Sylvia Sierra, Syracuse University – Media References in Everyday Conversation

Media references can be a great way to break the ice in a conversation.

Sylvia Sierra, assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, explores why.

Sylvia Sierra is a discourse analyst interested in language and social interaction. She takes an interactional sociolinguistic approach to exploring knowledge management and identity construction in everyday communication in both face-to-face and online contexts. Her research interests include identity, epistemics, intertextuality, globalization, popular culture/media, Mexican Spanish, social media, multimodal methods/embodied interaction, and discourse-level sociolinguistic variation.

Media References in Everyday Conversation

In our everyday conversations we often quote or reference a wide array of media from songs, movies, TV shows, video games, memes and more recently, TikToks. Quoting media is common with everyone from boomers to zoomers.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

In fact, quoting media reveals our fun side, helps us connect and can reinforce old relationships or start new ones. I analyze recorded everyday conversations that contain media references. My research focuses on how and why people quote media in their conversations.

So, how do people make media references? Speakers of American English phonetically signal they’re making a media reference so that it stands out from the surrounding talk and can be picked up on by listeners. They’ll often stress a certain word or phrase. Oftentimes, the catchphrases we like in movies and other media are marked anyway; they stand out because of the way they were said, so when we repeat them, we tend to mimic that.

How do people show that they got the reference? People will often smile, laugh, they might repeat it or savor it, they might further quote lines from whatever the source is and engage with it playfully.

Why do people make these references? Sometimes, it’s just fun and silly. But my research shows that people often use media references when there’s an awkward interactional moment in talk, where maybe, for instance, something unpleasant is being talked about and one member of the group doesn’t have the experience or knowledge to participate in that talk. So, someone will make a media reference and that will smooth over the awkwardness, make people laugh and then the talk has shifted to the media that presumably everyone in the group shares knowledge of and can bond over. Fundamentally, making media references constructs our shared identities based around media that we enjoy.

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