If someone were to ask me, “Wait… who’s George Washington?” then sure, I’d be tempted to widen my eyes in shock, turn my mouth into a gaping hole of “what-the-fuck”, and spout a familiar accusatory we’ve all used… but anymore, I hope to never act on that temptation.
Haven’t you ever been at a party and the acquaintances you’re trying to ingratiate yourself with reference the latest hip new movie to hit cinemas, say, Sweaty Brooding Badass III: Full-Throttle Fury and Very Expensive Pyrotechnics. For whatever reason, you’re just out of the loop on this one and you’re not sure what they mean. You ask perfectly honestly, “Huh? Sweaty Brooding Badass III? What’s that?” Now, you know it’s a movie, but that wasn’t your question. Nonetheless, your fellow partiers instantly recreate the expression I explained above, and bellow, “WHAT? You DON’T know what Sweaty Brooding Badass III is?” or something similar like, “WHAT? You’ve NEVER heard of SBB III?” You’ll also get this reaction if you haven’t heard of Patrick McStudnose, the star of SBB III, or his sultry, D-cup, 18”-waist co-star, Ashley Sexington. People gawk and are instantly the judge, jury, and executioners of your social fate in that one moment of natural ignorance.
I understand it’s just a conversational quirk nothing more beyond a reaction of surprise to someone being unaware of what seems so well known. I’m more interested in the reason people do this and I don’t find “wuh, I dunno, it’s just what people say,” a satisfying answer. I think that, however you try to color it, this is a mannerism rooted in arrogance.
Before you get out your “now see here”s in defense of your own usage of the phrase, I am not saying you’re Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, but there is an inherently condescending tone to the phrase itself.
It is especially so when someone does this seriously, even if they have a grain of humor to it. I have seen people react with genuine bewilderment when someone admits to not knowing about a certain movie, book, band, celebrity, or even commercial. It was in high school when I first experienced it: during a group conversation in Spanish class, Adam Sandler came up, for whatever reason. At the time, I didn’t know who that was. I made the mistake of asking who is Adam Sandler and phrases akin to this article’s title were thrown at me by a few people. (Today though, I know who he is and automatically associate the name with forgettable comedic mediocrity.)
I’ve noticed this happens mostly in a social context and on topics of pop culture. After all, “how could you NOT have heard of Mean Girls?!?” Why are we made to think that, with pop culture, we MUST be IN THE KNOW about certain things or else you are an uninformed and unsavvy person? The idea is ridiculous that my set of interests ought to be the basic cultural encyclopedia that everyone else should be attuned to.
Look at it this way: what is the purpose of the phrase? Why do you say it and why with that particular inflection? At its heart, the sentence is designed to express disappointment with a person’s subject-specific knowledge not being on par with yours. In a way, you feel they have invalidated themselves to you by not knowing who Neil Patrick Harris is. It can even go so far as the George Washington example; then, you’re just wondering if that person was raised under a rock hidden inside an isolated closet at Guantanamo Bay.
But there is really no polite or well-meaning way to dish out this phrase, except perhaps ironically. Used in its typical form, it comes from a place of assumed superiority, albeit only as far as knowing about something the other person doesn’t. “Oh, you can’t keep up with us when the topic turns to the lineups of the band Yes? I won’t take a second to educate you, I’ll mock you for your lack of knowledge!” Beneath the scolding lies a false superiority that shouldn’t happen in any conversation in which the participants are thinking about their meanings and intentions. Throwing that moment of belittlement at someone is needless and implies a desire to impress rather than educate. Ignorance is unattractive, certainly, but scorn is an unnecessary reaction when namedropping doesn’t ring a bell.
I’ve found that when someone does not catch a reference I make, no matter how obvious it may seem to me, I will enlighten them with calm brevity. There is that reflex to want to put someone in their place for being unaware of the rules of Fight Club (and damn, I just broke the first two…) but holding doors open in a conversation rather than slamming them shut with laughter is more constructive overall. That way, everybody’s happier, which is what John Lennon would have wanted, right?
Wait a second… you’ve never heard of John–