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.


  1. I am wracking my brain trying to think of examples of sf where this has been done particularly well. Possibly the middle part of Asimov's THE GODS THEMSELVES (the aliens there being gaseous) but I vaguely recall some references to body language (shifting of the gaseous form, etc.) There are the facial expressions of the Ashiyyurean's in Jack McDevitt's Alex Benedict novels. Are there good examples you can suggest?

  2. Jamie,
    I find myself wracking my brain as well. I do enjoy how Rajnar Vajra handles his aliens in his series of shorts about "Doctor Alien" (Analog magazine). I recall humanoid body language being handled well by Ursula K. LeGuin in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. The question certainly makes me want to put a lot of attention into gesture in my future stories.

  3. I just remember constantly feeling shivering cold as I read THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. ;-)

  4. Yes indeed, Jamie - I felt the same. It's my favorite book (to the extent that I wrote a paper on it!).

  5. David Brin's Uplift universe is highly diverse in it's species and their means of communication.

  6. Shandra, thanks for the comment! I've heard about the Uplift universe but haven't yet read it. I appreciate the recommendation.

  7. Since coming to Canada the first time to visit my sister in law's family and so on, I learned that you are supposed to look people in the eye when cheersing with wine glasses or whatever. total news to me, but it's kind of nice. and I'm spreading the word in Aus, so people are learning it there too :D

  8. Thanks for the comment, Trisha! That's an interesting observation, and one I didn't know about. Thanks for sharing!

  9. I've always thought body language was a fascinating part of characters -- and that goes double when there are tails and whiskers and fins involved! My weasel race actually borrowed a lot of their mannerisms from housecats, because I liked how clearly ear angle and motion can spell out how a cat is feeling.

    Also, thanks for your welcome on the Absolute Write forums, Juliette. It was a nice surprise in that user control panel thingie I just found!

  10. No problem, Heidi! Your weaselly folk sound interesting. I certainly enjoyed doing otters!

  11. In Germany, it's considered extremely rude not to look into the other person's eyes during a conversation. This is drummed into kids from a very early age on, e.g. "Look into aunt so-and-so's eyes when talking to her."

  12. Interesting, Cora. Thanks for the comment! It sounds similar to, if somewhat more severe than, the American philosophy of eye contact.

  13. You might consider this body language: two examples.
    1. In the highlands of New Guinea, a parasitologist greeted the chief of the village by extending his hand for a handshake, and was surprised to find the chief extending his hand to shake the scientist's testicles.
    2. In ancient Israel when a judge was hearing the case from a male, the judge would place his hand on the testicles of the male that was addressing him. The reason being that if the testimony was false, the judge's hand insured that all the man would be barren and would have no offspring, almost a death sentence in those days. And that is of course where testify and testimony are rooted.
    So if an alien reaches for your testicles you should not be alarmed. It only shows he or she knows more about your culture sand body language than you do this visiting alien.