The Value of Cultural Literacy

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ladyI confess to not being much of a football fan, yet quite often on a weekend, if I’m busy with some task in the family room, I’ll turn on a football game and at least be vaguely aware of what’s going on. Why bother, if I’m not interested? It’s simply so I can be culturally literate in my workplace.

Cultural literacy is a funny little topic with different meanings for different people. In any case, it’s the basic information you need to know to carry on a reasonable conversation with most people you associate with. The more culturally literate you are, the more conversations you’re able to participate in with more people. Obviously, there’s also an element of being able to interact with others, but once you have that skill, do you have the base knowledge to interact in an intelligent fashion?

Think about it this way: when you’re hanging out with your friends or business associates, there are certain topics that you regularly discuss, and having basic knowledge of those topics is useful because it enables a functional conversation. If you talk about football, for instance, it’s useful to know how the game is played and perhaps have some idea of who the dominant teams and players are. On the other hand, if you talk about politics, it’s useful to know the issues of the day, who the leading players are, and rough ideas of their general stances.

Some people, myself included, put significant effort into obtaining some level of cultural awareness on any topic, so that I can participate in many different kinds of conversation. Others get intimately involved with specific areas, and still others don’t bother at all, choosing to sit out of many conversations.

Obviously, some level of cultural literacy is valuable. Being able to catch a pop culture reference (or able to make one yourself) or carrying on a conversation around the water cooler about the “big game” does pay some social – and indirectly, financial – dividends. Even more, one can see the value of a strong cultural literacy over a weak one – if you’re more culturally literate, it will be easier to strike up an interesting conversation with a key person at the right time, and that conversation can definitely pay dividends. This is all in addition to the basic value of being able to understand things you hear and read on a deeper level.

The question is whether it’s worth the time to become more culturally literate. That’s not an easy question to answer, because it depends largely on you: your situation, your values, your working environment, and so on.

For example, if you spend most of your day working in isolated situations and most of your free time is not spent in a social environment, cultural literacy may not mean a whole lot. On the other hand, if your job and career are largely based on interacting with people, social situations, and conversation, cultural literacy can be highly valuable.

My general philosophy is that anyone working in the information and service economy is well served by being as culturally literate as possible. Being culturally literate simply opens up doors and opportunities for you and it improves your understanding of everything going on around you, both of which are key components of the information and service economies.

So how does one improve their cultural literacy? The best resource I’ve found for this is Wikipedia, seriously. I often spend time doing what I call a “Wikipedia crawl” – I’ll start off with a general topic I’ve always wanted to know about and just dig into that article and the things linked to it.

Here’s an example: a while back, I had to spend some extensive time with a small group of twentysomething English men who were almost obsessed with English Premier League football. I knew nothing about this at all and neither did my coworkers, but I decided it would be worthwhile to learn about it, so I spent about two hours absorbing Wikipedia’s entries on professional soccer, how it is played, how the Premier League and English soccer functions, who the dominant teams are, and so on. I just dug deep into the appropriate Wikipedia entries. The end result? I was the one who “clicked” with the English fellows and it ended up getting me significant respect in the workplace.

If you’re even unsure about what topics to start with, a good place to begin is E. D. Hirch’s The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, which you can browse for free at Bartleby.com. This covers the more “traditional” things that a person might be called upon to know about.

Another great tactic is to actually look up anything you overhear that you don’t know anything about. If someone’s discussing a topic that you don’t know anything about, don’t interject and make a fool out of yourself. Instead, make a note of it and actually bother to look it up, because there is some likelihood that the topic will come up again.

As for current events, I merely listen to NPR on my way to work each morning and occasionally visit news related websites. This doesn’t give me a full picture, but it does provide enough that I know what’s going on and can follow along and participate in basic conversations on the topics.

Also, it’s actually good to admit your knowledge limitations if you’ve reached your limit of understanding. Confess that you don’t know, and ask the other person to explain. Every time I have done this, it has worked well for me, building a bond between me and the other person and enabling the conversation to continue.

Beyond this, I personally make an effort to read a lot of material in a lot of different areas. I read about everything and try to retain at least pieces of it, and doing so has helped me out time and time again in conversing with people and building relationships. Not only that, well written nonfiction works can be incredibly compelling and interesting, even at times on topics that you wouldn’t expect. This is perhaps a step too far for some people.

In short, I’ve found it’s definitely worth the time to expend some of your leisure hours becoming more culturally aware. It pays continual dividends throughout your life, both directly and indirectly.

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49 thoughts on “The Value of Cultural Literacy

  1. I takw it your Arsenal of cultural literacy served you well with the twentysomething English men?

  2. Ouch…so much for trying to be cute!

    Sometimes I know just enough to get myself in (more) trouble…

  3. Wasting time forcing yourself to be “culturally literate” is just another version of keeping up with the Jones, only in this case you are wasting what is more important than money, your time and mind. Stay informed with subjects that interest you, don’t worry about all that garbage that most of your fellow workers spend their time, minds,and life on. Eliminate the static in all it’s forms from your life as much as possible, you are a better person for it, and others will respect that aspect of you.

  4. I’m only being a smart-arse MW – I’m a Spurs fan ;)

    I think this could be a high-risk strategy, if I’m understanding it correctly. Your specific example of British football is relevant to my workplace, where a lot of us are Irish and British, and there is a LOT of footy-related banter day to day. Others trying to break into this can’t do it with ewikipedia research; there are too many geographical and accent and historical digs in play, and we have had situations where after the third or fourth gaffe by a Canadian colleague the whole conversation is just embarassing for everyone.

    Another example is with one of my junior reports, who knows I devour current events and often wants to talk politics with me. I know he’s significantly more conservative than I am, and the last thing I want to do is offend or otherwise alienate one of my best and most loyal producers. So I cut those chats off quickly with a joke or something.

    I think your knowledg-limitation point is key. To stick to sports, meetings here often start with Maple Leafs chat … I just smile that I don’t follow it or make a crack about them being awful, and ask how they did this week. I’m not interested in ice hockey, but clients love the excuse to fill me in.

  5. I have to agree with riley. Don’t waste your time on things that aren’t important to you just so you can converse with people on that particular topic.

    My husband and I don’t have a TV at all and frequently miss all sorts of cultural references related to TV shows, movies and sports games, and it hasn’t hurt us socially or professionally. Our friends are people with like interests (people who get out and do things rather than watch others do them on the boob tube). Our professional contacts respect us because we show a genuine interest in them, not how the Seahawks did last weekend.

    I’m willing to entertain your idea, but I’d like to hear more than just assertions. How about a little empirical evidence to support the notion that water cooler talk pays financial dividends?

  6. I am completely uninterested in sports, and don’t make excuses for it. I have noticed that when the conversation turns to cars or sports, my eyes glaze and I wait for the topic to change, but it simply isn’t worth it to me to become informed on those subjects.
    Since I’m female, I think it is easier for me to get away with it, but I refuse to cultivate an interest in things that to me, are just boring.

  7. That’s because if you’re in the fortunate position of being able to choose a team to support you will always go for Arsenal.

    Gooners!!!

  8. I disagree with riley completely. Good conversation for me is being able to have an animated discussion about the other person’s favourite topic. Having a broad base of knowledge means you are more likely to click, and it helps move past the awkward opening stages of getting to know someone. By letting someone else stay in their comfort zone, they will be more relaxed and come away with a favourable impression.

    On the other hand, if you only stay informed with subjects that interest you, it’s up to other people to make the effort in conversation. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find someone who shares your passion (mine is pure mathematics, good luck with that), but most of the time people will come away with a poor impression of you.

    Not to mention the possibility that you may discover new interests when you branch out. What if Trent discovered he loved Premier League?

  9. I’m not a fan of gaining knowledge from Wikipedia because anyone can add to it, or change it, and I don’t think it’s trustworthy. I am a fan of learning as much as I can regardless of the topic, so I agree on that point. If it interests you, find out more about it. Knowledge is power.

    At Christmas, my family was sitting around doing crosswords and sudoku, and my dad didn’t know the term ‘bling bling.’ We all started laughing, but he’s not around people who use that term. He also didn’t understand any references to Forrest Gump when that movie was popular. Different strokes for different folks. My dad is still the smartest person I know.

  10. I’m going to agree with riley and outdoorgrrl. While I don’t disagree that some level of cultural literacy is important, I don’t think it is worth spending time learning a bunch of stuff you really don’t care about.

    Sports is no doubt one of them. I watch the occasional game, but, for the most part, I don’t know who most of the players or coaches are, especially on teams that aren’t local. I may watch the occasional game with a local team playing, but my interest in watching two out of area teams play is generally about nil.

    I have found that sports is something you need to have an in-depth knowledge of to have any kind of conversation about. If you give any inkling that you’ve watched a game, you’ll be inundated with names, histories and statistics that you don’t know or care to know. And that’s a conversation ender right there. It’s better to say that you don’t watch sports than to admit you do but only have a passing knowledge thereof.

    At least then you can move on to a different topic.

  11. I like learning new things, and especially from listening to the news and other interesting stories from NPR, and have gotten a coworker hooked on slate.com, which always has interesting news stories (that we can then discuss together). And if my roommates are watching football, I’ll watch it for the sake of having something to talk about the next day at work. I did notice the guys like distracting themselves with sports news and trivia.
    I don’t find most of this a waste of time or “keeping up with the Jonses”. Don’t they say that knowledge is power?

  12. Wikipedia gets slammed often for not being “accurate” just because it can be edited by anyone anytime. The truth of the matter is that on most subjects, Wikipedia is a great source. Sure, you will find bias and false statements on controversial topics like the US invading Iraq or abortion, but normal topics are usually accurate. I’ve just started to edit wikipedia, usually just correcting spelling errors or facts that I know for sure are false are need more explanation. It’s a great way to give back.

  13. I am one of only a couple football fans in my office, and I wish others would read your article (hey, maybe I’ll do a little subtle promoting for you and send it to them). My problem is I don’t the other folks in the office well enough to know what their culture interests are – so I tend to avoid social gathering spots at work. I’ve made a resolution to get out and meet some of them to learn their interests and try to cultivate them, even if they bore the heck out of me!

  14. I lean mostly toward Riley’s sentiments on this one. Plus, I don’t believe as you assert that cultural literacy is required in order to have intelligent conversation with others.

    I believe one can have a genuine, fruitful conversation with anyone–without having to do research on subjects one has no interest in. All it takes is a sincere interest in the other person/s. Ask questions, listen, share your thoughts, and things will be fine.

    To me, learning about things I don’t care about just so I can join a conversation with the crowd feels disingenuous (If I am actually curious or interested, obv. that’s a different story).

    I know I’d much rather talk to someone who focuses on their own interests than someone trying to fit in (for whatever reason) by studying up on a topic that is not of genuine interest to them. I value each person’s genuine interests and uniqueness much more than I do a superficial attempt at being one of the crowd.

  15. Certain amounts of cultural literacy help pull a community together. For example, the Redskins were playing a big game today and I was able to talk about it with a number of patrons who were wearing ‘skins gear. It was a pleasant way to pass the time while I was checking out their books and have friendly conversation. I don’t follow sports, but just knowing about the important game meant that I could ask them about their plans, etc.

  16. I want to clarify that when I talk about gaining cultural literacy, I mean knowing enough to ask smart questions.

    This isn’t a time consuming process. 10 minutes at the end of the weekend and you can scan all the headlines and read an article or two. Anyone who has time to read a blog has time to do this. This will give you enough information to ask a couple of good questions. And the great thing about learning about someone else’s interests is that the other person loves to talk about their interests. A couple of good questions is all you need.

    Mrs. Micah’s comment really emphasizes the need. Her patrons probably left with a good impression of her. What would they have thought if she had said nothing? What would they have thought if they had asked her about the Redskins and she had said “I don’t follow sports”?

  17. Reading this post reinforces my hunch that I should probably move. Being culturally literate in NASCAR is something I simply won’t become. I’m stubborn like that.

  18. I agree with Bloggrrl here. . .

    The finance director at my work graduated from the university that was a sports ‘rival’ to the one I graduated from. . .I’ve never seen a game and don’t care to at all. . .I care that the guy does a good job with numbers, and if we need to B.S. we can do it about a REAL COMMON INTEREST!

    I can’t imagine that their isn’t a legitimate common interest between every two people in the world (obviously different interests). . .

  19. Regarding Max’s comment – Just yesterday I found myself meeting a new client. He happened to notice my college and be a supporter of our rivals. I don’t follow the rivalry, but the one fact I knew allowed me to make a good impression.

    On the other hand, I am the most culturally illiterate person I know. I couldn’t name one major actor, don’t even know genres for music – and I lived abroad for a few years which compounded the problem. And that’s made life very difficult! Good friends of mine finally realized this – they now explain references when talking to me.

    But now I make a point of absorbing info as I hear it. An hour browsing the web on a subject is not always a waste of time. And I too started listening to NPR in the car. In the past year, I’ve seen an incredible difference in my ability to follow basic conversations and interact with new people.

    Also, I think a distinction should be made between active and passive learning. Trent’s example of Premier League is active (even though he may not remember all of it, he’ll have a general overview for future reference), but simply turning on the radio / TV at appropriate times is passive (you may not be able to discuss it, but when others do you won’t be entirely clueless / bored). I think everyone could aim for at least passive learning about new topics.

  20. Trent, I applaud you for thinking of others and trying to become knowledgeable about what interests them. I understand from your previous posts that you are not naturally outgoing. Neither am I. Focusing on someone else’s interests is a great way to get you out of yourself. A great site for perusing news that you may not have a chance to listen to or read for yourself is Brijit (http://www.brijit.com) where you can read 100 word abstracts of current events.

  21. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with anybody. I’ll read almost anything if there is a possibility I might learn something new or can use the information later. I like building upon what I have learned, if I don’t know something, I don’t make it up. I just say I don’t know, I’ll get back to you. I need to know how a presidential hopeful “wins” their state…there are not votes yet. Anyone? Thanks for the link.

  22. NO. will not watch football to be able to think i have this kind of thing in common. with whom? am i really that intereste din people who are sports fans? not much really. i understand it might be useful to sometimes watch football / ice hockey to be “in” biut honestly, i cannot be bothered. at 33, i am pretty sure not being in the know on the players and coaches is not going to ruin my life. and, as others have said, it is good to learn about topics one finds intiguing. besides, i am sure i will never know all that history and statistics… and no i am not fraid to say “i really did not watch the finals yesterday”. i am sorry, but just because many people like watching these sports i am not obliged to be able to have a conversation of football.might sound selfish but i always say tio myself – would i bother them with “oh yeaterday i have engaged in a really fantastic game of scrabble” or something? no:-)))

  23. An example of cultural literacy:
    DeCartes walked into the bar.
    Bartender said, “Beer?”
    DeCartes said, “I think not.”
    And disappeared.
    Some get it; some don’t. One doesn’t have to get it to be a successful adult, but being able to get it seems to reflect on the nature, depth, & direction of one’s early education & consequent cultural literacy.

  24. So many commenters have closed minds on this post. No wonder the world is how it is. It doesn’t hurt to leave your comfort zone every now and again. I’ll stop there before I start ranting.

  25. Learning about a subject that you have no interest in for the purposes of improving your networking possibilities strikes me as manipulative. For example, one of my major interests outside work is music. If I found out that one of my reports was reading up on genres and bands that I like just to feign an interest for the purpose of schmoozing with me, I would consider that deceitful and it would lower my impression of their integrity.

    I agree with the other posters who say that any two intelligent people can have a meaningful conversation. I also don’t think any special effort is required to gain ‘cultural literacy’, unless you’re a hermit you will passively pick up a working knowledge of major cultural talking points simply by living in that culture.

    Also, a culture includes everyone who lives in it, not just the majority. Why move towards the mean by spending valuable personal time learning about things you don’t care about? Spend that time learning and participating in your true interests, and keep the culture diverse.

    Conformity may not be the best strategy in the workplace if no one can tell you apart from any of the other drones.

  26. Cultural literacy,isn’t that like a trivia game where you score by appearing to know something that you really don’t? It actually sounds like the makings of a great oxymoron. Assuming a faux front can’t make you really literate can it? Gathering info by googling and browsing Wikipedia, Investopedia, and all the other pedias is fun and can be fruitful in and of itself. If it helps you out with others by giving you a knowledge base to work from great. But I don’t think that Trent would ever suggest that this be done in a fake way.

    On the other hand, though it is true knowledge is power, sometimes having too much of it is debilitating because there’s no adequate outlet for it. Learn for yourself and the rest will take care of itself.

  27. Don’t worry, Jana, you don’t have to watch football. Just keep your ears open enough to know that there is a game and then check the score afterwards to know whether you should commiserate with them or celebrate.

    At the library, I can either absently check out books or I can engage the patron in conversation for a second based on what appears to interest them. I can take the cue from their books, but if they’re decked out for the game, I think I know what interests them most right now.

    Why not be friendly with people?

  28. Come on, you can be friendly with people without doing wikipedia research on a subject. Asking if they won and being teasingly celebratory or sad is completely appropriate for 99.9% of professional interactions (and more honest, if you’re really not interested). After all, people love to talk about themselves and their interests. Convincing yourself you have knowledge on a subject you don’t really care about runs the risk of making you look foolish. And in a workplace environment most people won’t tell you you look foolish, they’ll mentally file it away.

  29. What guinness said.

    If if were interested enough become culturally literate about what’s on TV (sports or otherwise), I’d much rather ask the enthusiast pertinent questions to fill in the gaps my knowledge. People love to share their expertise, and by asking questions is real time rather than doing “homework” online, I get the most relevant information without running into data dumps. Sometimes I even get the benefit of short circuiting trivial conversations by telegraphing my ignorance with questions like, “What’s a field goal?”

  30. Keeping up with current events is very valuable. I’ve been doing this since high school and can usually strike up a conversation with anyone. It doesn’t often involve a debate it just is usually a starter to often a more involved conversation. I have many friends of various affluence, backgrounds,ethnicity and ages. The funny thing is although I’m pretty low on the totem pole at work, I’ve become friends with the CEO. This was because when I have seen him in the halls or in the lunch room, I’ve taken the time to say “hi” and asked his opinion of either something going on at work or a current event. Some of the managers are astonished that I even said anything to him. I find it funny.

  31. I think Trent is a person who takes pleasure in having knowledge on a variety of topics. That’s his style. I don’t think it hurts to be that way. I find myself learning a lot about the world via television, NPR, internet and magazines. I’m an info-lover too! I don’t use my knowledge to network professionally, but I DO use it to have conversations.

    I don’t get into sports to a great degree though.

  32. The importance of cultural literacy and pop culture references probably varies depending on the work environment. Where I work today we seldom have time to interact on anything other than work.

    In high school, though, I worked in a university laborative where everyone was extremely knowledgeable about classical music, instruments and music performance and the majority of non-work related talk centered on this. I had played flute from age 7, yet I had a very difficult time keeping up or adding much to these conversations, though I enjoyed them. I can honestly say that my sad little contributions did not harm the regard people had for me or my work in any way. Which was good as I was spending all spare time trying to master the Krebs cycle and such!

  33. @Carol: “I think, therefore I am.” — Descartes

    There are 10 people who understand binary: those who do, and those who don’t.

  34. This has been one of the most interesting “converstions” that I’ve read in awhile. I admire Trent in his aim to try to connect culturally with people. It was a terrific post.

  35. Whoa. I think both sides of the issue are misinterpreting what is being argued. Networking, I think we can all agree, is invaluable in the professional world. But if you are isolated in your own world of very specific and narrow interests, your networking capabilities are going to be very limited.

    I agree with Max that people should base these connections on REAL interests, not “fake” ones for the sake of finding a common ground with someone.

    Here’s the thing though: We know so little about all the knowledge that is out there that I can guarantee you you’ll find something, anything, interesting about a particular topic.

    Taking the football example, I love soccer, but I know very little about the English Premier league, but a few minutes of research will teach you about the obsessive fan base and how they are a culture unto themselves, which is very interesting to me.

    The key is finding a few things you ARE interested in in each particular topic. And trust me, unless you are a very dull person, you’ll find something. If you don’t, then you have other, more serious, issues.

  36. When I read the title of this post, I thought it would be about familiarizing oneself with the high points of Western civilization: Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Plato, Bach, etc. This I believe is a worthwhile endeavour for one’s own sake, and secondarily will help one in discussions with educated people, though I would not do it for that purpose alone. However, it turns out we are talking about sports and TV shows! I have nothing against sports or TV shows per se (though I watch no sports, and only a few TV shows on DVD), but I’m not going to read up on them unless I’m genuinely curious. That seems fake to me. There are so many interesting things to talk about, more genuine things. I am not much of a one for small talk, but I do it anyway because I know other people like it and it makes them more comfortable. I am rarely at a loss without knowledge of TV and sports. I can talk about their kids, vacation plans, work issues, the weather, I can compliment their clothes and ask where they got them, we can exchange recipes. If I find out about an interest of theirs or something in their background, we can talk about it. I have talked about jelly making, alcoholism and 12 step programs, World War II movies, grammar, multitasking versus mindfulness, step-parenting, the difference between Italy and North America, Spanish puns, Expo 67, with people who are just acquaintances. All interesting conversations, more interesting than TV or sports. If I have to talk about sports I will be bored out of my mind, and I may not be able to hide my absolute indifference!

  37. Monica, I’m with you all the way! In my former workplace (retired now) it was all sports all the time; except when it was about TV programs. I think cultural literacy is about reading maps and knowing where the rivers run, and the pros and cons of a flat tax, and why baking is different at high altitudes, and the reason you have pickled ginger with sushi, and stock market volatility, and Buddhism in Muslim countries . . .
    and how to manage your money so that you are debt-free.

  38. Macinac / Monica,

    I’m with you. I’m not up to speed on who was voted off the island, nor do I know nor care about most sport outcomes. I do, however, know the current exchange rate versus the Euro and Yen, that Liechtenstein now has a bus stop that is covered by the Swiss Eurailpass, that there is a new AKC breed recognized out of Argentina, the best beer to have with schweinbraten, and that it is best to visit Tangiers in early springtime.

    I think the differentiation is that some cultural literacy is “pop” and some is “durable”. I’m all in favor of everyone increasing their ‘durable cultural literacy’.

  39. I totally agree with this article. I have always been a salesmen and I would use the same general principles for helping me gain a common ground with my customer. Where you talk about turning on the football game and watching it. Instead I watch Sportscenter that way you get a bit of knowledge about all the sports. Then when someone comes in with a nascar jacket on you can use it as an icebreaker and if you don’t know that much just talk about the highlights and let them takeover there the fan now you went from a salesmen to one of there peers and you can do it by watching CNN or Food Network depending on your customer.

  40. @Turbogeek – But you do know the “voted off the island” reference, even if you don’t know _who_ got booted. (I don’t know either; I don’t even have a clue whether that show is still on!) I think that’s part of the point.

    Regardless, I agree with you and Macinac and Monica. Somehow, even without a TV, I manage to absorb enough pop culture to be able to function in offices that seem to thrive on that. And at my previous job, people didn’t mind that I didn’t get references – they already thought I was that weird girl who liked to talk about things like humanure composting, so not getting a TV reference was small potatoes by comparison. (Think I’ll go look up where the phrase “small potatoes” came from now.)

  41. Hello,
    Great article on cultural literacy. I am actually doing a research paper on the topic for grad school and wanted to quote you in my paper, however I need your last name to do so.
    Thanks, Trisha

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