Note: With the recent premiere of the newest Star Trek television series, Star Trek: Discovery, I thought it apropos to share this piece I wrote some time ago about communication, inspired by the very same science fiction franchise.
Dear reader, in an episode of the popular science fiction show Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard is trapped on a desolate planet with the Captain of a newly discovered race called the Tamarians. For reasons unknown, the universal translator can seem to make no sense of the being’s language. He keeps repeating, “Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra!” seemingly indicating that he is “Darmok,” Picard is “Jalad,” and the planet is “Tanagra.” When it becomes obvious that Picard doesn’t understand, the alien shakes his head sadly. “Shaka, when the walls fell.”
Confused, frustrated and cut off from his ship and its fantastic resources, Picard and “Darmok” must somehow find a way to communicate in order to survive. After some time, Picard begins to realize the truth: Darmok’s species communicates entirely in metaphor – that is, they use examples from their own history and mythology to describe common concepts. It appeared that Darmok and Jalad were two warriors who met on an island called Tanagra and had to cooperate to defeat a dangerous beast dwelling there, becoming friends in the process. The Tamarian Captain was attempting to recreate this event between himself and Picard on this planet, hoping that their shared adversity would forge a friendship where words failed. As they try and survive the night, Picard recounts for the alien Captain the epic of Gilgamesh, a human story that parallels the story of Darmok and Jalad rather closely. Despite the lack of a shared language, the spirit of the tale is easy to understand, and a friendship is born.
This episode is one of the most beautifully written allegories of the challenges we face in trying to forge bonds between people of different languages, beliefs and cultures that I have ever personally experienced.
The reason I’m tripping the geek fantastic today my dear and long suffering reader is that I thought this was the ideal jumping off point to discuss communication. Whenever there is conflict between people, particularly cultural or ideological conflict, we often hear the lament: “We just have nothing in common!” Not a great foundation on which to build understanding is it?
This of course, is utter piffle. As Captain Picard realized, despite their inability to communicate at first, he and his companion had many things in common, including the ability – even the need – to tell stories. He used this storytelling ability to build the beginnings of trust. He focused on the one thing both had in common as a foundation for future friendship.
Back here on planet Earth, we face many challenges to successful communication and cooperation: language barriers, cultural differences and even religious and ideological disagreements combine to make life difficult for all involved. We rail against the heathens / infidels / enemies / etc. ad nauseam for not being “like us,” and they in turn do the same. Not only do we focus on our differences, but we deny the very existence of any similarities.
Successful communication must be built on a common frame of reference to be successful. The reason Captain Picard and “Darmok” struggled was because Picard had no knowledge of the other Captain’s mythology or history to use as a reference point. In the episode they explained it neatly using Shakespeare: “Juliet on her balcony” could be used to describe a romantic situation, but the reference is meaningless if the listener does not know who Juliet is, or why she was on the balcony in the first place.
It sometimes appears that we also have no common frames of reference, particularly when language fails. However as I said, this is nonsense. There is no group of humans on Earth, no matter how primitive or advanced, that do not understand the concepts of anger, fear, amusement, love, hate, joy and pain. Every culture understands the meaning of tears, laughter… or a warm smile and an open, outstretched hand. It is upon these simple but universal gestures that we need to focus, even when we have a common language. Those small gestures are the foundation upon which greater understanding and tolerance can be built. In the end, we must focus on our shared humanity.
Being the clever and perspicacious beings that you are, you know that a smile can transcend even the most implacable cultural or language barriers. Laughter can bridge the gap between people who otherwise would be enemies. Love and compassion can cross ethnic, political and even ideological boundaries.
Let me finish this by relating one last piece of wisdom from the Star Trek episode I referenced earlier. It’s a phrase used by the alien Captain to signify a gift or offering: “Temba, his arms wide.”
That I think, says it better than I ever could. No translation needed.