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The Secret Language of Movie Quotes

What can quoting movies teach us about ourselves

Do you find yourself quoting movies in a range of situations with varying levels of appropriateness? When you say, “I’ll have a steak sandwich” at a restaurant, do you compulsively repeat “and a steak sandwich, please” from “Fletch”? When happening upon an establishment that is not open do you say, “Sorry folks, park’s closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya” from “Vacation”? When your friend’s bride-to-be is walking down the aisle, do you feel like singing out loud, “She’s Your Queen to Be” from “Coming to America”? If you have had experiences like these, then you – like me – may be a compulsive movie-quoter. 

Compulsive movie quoters use great lines from movies in just about every situation, regardless of social standards. If you’re like me, you may also have a spouse who is less than understanding about your “issue.” “Ugh! Would you please stop quoting movies!” is one of the most repeated negative comments my wife has made to me over the years. It has gotten so bad at times that even when I say something vaguely original (which I admit is rare), my wife asks “What movie is that from?” 

The dynamic of quoting movies is not new. Most of us are probably familiar with famous lines like “Casablanca,” “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “Gone With the Wind” “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” even if we’ve never seen the movies. As a matter of fact, I still haven’t seen either one. But what is relatively new is the urgent need not only to quote certain stand-out movie lines but to speak movie lines in normal conversation. The movie-quotes-as-a-second-language phenomenon seems to have started in the early 80’s with movies such as “Airplane!,” “Fletch” and “Caddyshack,” and carried on from there with movies like “Swingers,” “Old School” “Wedding Crashers” and “The Hangover.”

More, the need to quote movie lines can apparently hit at any age. My wife and I both had to laugh recently as we were sitting at the dinner table listening to our children (ages 7 and 4) gleefully repeat lines to each other from “Despicable Me 2.” They were giggling up a storm and having a blast while leaving those who were not in the know a bit confused, just like I did with my friends in high school and college. The cycle of life continues. 

Many speculate that people, stereotypically men, quote movies because they have difficulty communicating. It has been suggested that quoting movies reflects a fear of intimacy and a retreat from expressing true feelings. Or perhaps quoting movie is a form of communication for those without true communication skills. Then there’s the ever-present hypothesis that men experience connection only through silence, so movies are special to us and invade our subconscious so that we repeat movie lines like Pavlovian dogs. We don’t realize that we are repeatedly saying “Bueller, Bueller” until it’s too late. 

But recent research paints a very different picture. It turns out that when people are watching movies, their brain wave patterns are effectively “in sync” with one another. And research suggests that being in sync in this fashion is actually a sign of good communication. For example, in an experimental study, brain scans were conducted on an experimenter who was delivering information and on experimental participants who were trying to understand what the experimenter was saying. Upon hearing information, people whose brain waves were “in sync” with the experimenter were better at understanding the information being communicated. Further, couples who demonstrate this type of brain syncopation are thought to have a “sixth sense” that creates feelings of closeness and intimacy. 

And this reflects my experience quoting movies and watching others do the same. There’s no quicker way to link up with someone than to take a shot at a movie quote they may know. Who knows how long it would take me to connect with someone through regular conversation? But if I’m talking numbers with someone and they inform me, “These go to eleven” from “Spinal Tap,” or tell me “Serrano’s got the disks” from “Midnight Run” when they receive something from me, then I’m pretty sure we’re on the same wavelength. 

We see a similar pattern in how people use musical preferences as a way of conveying personality style and values. One’s musical tastes reflect personality style, and conveying that taste can be a very effective method of communicating our personality. One study found that upon hearing a participant’s musical preference, another participant can form quite accurate perceptions of that person.

Further, musical preference conveys shared values between two people that can increase social attraction. This phenomenon was conveyed in Eddie Vedder’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame speech inducting R.E.M. in 2007, in which he described how Michael Stipe and Peter Buck bonded over discussing Patti Smith’s first two albums. Lesson? Tell me all you want about yourself, but if you tell me you like Patti Smith something positive and intangible gets conveyed.  

So if you use movie quotes like me, it’s highly likely you will alienate some people along the way. I do caution my fellow compulsive movie quoters to quote with care. But don’t feel like you have to give up on reciting your favorite lines. Rather than being evidence of poor communication, this second language can actually be another great way to connect with like-minded people. 

And my wife is learning my second language. Recently during an argument I inadvertently said, “Surely you can’t be serious.” And to my delight she replied, “I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley.”


Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Mike Friedman @DrMikeFriedman and EHE on Twitter @EHEintl.