I’m guilty of a particular hand gesture that, for whatever reason, seems ingrained in my muscle memory though I have no remembrance of how it got there. The gesture has zero significance to me, and, interestingly enough, seems relatively common amongst various other Americans I’ve come to know since moving overseas as an expat.
The gesture involves, more or less, slapping of an open hand (usually the left) on to the closed fist of the right - or sort of bringing them together - with either the unintended or intended consequence of a slight popping sound happening in the hollow of the right hand. It’s used often to start a sentence, often if order needed to be called first, in a group of peers. Think of it as a gym class version of chiming a wine glass.
The gesture also happens to have incredibly crass and sometimes perverse meaning in foreign cultures. No doubt, the gesture I learned as an innate communication mechanism was simply borrowed from the cultures where its original meaning remains intact, but, like most things in the US, it simply lost its original flavor and now floats around in the stew we call American culture.
And culture is funny like that. A shared history of one community can quickly leave newcomers completely in the dark, if not entirely excluded. Yell “ABC” in the salesroom of a startup and you’ll likely get a handful of laughs. If you’re completely confused by that sentence, you’re not part of that culture. Look up Glengarry Glen Ross if you want in.
Culture imbues our identity and the subtexts in which we communicate with co-workers and friends. Order an espresso at lunch in the US and it means, “let’s keep the conversation going.” Order an espresso at lunch in Germany and it means, “we’re done here.”
Five years ago it was common to hear people make jokes about “nazis” in the US to mean anyone who was stingy. No soup for you (Seinfeld). You could never make that joke in Germany. Further, even in the US today, it’s been so co-opted by the “left” that it’s now meant to generally disparage anyone with a different opinion. In Germany, its true meaning and the horrors it implies remains prevalent and relevant.
A culture I’ve known primarily amongst my male friends is to communicate through quoting movies. Really, it’s amazing how much of the day-to-day has already been covered in the, er, “classics.” But even that communication, shared between people with familiar geo-contextual backgrounds, creates a culture of exclusion for those that didn’t see the same films. Access, availability, and opportunity become filters for an entire language that others may not have.
Prevalent in the tech industry (and many “knowledge worker” industries) is what has been called “the Slackification” of the modern office. A trend that encompasses many things, but non-the-least of which includes a predominance of text-based, emoji laden conversation.
Beyond just the normal, “standardized” set of emoji which has been blessed by the majority of tech companies, platforms such as Slack allow for custom emoji. It’s in particular with these custom emojis that we are exposed to a lot of cultural risk of both excluding others from the way we talk and even causing unintended offense.
A subset of developers I’ve worked with, being the meme-versed subculture that they (we) are, adore the “Pepe” meme for all forms of “reactions” to things people say. Coming from a US culture where Pepe has taken on a decidedly racist, misogynistic tone, it’s difficult to ignore. Further, being an old man in startup years (over 30) there’s a generation of meme usage (and emojified memes) that I simply don’t know. Not only myself but a class of us “older ones” where coworkers not even 10 years our junior have a subset of references that are lost on me. And the knife cuts both ways, there’s a wide range of 80's and 90's hit songs that I tend to quote with obnoxious regularity that are completely lost on a subculture that simply didn’t listen to the same music.
My children are now at the age where it’s amusing to create their own language as they play with the rules of what’s understood by the majority. The creation of custom Slack emojis is really no different. With a workforce that is diversifying at a rate never before seen, it’s important for all of us to not forget the standards of intercultural communication and to watch out for the pitfalls of creating “secret languages” that exclude and even accidentally harm others. The internet turned 50 this year and in many ways, we are more connected today than at nearly any other point in recorded history. With effort and an awareness of other’s cultural backgrounds, we can make sure the next 50 only bring us closer together.