The Value of Cultural Literacy

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 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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