’t a secret language, and a quick Google search will give you a majority of the definitions you need. Sites like Urban Dictionary will offer insights too, but in Wikipedia fashion, anyone can submit a definition, so you should take that information with a grain of salt. And while I said you don’t have to know anyone in Gen Z, it doesn’t hurt to consult them. Interns can be a great resource in determining what certain terms mean and if your responses are coming off as tone-deaf.

If you’re still unclear about what the poster is saying after your cursory research, it never hurts to reach out and ask for clarification. If someone took the time to post it, they are likely passionate enough about the subject to take the time to explain it to you. Just make sure you’re coming at it from a place of wanting to understand—“I don’t know what you’re saying,” can sound grouchy; try “I’m not sure I’m following… Could you explain a bit more?” for better results.

If You Don’t Know, Don’t Pretend

There have been a few instances that I’ve been asked to proofread and have come across slang. When I suggested removing it, I got these reasons why the writer thought it should stay, and my responses:

  • It matches the audience. That’s not matching, it’s pandering, and the originators of those slang terms will see right through what you’re trying to do.
  • It makes the tone more conversational. But if the slang isn’t used in the right context, it can just make it confusing. And there’s also a point where things become too laid-back; you’re a business, not a Hinge date—you need to add some professionalism to your writing.
  • It adds personality. Being authentic will naturally add more personality than any shoehorned slang ever will.

Bottom line, unless you have a firm understanding of the slang you’re using, you could end up using it inappropriately, which is a million times worse than writing something sans-slang.

Use Slang at Your Own Risk

If you’re going to go for it anyway, be sure you know what it is you’re saying. Use the terminology without a true understanding of what it means, and you’ll be mocked mercilessly by kids in-the-know or marked as a company that’s trying too hard to connect with an audience you are obviously out of touch with.

You also need to keep in mind that slang is a lot like fashion: things become outdated quickly. Just as Paris Hilton’s “That’s Hot” fell out of favor in the 2000s, so does other slang. You can’t become reliant on slang that was relevant last week to still be what the kids are saying this week. Slang can also change meaning quickly. Take “woke” as an example.

When “woke” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in summer 2017, it meant “originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.” Since then, the term has been used too liberally, and its meaning has become diluted to the point of it becoming a type of insult that describes someone as being pretentious or self-righteous. So you can see where the title of this blog post—while not totally inaccurate in describing “being alert to/informed of” something—isn’t super spot-on in terms with how it’s generally used or received by native slang users.

Slang is a complicated, convoluted issue, and if you need help navigating the waters, IWCO Direct can help you feel confident you’re saying just the right thing. Feel free to contact us here. And if you want a better understanding of your young target audiences and how to best market to them, download our just-published Marketing to Millennials and Gen Z blog compilation today.

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