There are certain tribes in Papua New Guinea that are defined by hyper-violence. When two strangers meet on the road, they must immediately sit down and tell one another about their families and their life histories so they have a reason not to kill one another. This is a very extreme way to socialize with others, but it does show just how important it is to have something in common with your neighbor and certain touchstones that let you demonstrate you are in fact of the same culture and tribe.
Our parents had a lot of this built in for them—the watched "Love, American Style" on the exact same night of the week. The same bands played on the radio, and there weren't a million customizable apps as an alternative. Saturday morning cartoons were the same in Connecticut as they were in Missouri. Gen Y lives in a time of unprecedented diversity. We don't listen to the same music, or shop at the same stores, and until the "Breaking Bad" finale we haven't watched the same episode of TV on the same night at the same time since 1998 when TGIF and SNICK were still a thing.
Like those tribes in Papua New Guinea, we still need a way to connect. The difference with Gen Y is that we have to improvise. What we've come up with is a a style of conversation that can bridge nearly all interests and subcultures. It's the trifecta of sarcasm, irony, and in-jokes. You can find it in pretty much any party, classroom, or web forum. Twitter and Tumblr are founded on it. It's a great defense mechanism disguised as popularity-cultivating extroversion. You can talk about almost anything, from the banal to the high brow, if no one is entirely certain how seriously they should take you. Yet I've noticed that this conversational crutch causes us a lot more problems than it solves and builds up a lot more walls than it brings down.
Maybe the best example is "hipster racism," and "hipster homophobia" and "hipster misogyny." You know, where people say racist, homophobic, and misogynist things ironically, or sarcastically, and if they offend someone claim the joke was meant to mock those backwards points of view. One of my exes thought the "make me a sandwich" joke was the height of humor, and eventually I realized he wasn't really joking. He treated me with disrespect, and I shouldn't have been surprised given how much he participated in misogynist online gamer culture. Sometimes people are inadvertently honest.
The problem with this "Family Guy" sense of humor is that people are not sophisticated enough comedians or adept enough critics to understand when they are mocking prejudice and when they are perpetuating it. The Atlantic did a great job discussing this after Seth McFarland hosted the Oscars and offended pretty much everyone: "What the jokes were, really, was stupid, boring, and empty: humor that relied less on its own patently sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. content than on admiration for or disgust with the host's willingness to deliver it. The more we pass off old stereotypes, rooted in hate, as normal the longer those stereotypes, and their ability to harm people, will be in place."
Then there is all the in-joking. Gen Y is one giant cultural reference encyclopedia. So often we rely on a string of hip in-jokes about TV and movies and music when we need to talk. See our generation's continued love affair with "Doug". We may not have had Saturday morning cartoons in the classical sense, but we did have Nickelodeon and of all the classic Nick cartoons, "Doug" reigns supreme for Gen Y. If you have a group of Millennials thrown together and they need to find something to talk about, I guarantee someone will bring up this show, and everyone will reminisce about Quail Man and Patty Mayonnaise. This social ritual has found new life after 10-15 years ever since we found out that the voice of Patty Mayonnaise is an actress on "Orange is the New Black". Really, at this rate this conversation topic will never wear out.
All this in-joking means, however, that we aren't really talking about anything. We're just continually fact checking one another and jockeying for position on who's taste is coolest. It's all weirdly competitive. At a party a month or so ago I made a joke about "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that no one got, and it seemed like the group I was talking to was kind of threatened by that. At the same time I felt supremely uncool. When coworkers and strangers have referenced movies I haven't seen, the next step is usually for them to act shocked and a little superior. It's partly play acting these kind of prescribed roles we've all taken on as being nerdy or geeky has gone from ostracizing to hip. But it's also inherently about putting other people down for not having the same taste or background.
That is interesting given that this whole thing started in part because Gen Y is so diverse in their pop culture consumption, and apparently we're all a little defensive as arbiters of our own little pop fiefdoms. Pop consumption and criticism have become incredibly democratized thanks to the internet, and the explosion of indie everything, and now anyone can be a critic or a comedian. We all have our measure of online and in person celebrity, snarking whatever we disapprove of like the best Jezebel and Buzzfeed writers.
We should spend more time thinking about how we use that power. When you're trying to communicate, think about what you're really saying, whether "Family Guy" humor is valuable, whether we are mocking or perpetuating negative cultural trends, if putting people down for their taste is worth it. We can connect without snark and negativity, without sarcasm and irony. In fact, we just might find that if we give up these formulaic go-tos, we can have a genuine conversation.
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