The short answer is that it just came to me as I was bobbing along in the passenger seat of a Toyota Hilux travelling down a dirt path one evening after work in the middle of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The long answer is that cultural references are an appropriate way to talk about our global cultural differences with understanding.
Cultural references are the bane of film subtitle translators. How do you accurately translate a culturally loaded turn of phrase in subtitles?
Ask yourself this: If I were to describe your wallet with one word–“Costanza”–would you immediately get it, or would I need to explain it to you?
If it’s the former, you’re an insider to the interaction. The latter, an outsider. I’ve got a born-and-raised Canadian friend who lived in the Philippines for the duration of Seinfeld. Whenever that TV show is referenced in a conversation, he’s literally got no clue what you’re on about. While everyone’s head nods in mutual understanding, his remains still.
If you don’t know the culture, if you don’t get the intimacies of how it works and what people respond to (or don’t), you’ll have a tough time understanding people, and they you.
Imagine these little insider interactions a thousand times a day, and you’ll start to get why we sometimes just don’t understand one another. Think of how your interactions with newcomers, or First Nations or when you’re overseas, and how you always think first of how things should be (when you refer back to what you’ve learned and “know” to be right, in your culture) and how quickly that leads you to judge what’s happening in another. It makes for interactions that are sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes dangerous.
So much information about how a culture works is referenced through the minutiae of everyday interactions. It can be impossible to crack, or to even come back to, as I have learned since re-integrating into Canadian life in 2012 after over a decade overseas. This blog is where I share how I decode cultural confusion through of my experience living and working in eight countries on four continents.