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Sometimes references will come up in conversation to players in different sports, singers, or other popular culture references, and most of the time they come up, I have no idea what's being talked about.

To give an idea of how bad my knowledge of these things is, I was talking with my mom once and accidentally mixed up Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. While I have not done that since, I've been known not to have any idea who Madonna was (some sort of singer?) and who the heck the "Raiders" or the "49'ers" (aside from the gold rush prospectors, which I have a feeling was not what was being talked about) were.

How should I respond when these references come up? Do I just nod along, or do I ask who/what these things/people are? Up until now, I've just asked, and my friends are pretty cool with it and explain, but occasionally (when asking someone who isn't a close friend or something) I'll get a "you're such a nerd" smirk.

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    FWIW, I once confused Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan myself. Then made matters worse by asking which one of them was nicknamed "Magic" (Johnson). – Tom Au Aug 2 '17 at 10:44
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Laugh at yourself a bit, but know that nobody else has the right to laugh at you.

I was exactly the same way back when I was your age (and still am, to some extent). My main issue was music; since my favorite genres were jazz and classic rock, I was fairly out of touch with the music of the time. I could tell you a lot about Dire Straits, for instance, but not much about Madonna (to use your example).

It took me a while to get used to this. I was happy in my little bubble of older and non-mainstream music, books and culture. I came to one realization, though: The only way to avoid this problem completely would be to change. And that's something you should never feel pressured to do.

It was around the time of this realization that I finally owned my lack of pop culture knowledge. If someone asked whether I had seen the latest Avengers movie, I'd shrug and say

Well, I'll be honest, modern superhero movies aren't my thing! How was it? I don't know much about the franchise.

If I was close with the person, sometimes we'd laugh, and then they'd tell me about the movie, which always ended well. It seemed to work even better if the person was passionate about the movie/song/etc. There were several important things:

  • I acknowledged that my expertise in the area was, to put it one way, lacking.
  • I took it in good spirits. Maybe others see this as embarrassing, but it's just a quirk of your life. It's humorous at times; laugh about it.
  • I showed that I cared. Obviously, you want to know about these popular culture references; demonstrate that my keeping the conversation going even when you choose to ask.

Dealing with mockery

I think you have two questions, to be honest:

  • How do I solve the problem of not knowing about the reference? (The practical problem)
  • How do I avoid being mocked for it? (The social problem)

I discussed the first one before; I'll talk about the second one now.

You mentioned that you've been in cases where you were mocked for being a "nerd". I sort of reappropriated that pejorative term and took pride in it, but you might not want to do so. If that's the case, I'll give you the following bit of advice:

Shrug it off.

I said before that you shouldn't be pressured to change. If someone thinks you're a worse person for not liking the "cool" bands or the "popular" movies, then they can, quite frankly, go jump in a lake. Either they accept you for being you, or they don't, and you can't change their minds. You shouldn't change just to fit in better; your true friends will accept you for who you are.

I say this to try to give you confidence. I have never been a very confident person; in high school, that was a major weakness for me. But I owned the label of a "nerd". I thought to myself, "The songs and movies and books I like are no less valid than the ones the next person likes." Other people might laugh, but they have no reason to do so. Your choices, your likes, your passions are just as valid as theirs.

The future

Let me add one last note: Things are going to change over time. My music tastes - to continue my earlier example - have expanded a bit; as I became a fan of some modern alternative groups, I learned more about the modern music scene1. You're going to grow and change, and while you probably won't ever completely grow out of this issue, and shouldn't feel pressured to, it might get better.


1 This didn't stop me from also growing to like older music, like certain traditional genres.

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  • Thank you, this is a fabulous answer. I like the label nerd, because I am one, but I prefer it being used in a positive way =) I think your advice is perfect. I'll shrug off any smirks, and just ask. Thank you again! – heather Aug 2 '17 at 0:51
  • @heather Don't say it's perfect 'til it works! But thanks; I hope it's helpful. I know that some of it might be harder (practically and emotionally) to implement in a group - I've been there. But if you use some confidence, it'll be easier over time. Also, maybe wait for some more answers before accepting mine. – HDE 226868 Aug 2 '17 at 0:55
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Just ask!

You're young - so you won't always know the historical references, such as living in the yellow submarine. Maybe you're not a sports person, or not a big fan of pop music today, so you won't understand how big of a deal it is when the Toronto Maple Leafs made it into their hockey playoffs.

I'm a bit the same way - I often hear things about pop artists today, who I know absolutely nothing about. But I could tell you a lot about Bollywood movies!

You have different experiences in life, so you're not going to know the same things as everyone else. There's nothing wrong with asking, or going home later and googling it yourself to understand what was going on. You might get a little smirk here and there, but it's nothing malicious - they are probably just making fun of you in a friendly way.

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  • I'm talking about common references among people of my age - I've just never heard of them. – heather Aug 2 '17 at 0:14
  • @heather It still wouldn't change much. You still have different experiences - you may not be as interested in music as others. There's never anything wrong with asking, so my answer still wouldn't change. – Zizouz212 Aug 2 '17 at 0:15
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In your shoes, I wouldn't sweat the music, because music trends come and go. Tomorrow, there will be a new star.

I would try to learn about sports teams because they are "permanent." The Raiders and the 49ers have been around since I've been following sports, which is over 50 years.

You are on the right track by associating them with California. Just "close the loop" by learning that they are (American) football teams.

That said, even the best will get confused. Former Vice-President Joe Biden was in San Francisco one fall when he congratulated them on their Giants "football" team. That was their baseball team. The Giants football team come from New York. (So did the baseball team, originally, but it moved to San Francisco in the 1950s).

It was either 2014 or maybe 2012, so the (baseball) Giants had just won the World Series. (Do learn the difference between that and the Super Bowl.) Bonus points if you can remember that the Giants won the World Series in the "even" years 2010, 2012, and 2014 (but the pattern was broken when they did not win in 2016).

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Don't feel like you have to ask for the reference to be explained. It's totally OK to just smile and say, "I don't know who or what that is", without inviting a lecture on a subject you don't necessarily care about at all. Anyone who reacts with a smirk and an insult is the one with the interpersonal skills problem, not you.

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