Memes are a more modern take on proverbs, idioms and sayings. using a meme in casual conversation is no different from saying something at work like:
- Can't have your cake and eat it too
- He's an Einstein
- When in Rome...
- What's good for the goose...
Not everyone knows every saying either.
Should you learn proverbs to communicate at work? It's not a requirement, but it definitely contributes to your ability to communicate efficiently.
However, memes originate from a place that has a much faster lifecycle on the spread of information. Before the internet, for something to get widespread usage enough that it becomes common parlance, it took some time, during which time the saying would also spread to most people, if not everyone. But the spread of memes is mostly online, and different communities spread them around at different rates.
You're at a bit of a disadvantage here as you don't frequent those communities. On a generational meme scale, I am inbetween what I infer you and your colleagues to be. I know a fair amount of memes, but most definitely not all of them. For reference, I frequent Reddit, but not many other online communities either. Twitch memes are consistently foreign to me and unless they bleed into Reddit's common parlance, I don't even know of their existence.
I don't know the source for every meme either, but I learn them just like I learned my proverbs and sayings: usage and context. Sometimes, I'll be interested enough to look it up. Sometimes I don't care and I'll either pick it up as I go, or not.
One thing to keep in mind here is that not everyone who uses memes knows their origin either. They just learn to use them based on their everyday experiences.
I would suggest you at least keep an open mind to this (to you) new form of communication, but take it as it comes.
Just last week, I joined a video call and someone asked me where to find something and a bunch of people just all replied "BASED!" non-stop and then someone replied with "SLASH F F" and then everyone left. How do you even reply to that?
- "Based" is used to convey that you agree with what was said, or that it applies to you too. It's effectively as saying "same here".
/ff is a command to forfait a game. It's a way to communicate the end of a conversation/activity.
To translate what happened, everyone communicated that they didn't know the answer either, and then someone announced the end of the conversation. But more importantly, I didn't know much of this before reading your question either.
- I've heard "based" before but never knew what it meant, and I hadn't yet bothered to find out. It took me all of 10 seconds to find the answer on google.
- If you read the edit history, I was wrong about /ff. Shows how much I know, but that's sort of the point: not everyone can know the exact meaning, but you can make reasonable inferences and learn via trial and error and contextual clues.
How do you even reply to that?
There's a few ways to approach this, and the general vibe of the group really matters here.
You could respond the way you normally would, and people will learn over time that you are not part of the meme-ing group. However, as you've established, this can lead to some non-malevolent social exclusion.
You could ask for clarification, preferably approaching someone after the meeting instead of halting the actual conversation. While it may be awkward in the beginning, if you are willing to learn and participate, the future benefits outweigh the initial awkwardness.
You could lean into being "the old guy" and specifically respond about not getting it (in a casual, joking matter). Bonus points for Grandpa-Simpson-style rants about "in my day...". Depending on how inclusive the team spirit is, this could very much be welcomed as a similar way of being funny.
Similarly, you could take the anti-joke route, and always respond to things being said at face value. This can be done antagonistically (to specifically stifle the meme-heavy conversation - this is not a kind option at all and will cause social blowback), or comically (making yourself the butt of an "old man" joke).
While memes are something new to you, consider that when your generation first entered the workforce, you also injected some modernism that the "old folks" in that day weren't up to speed with. You are now in their position, so you can learn from what they did. Did they resist change? How did that turn out for them? Did them embrace change? How did that turn out? And so on.