Can pop-culture references be inclusive?

Recently a colleague asked me to review a blog post he was working on. It was about psychological safety in teams. He had referenced the British TV chef Gordon Ramsay as an example of the type of personality that would throw your well balanced team out of kilter.

I'm not very good with pop-culture references. Partly because I don't have much interest in main stream culture (too cool*) and partly because my parents didn't allow me to watch a lot of TV when I was a child (not cool enough**).

So, I wondered how many potential readers of my colleague's blog post knew Gordon Ramsey well enough to understand the reference. I shared that thought with my colleague and he asked me later if I could think of a different pop-culture reference that would be more obvious and easier to understand.

I thought a lot about it - I didn't want to rain on his parade and then not help out. But I couldn't think of any famous personality that everyone would know!

Which made me think a bit more about pop-culture references beyond blog posts in our industry - what about using these references for naming of tools and systems or in dummy data for tests, for example? It can be funny, but is it a good idea if not everyone would understand the joke?

The speaking car

Recently I visited a coding school here in Singapore because I was interested in helping out as an instructor. The General Manager talked to me and another potential candidate about the systems that they were using. One of them was called "KITT". "You know, the speaking car?", he joked - expecting us to know it. Well, weirdly I did know about this car from an obscure 80s action TV series. For some reason it was popular in the late 80s in Germany, where I grew up.

However, the other candidate, a Singaporean who was probably born after the 80s, had no idea what KITT was. And why should he? Suddenly the situation turned uncomfortable. The General Manager and I were bonding over this common knowledge and the other candidate was left on the outside. We were able to share a laugh about how terrible that TV show was and the third person couldn't join in. It's a small thing but it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Feel insulted when you start the systems

Here's another example of a pop-culture reference that went bad.

At a previous company we used a home grown system called "bosco". It helped us run our microservices for local development.

And every time you did a bosco run, you would get some additional console output. Something that seemed like a weird quote, quite often insulting.

What was going on here?

When I first joined the company, I was confused and asked my colleagues. Turns out, Bosco is a character from an 80s TV series called "A-Team". And the quotes were Bosco's famous catch phrases. Ok...? I still didn't find it funny.

I got used to it over time and ignored the phrases. But after I had gained more confidence as a team member in that company, I decided to remove all those catch phrases. If we wanted to make our team more inclusive and welcoming, I didn't think those quotes were sending the right signals.

Sure, the people who originally built this service probably had a lot of fun adding these quotes. Maybe they simply didn't consider that the team would eventually become so diverse that it included people who had no idea what the A-Team was.

But in my opinion, even if a few people share some laughs about something - as soon as that makes one person feel excluded, these laughs aren't worth it. Maybe they could instead create a Slack channel specifically for Bosco fans. But forcing these quotes on everyone doesn't seem right.

So, can pop-culture references be inclusive?

I don't think so. And I'm not just saying that because I don't get most of them myself.

I think these references can help bond people. But only those people who get the references, who are in on the joke. Everyone else is on the outside.

I can see that it's fun to name a system or a tool after your favourite TV show character. And that's fine if you use that tool exclusively in the "80s action TV series fan club". But if you use it in a community that is not united by this common interest, then it just doesn't work.

It's more important to communicate in a way that everyone understands - even if we have to skip a joke here and there. There are so many other things in our social interactions which can make people feel uncomfortable or excluded, I don't think we need to add pop-culture references on top of that.


* joking

** not joking

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