Communication Currents

“Generation C” Speaks Out: What Is a Competent Communicator?

February 1, 2015
Digital Communication & Gaming

Walk down any sidewalk, anywhere. How many young people do you see looking down at their smartphones, oblivious to everything else—even friends walking right alongside? Do you ever wonder what is happening toreal communication in this technologically crazed world of ours?

Those young people you’re seeing may well be members of “Generation C,” born since 1990 and adolescents after 2000. They’re connected, content-centric, computerized, community-oriented and, most important, continually clicking. Put simply, they are digital natives who gravitate toward their “native tongue” when it comes to communication. They are constant users of communication technologies, now ubiquitous in contemporary society. In fact, they have never known life without these technologies, and they rely on them to stay continuously in touch with their families, friends, and foes—and their college professors, which brings us to the results of an intriguing new study about how members of Generation C prefer to communicate and how they actually do.

Four communication researchers recently asked their Generation C students, 224 entering freshmen, about how they actually communicate, how they prefer to communicate, and what they think qualifies as good and bad communication in a variety of different situations. Some of the students’ responses were predictable, and others were surprising. Either way, the results yielded insights into how to communicate with these wired members of Generation C. As non-digital natives, it’s easy to look down on how Gen C’ers communicate, but it may be time to put those judgments aside. In fact, we can be encouraged by the study’s finding that these young people are what researchers call “rhetorically sensitive.” Simply put, that means they are sensitive and thoughtful about figuring out the right way to communicate in most situations, although time and convenience do sometimes affect the communication choices they make. 

When asked about their general communication patterns, the students’ responses confirmed they are, in fact, members in good standing of Generation C, whether they know the term or not. They use their smartphones to text message, post ’grams, and check Facebook all day long. And when asked about how they actually communicate, given the array of media choices available to them, most students confirmed they mostly use their smartphones. But—and this is an important “but”—when asked how they prefer to communicate, these same Gen C’ers said they favor face-to-face communication. And they know why. They value the ability to see the other person’s facial expressions and reactions, which facilitate more competent communication and better outcomes. Clearly, these Generation C students want to communicate well and want to achieve their communication goals, validating one well-known, scholarly definition of communication competence.

But when researchers probed Generation C students’ specific choices about how they actually communicate and how they prefer to communicate in six hypothetical formal situations and four personal situations, things got interesting. In most of the six formal situations, students said they actually use face-to-face communication, texting, or social network sites. However, they use email to communicate formally with their instructors and professors. In personal situations, students actually communicate by texting as their choice in two out of the four situations.  Interestingly, they demonstrated some rhetorical sensitivity, at a personal level, by indicating they would break up with a romantic partner in person and communicate with their family members by phone, not texts. 

Moving from students’ reports of how they actually communicate to how they would prefer to communicate in the 10 formal and informal situations, face-to-face communication was the overwhelming choice. This unanticipated preference for face-to-face communication, regardless of the relationship or situation, may indicate students understand the benefits of this type of communication and the helpful cues it provides. However, it also is possible the students think that face-to-face communication is “good behavior” or the right answer, and they want to present themselves in the most favorable light.

Finally, researchers asked students to provide general descriptions of competent communication: what they think a really good communicator does most of the time. Choosing from a list of options the researchers provided, the students identified what they think are the top five most important characteristics of a competent communicator. Again, their answers provided a few surprises. Being a good listener far outranked other qualities. Maybe sending so many messages into cyberspace results in feeling they are not sufficiently “listened to.” Perhaps they think they themselves should be better listeners; they may even see the well-established power of interpersonal, face-to-face communication as slipping away in a world overshadowed by technology. Regardless, listening aligns with the students’ reported preferences for face-to-face communication. At the other end of the list, being able to use a variety of media to express oneself was at the very bottom—perhaps because they already know how to do that.

Here is a rank-ordered list of the students’ top 12 most valued qualities of competent communicators:

Competent communicators …

Percent of students

  1. …are good listeners


  1. …find it easy to get along with others


  1. …adapt to changing situations


  1. …are relaxed and comfortable when speaking


  1. …know what they are talking about


  1. …generally know what behavior is appropriate at any given time


  1. …are interested in what others have to say


  1. …treat people as individuals


  1. …do not interrupt others


  1. …are effective conversationalists


  1. …are sensitive to others’ needs of the moment


  1. …can deal with others effectively


In answer to the question, “What is happening to real communication in the ‘age of technology’?” students’ answers to the survey questions in this study are encouraging. These Gen C’ers are not mindlessly tapping away on their smartphones, their fingers flying across their miniature keyboards at breakneck speed.  On the contrary, they seem to understand the importance of making good choices about how to communicate with other people in their lives, including their friends, their teachers, and their family members. They are rhetorically sensitive, and that finding, in and of itself, is good news. The words of 19th century author Charles Dickens must still ring true for our Generation C students now in the 21st century: “Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.”   


About the author (s)

Maja Krakowiak

University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

Associate Professor

Sherwyn Morreale

University of Colorado, Colorado Springs


Constance Staley

University of Colorado, Colorado Springs


Carmen Stavrositu

University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

Associate Professor