Balancing Pop Culture & Reality

By | Sunday, November 11, 2007 Leave a Comment
I've spent most of this weekend in front of a paper cutter. My department has something of a dog and pony show to present this coming week, and my boss wanted to be able to present something to the attendees that was kind of clever/memorable and cheap. I suggested that we make trading cards for each person in the department, as we would also be able to include useful information on the backs of the cards along with novelty of getting a series of trading cards. She loved the idea, but it fell to me to actually make 150 sets of cards by hand. (No budget to take them anywhere, it turned out.) Hence, I spent much of the weekend hunched over a paper cutter.

I've actually developed something of a reputation at work as the pop culture guy. My interdepartmental project update emails have featured the likes of Max Headroom and the Muppet News anchor. My last formal PowerPoint presentation was decorated with images from Office Space, Robocop, Star Trek, Batman, and two James Bond movies. My cubicle is covered in comic strips. My white board has a drawing of the Joker on it. I've a comic-book-of-the-week display on my desk. And needless to say, many of my conversations get peppered with TV and movie references.

It seems to work well for me professionally. It tends to put people at ease by referencing cultural touchstones, and casts me in the light of a real human being, and not just that-guy-who-works-on-web-sites.

The danger, of course, is over-emphasizing the geek factor. To come across as Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, or John Cuszak's character from High Fidelity. There's a line between referencing popular culture to put people at ease, and geeking out and alienating everyone. I think a lot of the fanboy stereotype comes from those folks who cross that line without realizing it.

As I see it, the best approach is to, first, stick with fairly common and readily identifiable reference points. Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, Superman, Popeye... Most folks these days have not seen The Bicycle Thief or My Dinner With Andre. Try to keep in mind that most people (well, most Americans at any rate) are going to be more familiar with intellectual properties that had some major marketing efforts behind them. Iron Man references, for example, won't work very well outside of comic book circles now, but wait until the movie comes out and you'll be able to name-drop Pepper Potts more readily.

(My Max Headroom reference noted early is something of an aberration to that rule. But I played up his role as a Coca-Cola spokesman, and wrote the email in his distinctive staccato, scratched-record speech. So even if someone didn't get the specific reference, the content itself would still have been amusing. In theory.)

The other thing you need to remember is DON'T QUOTE ANYONE! With a few rare exceptions, most folks will not remember any specific dialogue from a TV/movie/whatever. And the lines they will remember are repeated so often (and frequently repeated inaccurately) as to be cliche. Trust me, as cool a set of lines as these were, no one will understand:
  • "Snakes - why did it have to be snakes?"
  • "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."
  • "They killed Kenny! You bastards!"
  • "No soup for you!"
  • "You know, there's a million fine looking women in the world, dude. But they don't all bring you lasagna at work."
You get the idea. Doesn't matter how popular you think the original reference material was, quoting it to a non-geek marks you as someone who's spent WAY too much time absorbed in fiction and not nearly enough time in reality. Not to mention that it suggests that you're not smart or original enough to think of your own response, and are forced to borrow from others.

Now, if you establish that your audience is geek-oriented in some way, you're naturally free to geek out along those lines. My boss' husband is a big fan of the Star Wars mythos, so I can usually quote the movies around her without worrying about her not understanding the reference or thinking that I've seen them too many times. I can usually make more obscure references in general with her because she's something of a geek herself. Another co-worker turned out to be a fan of Babylon 5 so I can reference that show pretty safely.

Bear in mind, though, that I still have to keep my comic book references limited! Anything that's hit the movie screen (essentially, intellectual properties with a marketing budget) is fair game, but even those folks who can catch a Battlestar Galactica or Stargate reference are going to likely miss nods to the New Gods, the Eternals, The Question or The Creeper.

My point with all this is to let you know that it's okay to show you geek side at work, or in other traditionally non-geeky circles. Bringing up the idea of trading cards is cool; being able to reference all the producers of trading cards and which properties they have the rights to, not so much. Just be sure to not let your geekery get away from you. You don't want to geek out so much that you launch yourself well over that line between "that guy who can make pop culture references" and "unsociable geek who you can't relate to."
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