(Very geeky post incoming.)
There’s a brilliant episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called Darmok. The crew of the Enterprise meets a species that they can’t communicate with. The Universal Translator works fine – they can understand the literal words the aliens are saying, but the aliens’ speech is so riddled with cultural references that the crew of the Enterprise are just totally lost, since they have no shared cultural references to rely on.
One of the characters says it would be like referring to a woman as looking like “Juliet on the balcony.” In a culture that has pervasive knowledge of Romeo and Juliet, you’d get what they were saying. But if you didn’t know that reference, you’d be confused even if you understood the words.
Shared culture does a lot to facilitate communication. It can seem silly, but we constantly make references to our culture when we communicate, and the more of that culture you share with someone else, the better the communication can be. We often scoff and roll our eyes at corporate-style “team building” exercises, but the concept is sound – the execution is just off. Want to do some real team-building? Everyone in the office should watch the same movie.
I worked in an office recently where a lot of my co-workers hadn’t seen the brilliant comedy Office Space. As soon as I realized this, I made everyone watch it, and sure enough, there we references a-plenty afterwards. Many of them are just jokes (not that some shared laughter ever hurt a team culture), but sometimes you’d be able to communicate an idea faster or more efficiently by making a reference. It can help someone grok your idea or message.
My favorite thing about this whole phenomenon of shared-culture-as-communication-grease is that the best word I can think of for it is “Darmok.” That word could summarize this whole blog post – if you got the reference.