Balancing Pop Culture and Reality

By | Monday, May 20, 2024 Leave a Comment

Geek culture has exploded over the past decade or two. I know I watched with interest as the significance of Comic-Con became more and more widespread, as laid out in Con & On which I reviewed last week.I've always been interested in geeky things anyway and I long-ago developed something of a work reputation at work as the pop culture guy. It seems to work well for me professionally. By regularly dropping very-non-work references into conversations, it tends to put people at ease by using 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... Notice that I'm not italicizing them -- I'm talking here about the broad strokes of those IPs, not the specific books and movies and such. 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, didn't work very well outside of comic book circles until after the first movie came out; no one knew who Tony Stark was prior to that and everyone's understanding of the character comes pretty exclusively from Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal.

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 is a big Star Trek fan, so I can usually quote from the shows around him without worrying about his not understanding the reference or thinking that I've seen them too many times. I can usually make more obscure references in general with him because some Trek adjacencies -- Patrick Stewart as Professor X for example.

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. Yes, technically there was an Eternals movie but 1) no one saw it, 2) anyone who did see it didn't understand it because it was a train wreck, and 3) it didn't really have f***-all to do with the comics in the first place.

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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