Interpersonal communication is supposed to convey meaning, not to leave people confused. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert discusses why popular culture literacy is so important when it comes to effective leadership.
I’m convinced that nobody ‘deserves’ a spoiler warning for a film, novel, or play whose age can reasonably be described in decades. I’m sorry to be tetchy about it, but there has to be a statue of limitations on these things. Revealing prematurely that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father was inconsiderate – in 1980. Now? If you somehow didn’t know about that ridiculous plot twist at the end of Empire, I have zero empathy for you. You’ve had 30 bloody years to watch the film; if you haven’t watched it by now, the rest of us shouldn’t have to tiptoe around the plot details when we’re around you. Either get on with watching it, or let it go already.
In parallel with that sentiment, I expect every adult to have a certain baseline in pop cultural literacy for the society that they grew up in. I don’t think this is too much to ask for; I’m not arguing that everyone in the company break room should be able to compare and contrast arguments regarding the nature of free will between The Brothers Karamazov and Slaughterhouse-Five. On the other hand, I do expect most people to recognize when an allusion is being made in conversation that references a signature event from a blockbuster film or bestselling novel – especially one that saturated popular culture during the listener’s lifetime. People should, at least, recognize that an allusion is being made even if they don’t grasp what the allusion is supposed to convey. That’s sometimes too much to ask.
A good example of allusions going sour happened to me during a routine staff meeting. I was a staff officer posted to a medical battalion down at Fort Hood at the time. Our chief of staff had somehow got it in her head that us staff folks all needed to be more professional in our meeting etiquette. This was all dry, boring work, made worse by the fact that it was summertime in Texas, and we were working out of the ruins of the old 1930s era commissary – a structure with wholly-inadequate aircon. Everyone was tired, dehydrated, bored, and demoralized by the meetings.
My old squad mate Dan (then the assistant Personnel Officer) wanted to gently nudge the chief of staff to loosen the reins a bit. So, one sweltering August afternoon, he decided to slip a joke into the end of his preso to get her attention. After he finished showing off his statistics, Dan dryly concluded his report with the line: ‘And in conclusion, please be aware that Soylent Green is people.’
I cracked up. To his credit, Dan’s delivery was excellent. Unfortunately, his non sequitur left the rest of the table staring at him in gormless confusion. The chief of staff assumed that he was spouting nonsense, and bawled him at the table out for being ‘unprofessional’. I tried to argue that she was being unreasonable; as famous movie quotes go, Charlton Heston’s ‘big reveal’ from the end of 1973’s Soylent Green was a decades-old element of common American pop culture. Heck, the original movie trailer gave away the ‘secret’ before the movie made it to theaters. Even if she’d never seen the film (or read the novel that it was loosely based on), it isn’t exactly hard to work out – Soylent Green is [made out of recycled] people. The chief of staff was a teenager when the movie came out. There was no way that she could’ve missed out on hearing the line. And yet… Dan’s line bombed.
That’s a problem. It’s a larger problem than I think most businesspeople appreciate.
Here’s the thing: you can turn your nose up at mass-market entertainment if you like. It’s okay to be selective (or even snobby) about what books, films, and television shows you do or don’t consume. Don’t like reading? Too cool to own a TV set? That’s fine; live your life on your own terms. Just understand that pop culture artefacts are the go-to elements for the metaphors and similes that we use every day to synchronize our understanding of complex business, technology, and economic ideas. This isn’t just me talking – it’s right there in its core definition:
‘Popular culture or pop culture is the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, images, and other phenomena that are within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century. Heavily influenced by mass media, this collection of ideas permeates the everyday lives of the society.’ 
We need common literary touchstones to be able to make ourselves understood when subjects get vexingly complicated. When Dan made his Soylent Green joke in the battalion staff meeting, he was trying to convey that the briefing itself was unnecessarily overcrowded (that is, too many non-critical staff members were wasting their time attending) and that the information being presented was reconstituted drek (that is, data that had already been analyzed to death the day before during the finalization of the Battalion’s monthly ‘battle readiness’ report). He was trying to communicate to the chief of staff that we weren’t making any meaningful progress with the ‘new format’ meeting, and that she should take a hard look at why we were futzing around with it. All of that meaning was lost when his allusion went by unrecognized.
To be clear, our chief of staff wasn’t an idiot by any means. She was a well-educated, worldly, sophisticated, and revered senior officer. She still ranks among my all-time favourite supervisors for her compassion, her humanity, and her mentoring. She wasn’t a fool. She was just… ignorant when it came to popular culture. That proved to be a regular stumbling block for us, because none of the junior officers had any experience with her formative life experiences (e.g. New England Catholic boarding school, etc.). We frequently confused one another. That inability to connect through shared references regularly slowed things down for all of us.
Of all the critical attributes required in a senior leader, the ability to communicate clearly is second in importance only to personal integrity. The greatest plans in the world are valueless if you can’t make your people understand them. The savviest judgment is useless when you’re making decision based on corrupted or misunderstood input. A leader’s inability to understand and be understood means that much of that leader’s time will be squandered solving the wrong problems.
That’s one of the reasons that I chose the theme of pop culture allusions for my 2015 summer series on online columns. It actually started in March with The Default In Our Stars, a throwaway joke based on the title of John Green’s popular young adult novel. When chatting with some of my readers after that column posted, I discovered that about a third of them didn’t catch the reference. I thought that was a bit strange, since the book had been popular since 2012 – enough so that it was made into a movie in 2014 that grossed over $300 million. For a few months, advertisements for it were everywhere. The title alone should have been an easy pop culture ‘hit’ even if the listener hadn’t seen the film or read the book.
I got curious about the one-third of people who had completely blanked on that reference, so I decided in June to make a pop culture reference in every column that I posted during the summer (and maybe into the autumn). I wanted to see what kind of recognition I get for each one. So far, my completely unscientific analysis of responses suggests that the 2:3 hit rate is the norm.
Should you care about that? Actually… yes. You probably should.
The Soylent Green story that I told earlier illustrates a breakdown in communication that negatively affected business operations for well-meaning, well-educated people who shared a common goal. I submit that a deficiency in pop culture literacy in a teammate – or, worse, in a superior – will likely interfere with effective communication. If you can’t make yourselves understood, it’ll be hard to get things done… even the simple and straightforward things.
That’s why I recommend that everyone reading this invest some time in some harmless experimentation of his or her own. Pick some pop culture touchstones – preferably a range of references that run the spectrum from common to obscure —and work them into conversation around the office. Watch carefully. Do people recognize the source? Further, do they understand the meaning that you’re implying with the reference? Can they capitalize on the ‘hit’ and fire one back at you to acknowledge their comprehension? Or do they misunderstand the reference?
I’m not trying to suggest that anyone who blanks on a pop culture reference is somehow a ‘bad’ or ‘inferior’ person. That would be ridiculous – and pretty darned condescending, too. What you’re looking to learn from your social experimenting is who you can effectively use pop culture references with and who you can’t. That’s all. Out of respect for those of your people who are partially or completely pop culturally illiterate, take that knowledge as an incentive to invest the effort needed to find new common ground with them. Learn how to communicate in terms that they understand. This is a matter of respect – another one of those required attributes of good leadership.
As an example of a common touchstone, you could reference the line ‘E.T. phone home’ from 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Use that line as an allusion to suggest that a person’s request isn’t necessarily what they want, but is instead a critical step towards achieving their actual long-term goal. For a slightly less common touchstone, you could quote the line ‘Han shot first.’ That’s not a quote, but most people should still recognize it a common complaint about how George Lucas messed around with the 1997 ‘special edition’ release of 1977’s Star Wars. Used as an allusion, the line can communicate that it’s both inappropriate and counterproductive to ‘re-write’ a past event to whitewash a character’s actual conduct. Or you could just throw out ‘Soylent Green is people’ to allude to unpleasant truths that most people don’t want to deal with.
The important thing is to learn from the results how best to communicate with other people. It’s unfair (and rather rude) to expect others to meet you where you are (education- and experience-wise); the respectful thing to do is to meet people where they are. After all, your business conversations are supposed to be geared towards getting things done, not about making other people feel somehow inferior. If results are what matter  then it behooves you to adjust your approach to make sure that you get the results you desire out of every interpersonal exchange.
The alternative is to simply speak right past the other fellow and leave them confused, frustrated, and possibly angry with you. That’s a strategy. It might pay off. You might seem smarter at their expense. Or it might backfire on you horribly if and when they think you’re barmy. Before you choose that path, I suggest that you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ 
 From Wikipedia’s entry; all hyperlinks are included exactly as they appear in the article.
 They are.
 Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry, 1971.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.