How old do you sound?

Just as others make judgments about who we are in terms of gender, region, and ethnicity, they also make inferences and judgments about how old we sound, and whether this is “appropriate” given our actual age. Many people with social communication challenges pride themselves on always speaking correctly and having an excellent vocabulary (just as we are taught we should in schools). This “professorial” style may not be too much of a social handicap if you actually are a distinguished scholar, or of an age where you could be one – but it presents a real barrier to social interaction if you’re a child, teenager, or young adult.

As you may have noticed yourself, the same displays of verbal proficiency that gain you praise from adults when you’re five may cause discomfort in others when you’re twelve or twenty. Instead of thinking “Isn’t he a smart little fellow!” people think “Why is he so stiff and formal?” Just as your body changes as you mature, people expect your language to change – not just gaining new vocabulary, but acquiring different styles for different occasions, becoming increasingly strategic in your use of politeness strategies.

Life Stages & Communication Styles

Obviously, age is a continuum, and some people mature faster than others. To try to keep things simple, we’re going to focus on changes we expect to see as you move from child to teenager and young adult to mature adult. Once you’re fully established in adulthood, the changes in communication style are more subtle, and unlikely to trigger harsh social judgments.


Teenagers & Young Adults (to mid-to-late-20’s)

Mature Adulthood (30’s and up)


Role Play

On the next tab, you will find a script for a conversation between two teenagers/young adults, good friends, who are speaking casually. (This script was written by two teenagers who assure us that they really do speak this way.) Read the script through twice with a confederate, switching roles the second time. Discuss how comfortable or uncomfortable you felt reading the script and why.


A: Hey, what’s up?
B: Omg! You’ll never guess what happened to me today!!!
A: What happened?
B: I found twenty dollars on the ground and then the cafeteria was serving my favorite soup. It was a great day!
A: Wow, that sounds like an awesome day! What are you up to tonight?
B: Well, I have that damn project to finish, but at least my favorite TV show is on. How ‘bout you?
A: Yeah, I have a lot of shit to do too, but such is life!
B: At least it’s almost Friday, right?
A: Thank God for that!
B: Btw. What are your plans for the weekend?
A: Um, idk. Maybe we can go out on Saturday and get shitfaced…
B: Haha, that sounds great to me!
A: So just shoot me a text when you know the plan.
B: Will do. I gotta run, I’ll talk to ya later!
A: Thanks. See ya later!

Follow-up (written) exercise

If you felt uncomfortable reading the script because you are not a teenager or young adult yourself, try rewriting the script to be more age-appropriate, and have your partner do the same. Discuss your choices — did you make the same ones, or did you choose different options? Did your confederate think your choices were, in fact, age-appropriate?

If you are a teenager or young adult, but did not feel comfortable with the slang, try rewriting the script using informal-but-standard vocabulary (as discussed in the words section), and have your partner do the same. Again, discuss your choices — did you make the same ones, or did you choose different options? Do they think your choices are, in fact, informal without being overly slangy?

Follow-up Role-Play exercise

Now, using a video or audio recording, try reporting the above conversation to a different confederate, in enough detail that they can get a sense of what the conversation was about. Go back and listen to the recording together: did you use only traditional markers of quotation (say, tell, go) or did you also incorporate the more performative markers be like/ be all? Did you perform lines from the conversation, or report them without indication of emotion? What effect do you think this has in terms of how people will perceive you? (If you’d rather report a different conversation, that’s fine. The particular conversation reported doesn’t matter. If you have done some of the “eavesdropping” exercises in other units, you might report one of your eavesdropped conversations.)

Sources: Scholarly References

  • Barbieri, Federica. (2008). Patterns of age-based linguistic variation in American English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 12(1): 58-88.
  • Bucholtz, Mary. (2001). The whiteness of nerds: Superstandard English and racial markedness. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 11(1): 84-100.
  • Bucholtz, Mary. (2011). White Kids: Language, Race, and Styles of Youth Identity. Cambridge University Press.
  • Buchstaller, I. (2006). Diagnostics of age-graded linguistic behaviour: The case of the quotative system. Journal of Sociolinguistics 10(1): 3-30.
  • Coupland, Nikolas. (2004). Age in social and sociolinguistic theory. In Nussbaum, Jon F. & Justine Coupland (Eds.) Handbook of communication and aging research. Routledge, 69-90.
  • Eckert, Penelope. (1996). Age as a Sociolinguistic Variable. The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Blackwell.
  • Eckert, Penelope. (2000). Linguistic Variation as Social Practice: The Construction of Identity in Belten High.  Blackwell.
  • Jaffe, Alexandra (Ed.)(2012). Stance: Sociolinguistic Perspectives. Oxford University Press.
  • Murphy, Bróna. (2010). Corpus and sociolinguistics: Investigating age and gender in female talk. John Benjamins.
  • Nussbaum, Jon F., Loretta L. Pecchioni, James D. Robinson, and Teresa L. Thompson. (2013). Communication and aging. Routledge.
  • Ochs, Elinor, and Bambi B. Schieffelin. (2011). The Theory of Language Socialization. The Handbook of Language Socialization. Vol. 72.
  • Waksler, Rachelle. (2001). A new ALL construction. American Speech 76: 128-38.
  • Wardhaugh, R. (2010). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Wiley-Blackwell.

Recommended Reading

  • has a page for each generation, complete with demographics, communication, and pop culture.  (E.g., Baby Boomer, Generation X, Generation Y, Generation Z)

  • Beloit College also does an annual “Mindset” publication — what does the current crop of entering college students know? what are their cultural references?

  • “How Stuff Works” separates slang terms into the decades they belong to.

  • U.C.L.A. (with help from UC San Diego) regularly publishes a slang dictionary written by college students. The most recent version (Slang 6) is from  2009.  Authors: Eric Blanco, Emily Franklin, Colleen Carmichael, and Alissa Swager. Edited by Pamela Munro.