A tale of cultures in quarantine: Gen Z meets Boomers
Sheltering at home with our teenage daughter has been a bonding experience and a joy for my husband and I. Yet it has not been without its intense moments.
The other night just before bed, Elizabeth asked, “Did you see the text I sent to our family chat?”
She wanted to share something she and her friends find a lot of fun: meme humor. A way of sharing of an inside joke, visually, with a hobbled-together picture and a few words, referencing some common shared cultural experience or phenomenon.
As her dad doesn’t do social media at all, quite deliberately, and I have yet to take up Instagram, Snapchat, or the other online spaces where this new humor form dominates, it’s new to us.
She had texted our 3-way family chat this meme.
The opening “This is the one” confused me because I had looked at the graphic before she explained why she was sending it to me. I didn’t get it. I reread it, looked at the picture. Being a writer and editor, I immediately noticed the wrong word “a” instead of “I.”
“Is the misspelling intentional?” I asked.
Elizabeth had to explain it to me. A joke’s not funny when someone has to explain it.
So she tried a second one.
This time I got it. Sort of. Everyone when young has the experience of being in a store and following someone who looks like their mom but isn’t. But I was a little confused by “a woman” referencing a picture of man. Confusion kills humor.
Then her dad walked into the room.
“Do YOU get the humor of these?” she asked. “Check your text.”
Anthony, a former juried watercolor artist and now an advanced digital artist since before Photoshop 1.0, opened up Messages on his phone. He made a face. He didn’t laugh. In a very matter-of fact tone, he said “these are crude and talentless. They are horrible. Pieces of junk.”
He critiqued the execution of the graphic artistry, completely overlooking the simple purpose of the request: could he see the humor?
To say Elizabeth was peeved is an understatement. She exploded in defense, taking his judgment of the humorous form very personally.
For the next 45 minutes we became embroiled in a heated argument that included loud, fiery words. Just before we were all heading to bed, about 11:30 pm.
My husband remained calm but went into immovable-rock mode, in defense of his critique. The more stubborn and resolute he was, the angrier Elizabeth got.
I was in the middle, seeing both sides. I put on my referee hat, physically moved between them, and began re-phrasing what each one was saying, interjecting analogies to aid in understanding.
“It’s like a cartoon,” I said to Anthony. “It’s not art.”
“But it’s terribly executed!” he said. “Cartoons are way better than this.”
“I know, but it’s not about the artistic execution,” I said. “It’s more like, well, an inside joke using digital ‘found art.’”
That opened a huge can of worms. Anthony launched into a diatribe of loathing against the very idea of found art, recalling working with many artists-in-residence at the Kohler foundry in the 1980s. He bemoaned the notoriety of early “default” digital artists who put no time or effort into perfecting their craft or controlling the medium.
Elizabeth grew increasingly more frustrated, her face red. “This is NOT ABOUT ART! This is about humor!” she screamed.
“Ahh, humor,” I said. “Humor is extremely cultural and often does not translate. Elizabeth and her Gen-Z friends represent one culture, and us Boomers are another. We have very different frames of reference.”
“Dad and I grew up with Mad Magazine, comic books, newspaper comics sections. You grew up with Google, Instagram, other social media.”
Finally some common ground. We took a collective breath of relief.
“You’re right,” he said. “Our cultures are completely different.”
“But Dad, that is not the problem.” Elizabeth said sharply. “You were extremely rude! What you said would be like visiting the home of someone in another country, being served a homemade meal, and then spitting out the food and saying ‘this sucks!’ Is that what you would do?”
There was a pause. She had him there.
“No,” he admitted. “I would never do that. Even if it tasted terrible, I would be polite. But, this is in my own home.”
“So, you would be polite to a total stranger from another culture, but not to someone you LOVE, who lives with you?” she asked.
“Ok, you’re right,” he admited. “I’m sorry. That was rude. I was rude and I apologize.”
“I accept your apology, and I apologize for getting angry,” she said. They hugged. I was overjoyed. We shared a group hug, laughed, and by the time we all turned it was 12:30 am.
Next morning El woke up happy and joined me in the kitchen for coffee. “I’m so glad we resolved everything before we went to bed last night,” she said.
“Yeah, me too!”
Unbeknownst to us, an hour earlier, Anthony had texted his boss that he’d be clocking in to his job an hour late. He’s a graphic designer, blessed to still be working from home for Miller Monument Company in Jackson.
He walked into the kitchen, saw Elizabeth’s phone on the counter, picked it up, looked at it, then set it down right in front of her without saying a word. She looked at her phone.
“You just sent me a text! You’re right here! What?”
He just smiled and shrugged as she open up her text.
I wish I had been running a video so I could have recorded the look on her face.
I think we got it now.