Friday, January 28, 2011

Alien body language

How many of you have ever read anything like, "then the alien waved its tentacles at me"?

Last week I put up this link here, about body language. If you saw the original post, I put up a caveat about the fact that body language differs across cultures. Well, after thinking about it for a week I had to revisit the question.

This list goes through and gives very specific meanings for a lot of body language cues - in the head, eyes, upper body, and lower body. Here's a great example:
  • Failing to look someone in the eyes displays a lack of confidence.
  • Lowering the eyes is a sign of submission, fear or guilt.
  • Staring is interpreted as aggression and implies a person feels dominant and powerful.
  • Looking directly into another person’s eyes without staring signifies self-assurance.
This is what we, as Americans, typically interpret from eye contact body language. However, it is not at all universal. In many cultures, including Japan, looking into the eyes directly is interpreted as a similar message to staring. Failing to look someone in the eyes is a sign of respect. Note that it can be interpreted as submission, but submission with none of the negative connotations you see in the American association of submission with fear or guilt.

We are taught these things through both immersive experience and instruction when we are very young. Some kinds of gestures can be interpreted as specific, intentional messages while others are more subtle and sent subconsciously.

So, as to the question of alien body language, how should we approach it?

First, the approach to alien body language will depend on whether you are treating your aliens as strange and incomprehensible outsiders, or as friends, or from the insider's point of view. You'll have to do less work if you're going the "strange and incomprehensible outsiders" route, but I would still encourage you to think through a few things.
  1. Consider the alien's physiology. What are the regions of the body which can most easily be employed for body language, through motions of various sorts?
  2. Once you've identified those body regions, ask how those motions can be systematized. What kind of motions would be considered specific messages, deliberately sent? What kind would be more subconscious? A human watching body language on the part of the alien might be better at interpreting subconscious cues than specific messages, because of the way specific messages are typically taught.
Now, if you're going with the aliens as friends, or taking the insider's route, it's important to go into more depth. Unless you're designing an alien with an entirely different philosophy of communication, you'll find that communication travels through multiple channels (verbal and physical) and is highly redundant. If you look at descriptions of human interaction, you'll find that the interpretation of body language is very important. If you don't pursue the question of body language for your aliens, you'll be missing out on a great opportunity, and people may indeed miss it.

As you write the story, look for places where a human in the same situation might make a gesture of one kind or another. Consider whether the message your alien is sending is one that is common or important enough to warrant a specific-message type gesture. If so, consider how that message might be delivered. When you are using an alien that resembles an earth creature, particularly an earth mammal, it's good to go with familiar gestures that fit the physiological type (particularly for the subconscious ones). But be creative! And be creative especially with the iconic, specific-message gestures, because those are the ones that depend most completely on culture and instruction. Remember, for example, that beckoning (which seems at first glance to be a highly universal signal) is executed very differently in the West and Japan, so much so that if you are a Westerner you may think you're being shooed away. And this with precisely the same physiology.

Think about the body language system. Integrate physiology with culturally accepted messages. Think through how those would be expressed, and then think through how that code will be interpreted by a human outsider.

You could come up with some really interesting results.