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Cultural Colloquiums and Blog Writing

This is one of my favorite – fairly clean – jokes that I’ve had in my little joke arsenal since I was a pre-teen:

In Arizona, there is a ranch where people come from all over the world to play charades. Why? Because the game of charades there is serious. If you guess right, you win a million dollars. So brilliant people, scientists, and Mensa members come from all over to figure out what the charade is so they can fund their projects and lifestyles.

Before hundreds of the most brilliant people in the world, a man positions 7 women, all naked, lined up in a row across the stage. They stand there, doing nothing, facing back, front, back, front, back, back, and back.

The miracle minds guess and guess and no one has an answer. Time goes by and still no answers.

The door at the back of the theater opens and a drunk from the bar stumbles in. He takes one good look at the naked women on the stage and cried out, “The Lone Ranger!”

He’s right.

Afterward, everyone crowds around him and asks how he could know the answer to this most complex puzzle. One which all these brilliant minds could not figure out.

He says, with a belch, “It was easy. Rump, titty, rump, titty, rump, rump, rump!”

Now, if you are a US citizen, born before 1990, the odds are that you got this immediately and are probably still giggling. Just a little. Or groaning.

However, if you were born more recently, or not a US citizen, the odds are you have no idea what I’m talking about and are still trying to figure out the joke.

While living in the Middle East, a friend of mine wanted to practice telling jokes, since, truth be told, she couldn’t tell a joke without cracking up in the middle of it, or screwing it up at the end. This is a no fail joke. So I told it to her. She went into hysterical laughter. For a few seconds I laughed with her, and then realized that her laughter was the kind of laugh you laugh when you are supposed to laugh. Not when you are really laughing.

I realized that growing up in the Middle East, where television didn’t arrive until the 1970s, and even then, there were only a couple channels until the late 1990s, the chances of her growing up watching the original or even re-runs of The Lone Ranger, screaming “Hi-Oh, Silver!” and riding an imaginary horse with friends and school mates, were rather slim. In fact, they were none.

The Lone Ranger, famous black and white adventure of the “good guy”, with the white horse and white hat, a cowboy western, fought against the “bad guys”, with black horses and black hats, to “fight for the day and let right prevail”, wasn’t part of their culture. A lot of American television gets exported, often dubbed in with foreign language voice-overs (In Spain, I saw a John Wayne movie where he sounded like a 15 year old squealing girl.), but not all. The Lone Ranger just didn’t make it to the Middle East.

Not much later, I was joking with my neighbor and heard myself making a joke about Ovadia Yosef. I cracked myself up so hard, I almost fell down the stairs. I realized I’d been in the country too long if I could make a Ovadia Yosef joke. He is a heavily bearded, radical Orthodox rabbi who thinks he’s the spiritual soul of Israel. His Hebrew is so bad, he actually has a Hebrew translator for his popular radio show. When he’s talking on television, they sometimes use subtitles. He makes great public political and relgious statements, and many just shake their heads and consider the source. To combine Israel and American humor, I’d say that he is kinda like the Pat Robertson of Israel.

But trust me, no one outside of Israel would get the joke.

Blog for Your Cultural Recognition

Have you ever tried to explain American baseball to a Russian? Or anyone who has no familiarity with baseball? I did and it was a nightmare. Americans, even those who don’t understand the game at all, use baseball terminology as part of our daily dialog.

“So, did you get to third base last night?” “Oh, gees, I struck out again.” “You know the law. Three strikes, you’re out.” “Hey, take a walk.” “Well, that came out of left field.” “It was a home run, baby!” “It was a line drive I didn’t see coming at me.”

Just like Ovadia Yosef, baseball, and the Lone Ranger, these are cultural icons and expressions people within their own culture and society instantly recognize. On a post recently, I commented “Houston, we have a problem.” How many of you recognized the reference? These icons and catch phrases are part of our daily life. They are so ingrained, we think nothing of them. Our reading audience might.

As you write on your blog, do you think about the words and phrases you use, ones you normally say when talking to friends and family? Do you think about how they might be interpreted by people who don’t know what you are talking about?

In a taxi in Israel driving through the mad house traffic in Tel Aviv, I was speaking to the driver who spoke fluent English. Suddenly, some wacko cut right across us and the taxi driver slammed on the brakes. Without thinking, I said, “What a maniac!” The taxi driver wheeled around in his seat and wagged his finger at me with a warning to NEVER use that word in Israel again. “What word?” It took a while for him to let me know that the worst thing I could ever call anyone was “maniac”. To this day, I still don’t know what it means, but it is a “bad word” there. They don’t have problems with saying the English “f” and “s” words between every third word, but “maniac” is totally out. In fact, I’m probably in trouble right now!

That’s a pretty specific reference, but I want you to think about how you use fad phrases and references that could be misunderstood in your blog writing. It’s important for most bloggers to be understood by their audience. You don’t want to talk above them or beneath them, but to them. Therefore, you want to be understood, on all levels.

Keep an eye out for colloquial phrases and asides that don’t add to your blog writing. The occasional pop culture reference won’t hurt, and adds color, just be conscious of it. Consider the phrase and how you use it. If it helps, leave it. If it doesn’t, consider taking it out or changing it to something less society specific.

If you are writing for a very specific audience, be it a specific age or generation, or society, then definitely use terms and phrases they will recognize. It’s part of the appeal.

Growing up in Washington State, I recently overheard someone saying they went to school at the “U-Dub”. I rushed over and said, “Me, too!” Instant connection. “U-Dub” is a term heard all over Washington State, immediate recognizable as the abbreviation for University of Washington, but unknown to people outside of the area.

Identifiable cultural colloquialisms connect people. They can be critical to your blog’s success if it serves your audience and their expectations.

Have you had a situation where someone misunderstood what you were blogging about because of a cultural expression or phrase? Do you think about the expressions you use when you write and if they will be recognized by your audience?

Oh, for those still shaking their heads over the Lone Ranger answer to the charade, the theme music for the Lone Ranger, and the music used to represent the charge of the hero to the rescue, was the 1812 Overture by Gioachino Rossini. That probably would have also been the right answer to the charade puzzle. ;-)



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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen, the author of Blogging Tips, What Bloggers Won't Tell You About Blogging.

9 Comments

  1. Sarit
    Posted July 30, 2006 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    “maniac” pretty much means.. hmm.. a son of a you-know-what or bastard.

    It’s funny you’re writing about this. I recently noticed there’s a whole new wave of Israeli bloggers coming up with funny Hebrew versions of various web words. I was considering creating a funny little glossary for other people ;)
    For example, instead of writing the word HTML they write the Hebrew equivalent letters (הטמל, which isn’t a real word). Or “גרגרן” (Hungry) as a nickname of Gregarious, the feed reader.
    If you’re not among the regular WordPress blogeers, you’re most likely to not understand what they actually mean. It’s a whole new language developing.

  2. Posted July 30, 2006 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Now you tell me. See, in English, bastard isn’t the WORST word you could use, so it clearly means that the word really means something more intense, while meaning the same. It’s all about the levels.

    I love language, especially the idea of word values changing across borders and time.

    One of the great new “nouns” that developed in Israel during the most recent Intifada was how they called it “The Situation”. Not “Intifada 2000″, “Palestinian Uprising 2000″, or even “Current Intifada” to be named at a later date by historians. It was just “The Situation”, spoken with capital letters.

  3. Posted July 30, 2006 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    The Situation reminds me of the Troubles, in Ireland. The interesting thing about a shorthand like this is that it’s so in the moment — for people in the midst of such violence a simple word is enough because the conflict is already on everyone’s mind. I’m just so sorry such violence exists.

    And kudos to you Lorelle for pointing out that we can use language to exclude as well as include. I think you can still use cultural references, you just have to acknowledge what they are for people who don’t know. (For example, I used the phrase “short stack” in a post a month ago and just put a little definition in parenthesis for those who don’t eat pancakes in diners.) One thing I really like about wordpress is how international it is — it’s a great tool for reminding us of how various we are — and, in the end, how much we have in common.

  4. timethief
    Posted July 30, 2006 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    I live on the West Coast of Canada on a small island that’s popular with tourists from everywhere in the world. Every summer I speak to many potter customers from many different cultural backgrounds and from time to time I have used regional expressions that have caused them to cock their eyebrows in puzzlement and led me into lengthy and not necessarily satisfying explanations.
    The most recent one occurred when a Korean lady pointed out a racoon hanging from the wire on the run attached to our chicken house. I immeditately pantomimed shooting a rifle to my husband and sang “Davy Crocket, Davy Crocket, King of the Wild Frontier”. He slipped inside the barn to get a rifle while I tried to explain that running towards the raccoon was not the way to go. They are very clever and very persistent animals and my approach would see to it that my husband made sure that “his tail became a hat”.
    I had never considered the many exclusively North American expressions I use every day in terms of blogging. Now you’ve really got me thinking about the use of culturally inclusive and exclusive expressions in my blog writing. Thanks for writing this post.

  5. Posted July 30, 2006 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Really amusing and thought provoking.

    Though old enough for The Lone Ranger, and I think it’s been on television her in the Far North, I’m not entitled to a Mensa membership ;) I didn’t get it. Beautiful story!

    I remember “Houston, we have a problem” and can connect to that. That was a real event and more severe in its possible consequences.

    Thanks for your thoughts on culture and language. Interpretations of of language is always a matter of context and consensus.

    A hug also to bloglily for your views on humanity.

  6. Posted July 30, 2006 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Oh well. A few years ago, in a mailing list, Some lady asked about a software. I started a mini-how to, very friendly, with:

    OK, let’s do it together, Little Grasshopper…

    The women went crazy.

    “ARE YOU CALLING ME AN INSECT? DO YOU THINK I’M A BUG? SOMETHING YOU STEP ON? RESPECT ME! I’M A MOTHER, A TEACHER AND YOU DON’T KNOW ME, SIR!”

    And went like that for pages and pages.

    Of course the 95% of the list who recognized the reference were amused, laughed their lungs off and never moved a finger to help me. (don’t blame, I’d do the same for them)

    At the end I explained with a single-line reply and the “humm… oh, sorry then” of hers was great, because the “I made a fool of myself” of her original rant could not be washed out anyway.

  7. Posted August 1, 2006 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    It was our first semester break and a bunch of us (mostly non-US students) were celebrating on Christmas eve. Suddenly one of the students burst into our apartment shivering from the cold, but looked visibly happy that he had finished grading the papers for his prof and mailed the results to the professor at his home address. He was a teaching assistant (TA). We cheered and rushed to get him some food and drink. Out of the blue one of the other grad students (it was his third year in grad school) asked him,”Were you asked to post the results?” The TA answered:”Yes.” The grad student responded: “oh, oh, you better go and rescue that mail from the mail box. What the prof meant is that you needed to post the results on his door so that students can look at their grades the next day.” And, you should have been there to see the utter look of dismay that crossed the TA’s face. He went back and actually tried to retrieve the mail from the mail box. Did you think he succeeded?

    Post meants to mail in other parts of the English speaking world. Post, in the US, also means to paste or post something on a board etc.

    Then there was the time when my professor and I were speaking at cross-purpose.Why? It all had to do with the word “moot.” That is another story.

    “Forhereortogo,” is another term that flummoxed most of us when we went to the cafeteria to order food. You see it translates into: “For here or to go….” :)

    Kamla

  8. Posted August 1, 2006 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Your story reminded me of a last minute decision to spend Christmas in Jerusalem. We had plans to leave the country to head out to somewhere with snow and had to cancel. Homesick for the sounds and scenes of the holidays, we headed for a week in Jerusalem. I asked the hotel concierge where we might find some Christmas. He had no idea. We walked into the Old City to find the Swedish Christian Information Center was open, a tourist mecca for Christian tourists, but rarely open during the last few years of the Intifada as there were no tourists.

    I went inside and told an elderly woman at the information desk, “I’m looking for Christmas. I haven’t had a Christmas in over 4 years. Where can I find Christmas?”

    “Where in the world could you possibly be,” she hissed, shocked and stern at the same time. “And have no Christmas?”

    “Israel.”

    Her brow cleared as realization dawned. “Ah, yes, well, of course.”

    There is no Christmas in Israel. Sure, there are spots of Christmas in the Christian Arab and foreign nationals compounds and other sections inside of Israel. My husband loved it because he could do last minute Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve with no crowds because it was just another day of the week. There is really no Christmas as Americans are used to in Israel.

    The fact that she was so outraged that I could be anywhere with no Christmas, when she herself was staying in a country that has no Christmas, was too funny.

    Did we find any Christmas? Yes, sorta, kinda, too funny, but that’s another story.

    Colloquiums and society sayings are limited to just words. Events, holidays, dates, and cultural symbols are also perceived differently depending upon your familiarity with the culture and society. This all makes you think, doesn’t it?

  9. mrpeteh
    Posted November 11, 2008 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Lorelle,
    Your joke is a great illustration of The Curse Of Knowledge, found in one of my favorite communications books, “Made To Stick”. Read it, if you haven’t.

    (BTW, thanks for your many helpful postings; I’m ramping up towards blogging…your encouragement is gonna be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many words preparing to spill out in the days, months, years to come…)


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