The Marfos are a movie-watching family. We own a lot of movies, we rent a lot of movies, we bond over movies. My sister and I

Do you know these characters?

are especially fond of introducing my dad to movies that we enjoy and think he would too. I can’t count the number of movies I’ve walked out of and immediately called him to tell him to watch. But there’s one instance of this that I’ll never forget, and it has continued to follow me through adulthood.

The movie was Shrek, the year was 2002. Being a huge Shrek fan, and my dad being a huge Mike Myers fan, I made a leap and assumed that we would both enjoy it. Pay attention to the word “assume”, it’ll come up again in a moment. I went to Blockbuster and rented it, and brought it home elated to share it with him.

But for the first 20 minutes, he wasn’t really laughing. He and I have a similar sense of humor, so I was confused to not hear his trademark giggle over my own. I paused the movie and asked him what was up. His response? “I don’t get it.”

And then it hit me. He didn’t get it.

To give some background- my parents both grew up in Ghana, in West Africa. While my father was and is a reader, his childhood fairy tales were wildly different from the ones his children were exposed to thirty years later. So he wasn’t going to find the current story funny, because the back story wasn’t there. Turns out if you don’t know the story of Pinocchio, The Three Little Pigs, or Three Blind Mice…Shrek is essentially lost on you.

In my present quest to fulfill the role of “Minister of Unobscured Understanding”, I thought of this example this morning as I returned to editing our student group and advisor manual. We make a LOT of assumptions in our office. We assume that people understand how to complete a form or who to give it to. We assume that students will understand the motives for our decisions. Being an institution which hires alum and which has long-tenured faculty and staff, we assume that people just get it. But sometimes they don’t. And when that happens, people “miss the joke”.

In a field that values helping those around us to belong, how do we make sure that everyone’s in on the joke?

For an answer to this question, I will turn to the people at Radical Learners, who used a recent TED talk by Joe Smith to illustrate the components of a clear explanation. In their estimation, Smith’s explanation hit four main points that could help us make sure that our explanations don’t perpetuate the missing of the joke:

  • Why. The reason that I titled our forthcoming operations guide “The How and the Why” is because I don’t think the value of an explanation lies solely in the explanation of how. Particularly for bureaucratic processes, it can be beneficial for students to understand why things are done as they are; understanding how many people are involved in a given process can help them to respect deadlines, and understanding legal implications of incorrect paperwork can help them to be more diligent.
  • Simple. When an explanation is simple, we’re likely to follow it. Rarely has anything done easily when the answer to “Why?” is “Well, it’s complicated.” When you deal with students or faculty advisors for whom student leadership isn’t always a priority, complication breeds a lack of diligence and attentiveness. Make it as easy as you can for those around you to do their job.
  • Modeled. When someone comes to your office asking where something or someone is, do you make an effort to walk them over, perhaps pull up a map if it’s far? It makes a world of difference to not just tell someone, but to also show them. Something about “teaching a man to fish”…
  • Memorable. Make the explanation memorable. Don’t just tell/show/explain how to do something, provide a trigger to help them remember it. In the absence of that trigger, they could lose that information in a sea of other data we all get buried in each day. Yes, this is how you do it, but why am I going to remember that?

And lastly, be open. The trigger for this whole post came from this presentation from an Australian project management firm about how to demystify acronyms and jargon. Student affairs and higher education love acronyms. But not everyone demystifies this specific speak when new members to the community arrive. In the absence of a natural or provided opening to discuss this “industry speak”, newcomers may shy away from asking what these terms mean, and they could go months only partially understanding the environment they’re in.

There wasn’t an easy fix for the trouble with Shrek. My dad would have had to go back and catch up on what was five or six years worth of reading for my sister and I as children. And sometimes there are processes that will take longer to demystify. But that experience helped me to realize just how often we assume common background and information. What will you do to make sure those around you are in on the joke?

5 thoughts on “Shrek and TTWIL (The Trouble With Inclusive Language)

  1. Amma, this completely resonates with my first year (maybe more) working in medical education. The jargon is out of control and I literally felt like I was halfway across the world trying to translate for most of my work days. It was so frustrating. I’m trying to help a new employee overcome the same discomfort – this post certainly gave me some new insight. Thank you!

  2. I find extreme value for those who are capable of seamlessly engaging an audience regardless of their familiarity with a subject. ESPN’s Ivan Maisel, who hosts the college football podcast has a way of introducing topics, situations, and individuals that are likely to be familiar to all listeners that also gives all of the pertinent information to those who are not familiar. Saying something as simple and seemingly self evident as “Alabama head football coach Nick Saban” rather than simply “Saban” allows room for those who choose to pretend they know it all while simultaneously informing those who clearly do not.

  3. Curtis, this reminds me of one of my favorite examples of that seamless engagement. And its music related, so you’ll appreciate it. Thomas Newman, the man behind the score for ‘Remember the Titans’ scored the football sequences in such a way that someone who didn’t understand football would know when something good was happening, when a mistake was made, and what was going to happen. It’s a subtle cue, but I’ve watched the movie with people who don’t understand football and it helped. THAT’s pretty cool.

  4. Sue, I can only imagine how bad it would be to have to adjust to a new school’s “in” speak as well as that of a particular field. I’m glad you powered through, and I’m really glad that you’re paying the goodwill forward by helping a coworker navigate it all. You’re good people 🙂

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