Cross-Cultural Communication in Four, Easy Words: Don’t Mess With Texas

Right now, the good ol’ US of A is struggling with cross-cultural communication. America is having issues understanding and communicating with the Russians as optimists and pessimists so often do. They’re struggling to make sense of the behavior of the honor cultures of the Middle East. And red and blue states have no idea how to work out their differences and take productive action. And yet, the irony is that the solution to all these problems lies in four simple words: Don’t Mess With Texas.

Outside of Texas, this phrase became famous when George W. Bush made it one of his signature catchphrases when campaigning for the Presidency of the United States. Will Ferrell then made it even more famous when he made it a core part of his impression of George W. Bush. However, within Texas, Don’t Mess With Texas has another meaning; it means don’t litter. Check out this ad from 1987 featuring Randy White and Ed “Too Tall” Jones two players for the Dallas Cowboys.

Yep! For the last thirty years, the phrase Don’t Mess With Texas has been used to combat littering on Texas highways. Why? Because it works.

You see littering is a choice like any other. You’re driving along the highway and you’ve got some old food wrappers or an empty drink cup sitting in your car with you. What do you do?

Option A: Keep it in your car where it’s getting in your way and patiently wait until you get to a trash can.

Option B: Chuck that trash out the window.

Well, which of these two options you pick, depends on your feeeeeeelings about these two choices. If you’re this chick, then you’re almost certainly picking option A.

She CARES about the planet, man! And the Earth is our mother.

But what if you’re this guy?

Well, it was pretty clear to the Texas Department of Transportation that their littering problem overwhelmingly came from one demographic: Bubbas in pickup trucks. That’s Texas good ole boys aged 18–35. And so, it hired Mike Blair and Tim McClure to come up with a campaign. They got inside the heads of the people they were trying to reach and come up with a simple slogan that would change their feeeeeeelings about littering. They realized that the key was tapping into Texas Pride.

The campaign was so effective that between 1986 and 1990 it reduced littering on Texas Highways by 72% saving the state huge amounts of money AND helping the environment. Mike Blair and Tim McClure didn’t change the choice. They got in the heads of the people they were trying to reach to change how they felt about the choice. As McClure put it, before the Bubbas had felt it was their “God-given right” to litter. Littering was an act of defiance.

The slogan reframed it. Now, NOT littering was an act of Texas Pride. And Texas Pride won out 72% of the time.

From a practical standpoint, there’s no difference between “Don’t Mess With Texas” and “The Earth is Our Mother Treat Her With Respect.” And yet, we feeeeeeel so strongly about these two different slogans that rather than focusing on what practically works, we want it said in OUR way. It becomes about tribe.

Mike Blair and Tim McClure ran into this problem with the Texas Department of Transportation when they pitched the slogan. One of the blue-haired old ladies on the board asked if they could change the slogan to “Please, Don’t Mess With Texas.” To which McClure responded “No ma’am, you cannot use the line if you put please in front of it.”

Cross-cultural communication, bipartisanship and interfaith dialogue are pretty straightforward. You have to take your message and be willing to wrap it in the values and beliefs of the people you’re trying to reach. But that means you can’t have it your way. Sorry. If you want your red belt in Mixed Mental Arts, you’re going to have to get used to learning that sometimes you’re not the Burger King.

Originally published at on July 16, 2017.