Friday, October 5, 2012
To communicate well we have to have some cultural background in common. At one time everyone had at least good working knowledge of the Bible. It didn’t matter if a person was actually religious, everyone knew the bible. So if someone said, “It’s raining like Noah was lied to.” they’d know the reference was about God’s promise to Noah that the world would never be destroyed by flood again.
Not everyone has that point of reference today. Instead, they are more likely to make references to things in popular culture: movies, TV, video games and to a much lesser extent, books. Communication works pretty good for people in the same subculture. Every Science Fiction geek will get a Star Trek reference. Outside of the subculture, those references make little sense.
Jon Stewart made a reference to a book, Flowers for Algernon. Then he teased the audience because it was a reference to a book and they’d have to read something to understand it. It is a well known book, but people don’t know books.
On the other hand, since I don’t watch TV, I’ve less in common with people who do. I overheard someone say something like, “That girl is a smart as Snooki.” I had to look her up.
As our cultural backgrounds become more fractured we have fewer references in common. Our communication becomes less complex and nuanced. Does it matter? I think it does. We think in language. A large vocabulary and deep knowledge of cultural works allows for deeper and better thinking.
Imagine two people trying to communicate. One is a native English speaker with a rudimentary knowledge of French. The other is a Spanish speaker who also has some limited ability in French. With so little vocabulary in common they can only convey rudimentary ideas. They might manage: where is the bathroom? They won’t even try examining Existential angst.
It’s a shame when two native speakers of the same language lack the cultural depth to really communicate big ideas. We live in a time when we are led by small thinking men and woman, when what we really need are good ideas. Of course, big ideas are wasted if your only cultural reference is this year’s sitcom.