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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

question of the weekend: If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?

1950s future kitchen

Today’s question comes via something Lanna Lee posted on Facebook, which apparently originated on Reddit:
If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?

I suspect it would be the social changes, not the technological ones, that would stun a 1950s person the most. To hear that it’s likely that “your wife” would not be busy in the kitchen making dinner with the high-tech “microwave” oven would probably more shocking than the existence of the microwave oven. Maybe it would be a married interracial gay couple and their adopted child making dinner in “their kitchen”!

What do you think?

Image above from PopSci.

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Captain_Swing666

    Probably having to explain to them what the hell happened to Elvis Presley.

  •  And Michael Jackson.

  • applekate

    The Internet. 

  • Internet humor.

    Once we got past the whole obstacle of the Internet itself, I’m sure Internet porn would be pretty easy to explain (“human beings are extremely perverse when they think no one is watching” “well, obviously”), but Internet humor would probably take months, at the very least, to explain. (“So, you don’t like this song, and that’s why you listen to it all the time? And everybody does this?”)

    As a matter of fact, music tastes in general would probably be literally impossible to explain, because even the good music of nowadays with inarguably good lyrics sounds so radically different than what a fifties person would be used to, it’s arranged so differently, it might be extremely difficult for an adult or teenager who is accustomed to The Chordettes or Perry Como or whatever to get used to Nirvana.

    The racism thing is interesting though because there is still a lot of racism now and it would probably be hard to explain the nuances of post-modern “I’m not a racist but…” that happens nowadays. Also, NEW racism and NEW stereotypes. Like, the way Arabs are perceived these days, for example, is different  than back then. That kind of thing.

    The end of the cold war would be something of a shock. Moon landing, polio vaccine, new corporate monopolies. Those would be easy to explain, though. But the fact that we have much worse income inequality now than then would be hard to explain because I like to imagine that it would prompt the question “but if no one’s worried about Communism anymore then why are people so afraid to raise taxes on the wealthy?” to which I would reply “I have no idea”.

    Then there’s the little things you don’t think about. For example, a 1950’s person who ate modern food would probably get some bad indigestion because of how processed it would be and how spicy it is and how big the portion is. They’d have to get used to there being braille on every sign. Different etiquette. The fact that not everybody smokes anymore, and drinking isn’t *quite* as common either. New pop psychology and pop medicine, new diseases that come into focus (for example, carpal tunnel). The way everything is designed differently (like the ergonomics of a modern bike or a modern baseball bat would feel strange to a person from the 50’s). Houses are decorated differently. Undergarments are more comfortable but would probably make a 50’s person feel naked. Advertisements are a lot less straight-forward. Slang and outdated language. We’d have to explain how nobody says Negro anymore and “black” is now a polite way to refer to people (also: Oriental, the new meaning of gay/queer, etc.) New place names, such as Mumbai vs. Bombay. People have a different cadence of talking now, we say different things when we don’t know what to say (“and so, like, I was just, you know, like…”) Pop cultural references. Certain accents just straight-up seem to not exist anymore. Security cameras. The fact that with cell phones it’s not as much of an issue to need to reach somebody, and with the internet nobody has to wonder about weird little facts anymore because we can just google them. These things would be easy to explain but all of them together would be hard to get used to.

    Re: microwaves. Pretty sure they had a microwave on the Jetsons so they’d  be anticipating that.

    But anyway if the person from the 50’s was old enough you could just say “you know how everyone just sort of gave up on everything in the years following WWI? It’s kind of like that.”

    (I’ve thought about this question before, but I like to imagine explaining modern life to a time traveller from 1935, because then you get the added fun of explaining WWII).

  • If it was someone from 1950s Deep South, seeing who is currently in the White House might cause a heart attack.

    I think the most difficult thing would be the shift in a more casual open society, more in conflict than civility over issues of sex, gender roles, ethnic identity, educational pedigree, etc.  The ability to communicate near instantly with anyone else on the planet and in any location where the palm-sized mobile telephone can pick up a signal…  and that telephone able to access any tidbit of knowledge where it used to take a 30-lb encyclopedia… and that telephone showing you color images!  They barely had color television in the 1950s!  Half the movies were in black-white!  And you can view those movies via Netflix app!

    The Fifties person is still gonna wonder why we haven’t gotten our hoverboards yet.  Back to the Future PROMISED US by 2015… YOU PROMISED…

  •  Yeah, that “going to the Moon thing” is mind-blowing.  The first Austin Powers movie made a note of it that Austin had slept through that part of history, something those of us in the 90s and 21st century take for granted as a thing that happened… and that we moved on.

  • KEAplin

    I would have a hard time explaining all the tats and body piercings, not to mention the fact that almost no one wears hats any more except at British Royal Functions.

  • Come to think of it, if the fifties person in question was from after Sputnik, the moon landing thing would actually probably not be too much of a surprise. Depending on what type of person it was, they might be more shocked that that was all we did and we still haven’t sent a manned mission to Mars.

  • Your fan

    Well, If you are talking about difficult to explain, they were on the cusp of electronics that probably it would be not too much of a shock to see that they had just advanced.  the 50’s saw the beginnings of the space race, knew about computers, and not too many years later had elementary microwaves.   gas kitchens were moving to all electric…party phone lines going private..TVs going to color…But I think you are on the money with social chance..They could probably not imagine a world where you are basically stripped searched to go on a plane, and children get shot in school.  You could bring them up to speed on it, but to really “explain” it to them… It’s hard for us even now to really understand it.  People could imagine objects developing in the future..they got that from science fiction.  But horrifying violence among ourselves would probably blow their minds.

  • Your fan

    I mean social “change.”  didn’t prroof read lol

  • Grisha

    I disagree. Violence worldwide and in the US has actually declined since the 1950s.   Read. “The Better Angels of our Nature, Why Violence has declined” By Steven Pinker.   The sensationalism and immediacy of the Internet would surprise them.  Most of the most lurid cases of violence in the 1950 were only covered locally via newspapers.   The 1950s person would be shocked that, we aren’t in perpetual world war, that a nuclear war never happened and that violence all over the globe is in such marked decline.   

  • Grisha

    I think the biggest shock to a person from the 1950s would be to see that we are a world in relative peace and that we did not destroy ourselves.  They would be stunned to learn that in fact much of the world is free, Fascism and Communism did not win, violence is on the decline, health and lifespans has improved entire diseases like smallpox, measles and polio have been virtually wiped out.   It’s easy to think that a person from the 1950s would think that the world has gotten worse.. and some of them do.. remember many of our parents and grandparents were alive in the 1950s and wax nostalgic about the good old days.  But when pressed, they would acknowledge, having emerged as youngsters from a world where 60 million people had just been killed and the threat of immediate atomic incineration was constant, that ours is a world of relative peace, and hope.  It’s easy to have a jaded and negative view of our present world, but I think that once the 1950s character got used to the social changes, they would love living here.

  • Grisha

    I agree with Maryann about social change.  I love 1950s pulp science fiction magazines.  The writers were amazing forward thinkers.  But the one thing almost all of them thought would never change was the dutiful little housewife waiting at home for her husband’s space flitter to arrive so she could push the buttons on her sleek kitchen console and make dinner.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    They could probably not imagine a world where … children get shot in school.

    I’m not so sure. http://www.thenation.com/blog/171838/gun-violence-american-schools-nothing-new

  • This could explain an awful lot. All those regressive, illiberal attitudes we worry about? Time travellers from the 1950s!

  • J.T. Dawgzone

    I’m not a time traveler and smart phones still blow my mind…

  • RogerBW

    Fragmentation of mass media. You can’t go into work and expect everyone to have watched what you watched on television last night, or read the same newspaper as you on the trip in; you can’t go to school and assume everyone’s listening to the same band (though that’s a bit more likely, but they’ll come and go much more often).

  • What you can do with a computer and a phone these days.

  • As far as crewed missions go, perhaps. But they might be impressed that we have robots on Mars, probes on a moon of Saturn, two spacecraft leaving the Solar System, and crystal-clear pictures of galaxies at the edge of the observable universe.

  • These posts are all making me realize just how much Captain America really has to cope with.

  • LaSargenta

    I’d think that given there was a lot more variety on-the-ground in the 1950’s than was depicted in television and movies (so more than what we typically have emotional access to), I think someone from the 1950’s would be astonished at how so many now regard it as some kind of a golden age.

    Edited to add: That kitchen does look pretty efficient. I’d only change it to be more flexible to accomodate someone who uses a wheelchair.

  • I’m not saying that’s unimpressive, but people in the fifties and sixties seemed to expect quite a lot from the future. Some people might be more shocked by what didn’t happen than by what did.

    As I said, when I conduct this thought experiment I like to think of a person from the thirties, and I don’t really think a person from the thirties would expect quite as much out of the future. They wouldn’t expect jet packs or robot maids or any kind of technocratic utopia, but they also wouldn’t expect us to have destroyed ourselves with nuclear bombs.

  • Cindy

    Still would be quantum physics.

  • Beowulf

    What is a “newspaper”?

    Seriously, I always remember the opening of “It, the Terror From Beyond Space.”  In the credits I saw “Dr. So-and-So,” and “Professor This-and-that”…….and they were WOMEN!

    Wow, I thought when I saw this on late, late night TV one night in the ’90s. Could this film have been an early break-through in women’s equality?

    Then comes this early scene: the men are sitting around having coffee and chatting. The women, including the oldest, ask if the men want more coffee, pour some, and then remove the dirty dishes.  

    Oh, well

  • Beowulf

    All the white couples that have (adopted) black kids…..

  • Leroy

    I have a device, in my pocket, on which I can access the entirety of human knowledge, and I use it to watch cat videos.

    (Paraphrasing slightly from a comment I saw in a similar post on reddit.)

  • You mean someone who died in the 50s, and didn’t see the 60s and onward? There are plenty of ‘people from the 50s’ still alive and kicking and using smart phones and computers. My parents were using computers in their late 70s.

  • I think we’re talking about transporting a person from the 1950s directly to today, skipping all the decades in between.

  • As one born in the 50s, it just sounds strange…

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