The Learning Curve

New tricks for an old dog.

Dated or obsolete concepts

I’m old enough to vaguely remember functioning steam locomotives in commercial operation and the milkman coming by the house every day, but I am all too aware those days are long gone even if the images remain.

As I sat this morning waking up, the phrase “I don’t want my face to end up on a milk carton” popped into my head. It’s the punch line to a joke I remember from somewhere, even if I’ve forgotten the rest of the joke. To understand the reference one must be aware of the cultural phenomenon of milk companies printing photos of lost or missing children on paperboard milk cartons as a public service.

But I can’t remember the last time I saw a milk carton. They seem to have been totally replaced by plastic milk jugs when I wasn’t looking.

What is the cut-off age? If you were born before January 1, 1990, you will understand this joke, and not otherwise. But, what is the actual cut-off date after which seemingly universal cultural references are obsolete?

A few months ago Sen. Hillary Clinton used the word ‘Xerox’ referring to photocopying. The college audience she was speaking to didn’t get it. Xerox stopped being synonymous with photocopy a few years back and our cultural language changed.

This is not a lament about getting older. I am real happy with the process so far. It’s about the Balkanization (ha! look that one up.) of experience, the difficulty of cross-boundary communication, and specialized language.

Every professional knows the issue. A bunch of lawyers can sit around and use their own specialized language or shorthand expressions and have a discussion no non-lawyer would understand. But, lawyers do not speak to non-lawyers the same way they do with each other. They have learned that it doesn’t work.

The Tower of Babel (Old Testament and Torah reference) applies not only to the language difference between the Russian language and French, it also applies to the English language differences between you and your customer.

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Written by Tom Fox

05/22/2008 at 8:00 am

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