The Information Gap

Trivial Pursuit

Growing up between worlds with a significant loyalty to airlines as opposed to countries was a privilege. I viewed the world less through the lens of nationalism and more through the lens of a citizen of the world. It also meant that at any given time or place in either country there was potential for a significant information gap.

From fashion trends to Hollywood stars, the information gap ebbed and flowed based on my proximity to people or news from the United States.

In high school the information gap manifest itself initially through fashion. When you haven’t been in a country for four years your clothes bear witness. Mini skirts, bell bottoms and halter tops spelled out “Fashionista” in the seventies, and I displayed a glaring fashion information gap. In college the gap was openly outed when playing Trivial Pursuit. This popular game, created in the 80’s required significant cultural knowledge of the United States. From baseball teams winning the well-loved World Series to television shows that had popular theme songs, the game could not be played well by someone with an information gap. What was the theme song to Gilligan’s Island? Who knew? Who was Mickey Mantle? I don’t know! Do I care? Interesting fact: Trivial Pursuit was created by two men from the country north of us, Canada. This fact just disappointed me more for I would have expected a Canadian to understand that creating a game where you get points for being able to answer questions about pop culture to be uniquely unfair.

But on to the topic of information gaps. In the family wedding I attended in June, an information gap came up around the names of the Great Lakes. As I tried to name them, I realized I couldn’t. I did not know the names of the Great Lakes, something that is learned by every child in America in Elementary school. Only of course, I didn’t go to elementary school in America. I could tell you about Lake Saiful Maluk in the Kaghan Valley in Pakistan but the Great Lakes in the United States? There was a glaring gap in information. (I had no idea that the acronym HOME was the way to remember – Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie). As this came up in conversation with people at the wedding I turned to my sister-in-law’s brother. He too was raised in Pakistan. I asked him if he knew the names of the Great Lakes. To my delight, he looked blankly at me as if to say “What Great Lakes?” He didn’t know. Here was a comrade, someone who shared the problem of an information gap.

There are times where my husband has had to sit beside me and whisper explanations in my ear. “It was a TV show” or “She was an actress married to so and so…” or “That’s a baseball team”. He has been my personal interpreter to get me through what could have been embarrassing moments that involved information gaps.

There were other times where there was no interpreter, no one to explain the reference that I didn’t understand. I would smile and nod blankly, not willing to let anyone know that I was lost in translation. Sometimes I felt as though I had a neurological deficit – as if I should know some of these things and the fact that I didn’t made me feel like I had a loss of neuro function. And then I would recover and think: “How could I possibly have known that? I didn’t live in the United States when that happened…” I’ve become bolder through the years, much more willing to say “I don’t understand the reference”. This inevitably leads to a discussion of why I don’t understand the reference and there are those times when I don’t have energy to go there. I don’t want to explain why I have information gaps and the humor and grief those gaps have caused me.

So it brings me to the question: What are your information gaps? Where have they caused you humor and/or grief? Weigh in through the comment section – we need your story!

For more reading on Third Culture Kids from Communicating Across Boundaries see these posts.

33 thoughts on “The Information Gap

  1. I love, love, LOVE reading all posts about TCK! I am one of course, and I have finally found my “family”. I have a plethora a stories to share but I’ll refrain from writing about all of them…the thing which has always been a “gap” for me, whatever the country I am living/visiting, has been actors & songs. In Milan I got caught up in a crowd of people who were very taken by one individual at the center of it all. When I asked who he was, and was quickly informed, I asked “who’s he?” there was a large collective gasp by a half dozen die hard admirers of this person, and then a loud roar of laughter, because they thought I was being silly…EVERYONE knew who he was, obviously I must have as well…I still don’t. Songs on the other hand, if they are American or from the UK, most of the world has heard them, so they bridge pretty well throughout the world.
    Now, with the Internet, my kids are pretty up to date with everything which happens in the US, and when they interact with their cousins there is a very small gap between what they know, do or say.

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    1. I’m so sorry that I missed this comment Gordana! I love this story and it represents the how clueless we can be about pop culture! Thank you and please forgive the lapse in response!

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  2. Sometimes my wife and I will be watching TV, and I will switch over to one of the “rerun” channels where they are playing the TV shows from the 60’s and 70’s. My wife will get up and do something else because she has seen them, probably more than once. I have to remind her that, even though I was born in the ’50s, my TV experience did not begin until the mid-’70s. All those re-runs are first time viewing for me. And I still appreciate the humor in Mayberry more than that of “The Office” and other such current shows. I never watch them. Just another “information gap.”

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  3. PS: we were home-schooled in primary school, and I remember my mother being so shocked that I didn’t know the difference between a nickle, penny, dime and quarter…well, why would I? I knew the local coins and that’s all I needed!

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    1. Exactly! Rupees or dinars or whatever the local currency was far more practical to learn! I never got the emphasis on money from our passport countries when we didn’t live in our passport countries!

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  4. we were on furlough in Denver when I was 9 and I had to take my first standardized test where you fill in the little circles…I was an excellent student, and knew the subject matter (it was about the Far East where I grew up) but I had to retake it twice because I thot you had to black out the wrong answers! Never saw a movie or TV show until I was in 7th grade…still remember the first 2 movies we saw in the theater over there where they served steamed peanuts in the shell rather than popcorn! Who cares about the pursuit of trivia, anyway?!? It’s just so trivial…we have much more important things in our brains. We had to design our own fun, use our creativity…no video games…and I’m sure we were outside most days year around…rain or shine. I loved wearing my dad’s safari hat and standing under a rain spout! Of course it never got freezing cold where I lived…I don’t think I could handle the heat and humidity now, as an adult, but it sure was a fun place to grow up!

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    1. Love this comment! It totally captures the information gap. I too was terrible at taking the tests with the little circles. In all my life in Pakistan we never had those kind of tests – we had the essay type that you describe. And most of television was religious. I love the story of you standing under the rain spout with your dad’s safari hat! The first movie I ever saw was “The Sound of Music”. Someone obtained it from the Canadian embassy and the whole school shut down so we could see it. To this day I love Maria and “The Hills are Alive”. Thank you for pulling out these memories and sharing them – it’s a gift!

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  5. My gaps are normally concerning childhood – we moved back to Britain when I was 12, after spending the previous part of my life in Germany and Cyprus (my mum was a teacher at armed forces primary schools). Even though, having lived at least some of that time on British garrisons, we were still mostly surrounded by other British people, things from childhood still regularly come up in conversation with my friends that I have no idea about – the most obvious one is “iconic” children’s television shows that I’ve never heard of, but often it’s beloved foods, like particular brands of biscuit, that I never had as a kid, probably because I was busy eating the Cypriot alternative!

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    1. The iconic television shows I can really relate with – especially if they have theme music that everyone knew but you. But you’re so right about the food as well. Raised on Nice and Digestive biscuits and Lyle’s Golden Syrup were not normal foods in the US. I still go on hunts for them periodically. On a side note I’ve wanted to go to Cyprus for ages – would love to hear more of those memories from you.

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  6. As someone who lives outside the US (I live in New Zealand) in a country where much of our daily news is made up of news from around the world, most of our television programmes come from America and the UK, and most of us travel overseas, it never ceases to amaze me how insular many Americans seem. (Sorry to generalise) That’s one reason that your blog is so refreshing, Marilyn, and why this post is so interesting. I wonder if the people who made those rude comments to you and Robynn resent your experiences outside America

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    1. Thank you so much for the compliment – to hear it’s refreshing is music to my ears and writing! I find your last sentence interesting – I actually remember thinking one time “They really can’t relate at any level and so have made the assumption that I’m boasting….” and I believe that is what has happened some times. I think I am trying to relate but the person listening, who has not traveled or lived internationally, makes an assumption that it’s coming from boasting as opposed to a true desire to connect. I think there is some resentment in the area where I live – I also think that it’s easy for people to take one 10 day trip and think they have seen everything the world has to offer, only to settle back comfortably at home becoming arm chair experts.
      So glad for your perspective Denny.

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  7. Oh yeah, trivial pursuit just escapes me! Interestingly, I find that, living in another westernized culture to my ‘own’ causes an information gap where people assume that we’ve been living here forever, that Aussie celebs and music are just as well known outside of the country as they are inside and that our visas come with an automatic info download. We’re applying for citizenship shortly and we’ll be required to sit a test which asks us if we can name former PMs and who Don Bradman is!!!

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    1. Oh Sophie – it’s no doubt that immigrants who become citizens know WAY more than those of us who were born here about history and laws in this country! You will be model Australians with all your knowledge!!

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  8. We were living outside of the US when the horrific Columbine school shootings occured. Thus, we had NO IDEA just how serious some words had become and didn’t quite “get” the seriousness of the “zero tolerance” for violence rules, esp. in school settings. Two years after Columbine, and 1 year after our return to the US, our son, who incidentally was in an American school for the very first time (9th grade) said something under his breath because a teacher was consistently overlooking him in class. A student heard him, told the principle, as students had been thoroughly drilled to do, and our son was actually expelled! When asked what he had said, he hardly remembered but admitted he was very angry at the moment. Several students and their parents protested the school’s action against our son and vouched for his character, but to no avail. There were also some legal repercussions.

    We, as parents, felt somewhat responsible because we had not impressed upon our son the seriousness of watching his words in school. How could we have known how seriously those words would be taken, since none of us had lived through the Columbine incident like the rest of the American public had? It was a high price to pay for a “gap” in our cultural experience. BUT, we have learned from that and all 4 of our children are VERY careful what they say in public now.

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing this story Jennifer – it was a hard one to read as I thought of the high price for all of you. It must have been so difficult for all of you navigating the new rules, both unspoken and written, that sprung up while you were away. Schools border on crazy strict now which is the pendulum swing of the day. I can imagine it made adjusting to life in the US even more difficult. So glad you shared this.

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      1. It is shocking and sad Sophie! We have swung the pendulum so far the other way that it’s crazy and yet we still have terrible shootings. We don’t get to the heart of the problem through making stricter and stricter rules.

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  9. I don’t fit in anywhere…. I have just accepted that, I am a world of my own. No one understand the feelings i have about strange places none of my family have any links with, I share things here with my friends that my family doesn’t understand, i could never share with them, i have a world with my family back home that no one in my world will understand…I connect with different people on so many different levels which none of them would understand…. So I am a world of my own and I have learnt to accept it and be comfortable with it.

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  10. Marilyn: I had the same thought as Cliff and came to the same conclusion that you did. Here is the thing that I took from this post as I work with students from every walk of life in the online setting – this is a HUGE issue. There are just as many information gaps WITHIN the United States as there are for those who have spent time outside of the country.

    Imagine the plight of students who have grown up on Minnesota farms not having any idea of what it is like in New York City except what is on television.

    Imagine the plight of inner city Minneapolis kids who think that gun shots are the norm in the night for all kids everywhere.

    Imagine the plight of inner city Minneapolis kids who do not realize that their eggs come from real chickens or that their beef comes from real cows.

    The list goes on! I have not even touched on Southern culture vs Northern culture…

    Our society – and our education system – must have more compassion for the fact that there is no longer a “typical” American up-bringing. Your experience is much more reflective of a growing number of students in American than in your generation. Our textbooks

    You have a voice that many of us do not, and that voice of experience needs to be heard. As you continue to share, consider how your experience can illuminate the plight of those with whom you work and of their children. You may have much to say and much impact to make.

    The real question for you is this: Are you ready for that?

    :)

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    1. I thought you would catch the gap pretty quickly! So – this is really interesting to me, especially coming from your work as an educator. It’s so true that each of us has gaps in information, based on what our reality is. And the fact is, that in any given culture, approximately 10% of the people in that culture are truly gifted and reaching across those boundaries, the rest can learn but I don’t know that they ever reach a level of true empathy. In terms of using a voice – it’s one of the things I love about my job – I get to do a lot of speaking about culture and healthcare and the topic of immigrants and their kids is part of that. The struggles of immigrants and cultural disconnect between them and the American school system is significant and causes a lot of pain. I would love for more educators to be aware of this huge divide. In terms of Third culture kids and their experience, I hear alot about how it’s not that much different than others but the reality is – it is different. But that’s not just about the information gap. It’s a variety of factors, frequent moves, significant goodbyes in early years, a million airline trips, significant loss at early ages…. But I’ve written other posts on those. Thanks Stacy – I love your insight and your constant thought process. It’s a gift!

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  11. I once had a client ask me “did you grow up under a rock?” when she was trying to explain a point to me through a common cultural reference. I can’t “play the I just moved here” card in a session with a client, but I have been “back” for decades and it still happens. I think a memory I have of my fragile link with common culture is that I had heard of the Yankees because of a Wheaties “breakfast of champions” box. I was so pleased at age 14 when I met Bobby Richardson’s son at boarding school, and I had actually heard of his father, thanks to Wheaties.

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    1. I would never have known that information about the Yankees….I guess I didn’t eat enough Wheaties! The “Did you grow up under a rock?” comment is so harsh. I felt pain! A funny story I remember that illustrates information gaps is someone who grew up overseas and when she got to the states and got a pair of Levis, she ripped the tag off. Her sister came and screamed at her “You ripped off the Levis tag?! That’s your passport to popularity!”

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  12. My husband Lowell has been my cultural informant for years. He does the whispering, I do the nodding. I’ve also learned to fake a great laugh. I laugh so hard at jokes I do not understand. When I get home I ask Lowell what it meant, why it was funny. And then we laugh again. At me. At the joke.
    I understand the energy it takes to explain why I don’t get it. I think that’s why I’ve learned to fake it. I’m too tired to launch into my story.
    When we first returned to the US after 13 years in India I would say, “I’m sorry, I’ve just returned from India.” Two or three years later I was still using that same line. A friend once snorted, “You’re still playing that card!” and I burst into tears. I sobbed my way through an explanation and she responded with sympathy.
    It’s just easier to fake it! Maybe not healthier but easier….

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    1. Oh my gosh – after SEVEN years in the States I was still playing the “We just moved here from Egypt” card and a friend said the same to me. I was rebuked. I was crushed. I was angry. Because in my mind and heart we had “just moved” I relate so much to this comment – the laughing at jokes I don’t understand only to ask later what they meant….the trying to fit in a conversation. In fact….just this morning Cliff came in as I was waking up and said “Oh Marilyn! You made a mistake on the post – it’s not “HOME” it’s HOMES ….you forgot Lake Superior! WHAT??? There’s an S that I forgot? Are you kidding me? To which we had a good laugh and he said “I don’t think you should change it. It makes the point perfectly! ” Thanks Robynn

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      1. I noticed the missing “S”, but I wasn’t going to comment! I grew up here, moved to Pakistan at age 25 until into my 60s. I went through the info gap every time we came back. We kept up on Politics (why did my finger capitalize that???) through Newsweek or Time Magazine subscription, but some time in the 70s they switched us to the Asian edition so it didn’t help at all with popular culture in the US. BUT I could shine at Trivial Pursuit when it came to Geography and World Affairs.
        I still find myself going into observer/analyst mode in group conversations, probably to hide my ignorance. I guess it’s my way of dealing with the information gap I still feel.

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      2. Somehow I knew it was Polly!! You bring up that interesting piece that relates to the Third Culture Adult – that of missing key cultural components, and there being an expectation that you would know what people are talking about. You chose the wise route – that of keeping silent and then no one would know! I had forgotten about the geography and world affairs parts of Trivial Pursuit. Will have to play it again and see how I do!

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