Clueless about American references

On Cloud Nine
3 min readDec 7, 2021

I like USA. I was chatting with a good (US-)American friend about a podcast, when they said,
“It’s just like NPR.”
“What’s NPR?”
“It’s like PBS. Oh right, PBS is also an American reference.”
“That’s ok. I know PBS.” (public radio)

I do fool some people that I know all American life, because I do watch a lot of American movies... read American newspapers… follow American trends... write improv blogs in American English... But I hadn’t grown up in the US. Without the lived experience, there’s bound to be cultural knowledge gaps.

My friend was kind of sheepish about having an America-centric view, but I don’t mind.

Here’s another one I learned today: Some pretty bad “cookies”. I know of Girl Scout Cookies from movies. But these bad cookies are at the fringe level of knowledge for non-Americans.

By the way, the tone here, is all good natured. I am NOT outraged “America vs. the world”, nor “using American reference is not being inclusive!”. I actually do like using American references. The simple point here is that I know some things and don’t know some things. I know Girl Scout cookie, I don’t know the other cookies. I know PBS, I don’t know NPR. These are mild and fun observations. I find it amusing. 😃

It makes me also think how these reference mean something different. Because talking about NPR, reminds me of TVRI, which is our national broadcasting. I can only guess that NPR for Americans is associated with a bit old-fashioned, maybe slightly boring? On the other hand, where I come from, public radio means straight up state propaganda. National anthems at 7pm and a message why the government is great. So there’s this different context that you get out of similar references.

When I brought up Clueless (the 1995 Alicia Silverstone movie), it actually did mean something to me. I knew these days Americans might have mixed reviews on the movie, because they can compare it to their actual lives as American teenager, maybe see the satire. Whereas for Indonesians in 1995, Clueless is, well, as truthful a depiction of American posh teenager life as we can get. So there’s that different context that I spoke of earlier.

Actually, American cultural references are a good thing. They connect improviser around the world. Even between two non-Americans. It’s sort of universal code. When I do Aree & A Friend, especially when we don’t have a shared culture, American culture becomes the mesh between us. Especially American movies or Star Wars. Or just throw in Friends there to get a knowing nod from anyone in Asia.

Here’s a little trick I use to connect: Word Association. Yes that exercise. I do that with a lot of Aree & A Friend guests to scope our shared references (including American ones). And then (company secret!) I probe cultural contexts:

…ball — sport — football — goalkeeper — referee — whistle — score—inning — baseball —America’s Favorite Past Time — hot dogs — Take Me Out To The Ball Game — Yankees — Joe di Maggio — home run — jumbotron — kiss cam — kiss —romance — wedding — family — Thanksgiving — dinner — salad — pickle — chutney — sambhar — banana leaf — eating with hands — the little washing pot with lime….

As you can see, you can very easily phase in- and out- of different cultures from such a simple game of Word Association. In a hurry, I know the size of our playing field, how much knowledge we have in American references, or how much non-American cultural references we share. Now that we have covered our bases (pun intended), we can play improv anywhere.



On Cloud Nine

An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.