Friday, January 17, 2014

Misunderstandings in Worldbuilding - a "Dive into Worldbuilding!" Hangout Report with VIDEO

I was joined for this discussion by Glenda Pfeiffer, Jaleh Dragich, and Reggie Lutz. Great to have you, and thanks to everyone who watched online!

We began the discussion by talking about the question "What is a misunderstanding?" I wanted to make sure that we knew the boundaries of what we were talking about. In particular, misunderstandings are not "lack of understanding," as when two people, or a human and an alien, or two aliens, etc. do not share a common language and thus cannot communicate effectively. Very commonly when we think of misunderstandings, we think of disagreements of manners and politeness, like the episode of Star Trek where the crew met diplomatically with another group that required perfect greeting manners and pronunciation or the meeting would fall through. There is a danger in that definition that misunderstandings will be underestimated in their importance, and that the group who might become offended can be perceived as hoity-toity, stuck in a not-so-intelligent mindset, etc. Misunderstandings can often be far more important despite earnest good will on the part of both sides.

Jaleh mentioned an episode of "Firefly" where Mal accidentally got married. This was a case where two groups of humans with different kinds of customs got together, and he agreed to engage in activity that he believed had no ceremonial significance, but it turned out he had participated in locally binding marriage rites. There seemed to be possibly a degree of entrapment involved, but the gap in understanding was certainly there! There was a somewhat similar episode of Star Trek: Voyager in which Trip unknowingly engaged in physically binding activity with an alien and was impregnated.

We all agreed that we found it most interesting when misunderstandings were used to propel the plot of a story. Reggie said that often we hang our hat on manners when there are lots of other ways to be misunderstood. She gave the example of her bird, who was making unhappy-sounding noises that she explained to us were really sounds of the bird being thrilled. She also told us that the bird likes to put its head in her mouth, which she finds pretty gross, but which is an expression of affection among birds (mouthing the head).

I have always been frustrated with situations in film and TV where I figure all people had to do was talk to each other and the problem will be solved. This may in part be due to the fact that I have little trouble being frank, and am not often in situations where there are high social costs for speech. Reggie mentioned Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest as a wonderful example of plot-driving misunderstanding within our own culture.

Jaleh noted that there were many plot-driving misunderstandings in Babylon 5.

I told the story of a cultural misunderstanding between myself and my husband when we met. The two of us were studying in Japan, and thus surrounded by a foreign language and culture. The result was that we overestimated the extent of our cultural similarities (being an American and an Australian). One specific thing we misunderstood was the cultural significance of swearing. In my experience, swearing was used for aggression and forcefulness, while in his, swearing was added for flavor (like pepper on a pizza!). Before we realized we needed to discuss it, this was something that kept us from becoming close, because I would be overly hurt when he wanted to speak colorfully!

Glenda noted that different cultures have different rules of physical personal distance. Is coming close aggression or friendly behavior? Is backing off standoffish, or polite? The rules of distance are not confined to physical position either. Jaleh mentioned that people can be crammed together on a subway train but feeling safe unless someone decides to make eye contact. Glenda followed up on that, noting that eye contact rules can be very different in cultures and can cause serious problems in classrooms where a teacher equates attention with eye contact. Jaleh also mentioned the question of whether, when meeting new people, it is more appropriate to be introduced by a third party or to introduce oneself. Breaking rules like these can lead not only to offense but potentially to fear of harm.

I shared the story of a colleague of my husband's who was startled during a summer meeting with Japanese clients when all the clients became flustered suddenly. It turned out that this colleague had placed one of the clients' business cards beside his water glass, and it had started absorbing condensation from the glass. When a business card is metaphorically associated with a person's face, this can be rather alarming. This is also why, in Japan, you take someone's business card with two hands, and never stuff it in your back pocket.

Jaleh insightfully pointed out that often misunderstandings arise when you don't know another person's motivation for their behavior, particularly when you don't know how to ask a question about it.

Reggie mentioned the situation when older couples, or members of the same family, will start sniping with each other and give outsiders the sense that they hate each other, when really it's just a joking exchange of insults. If we don't understand a group's expression of intimacy, and we overhear a conversation without understanding the background, we can draw the wrong conclusion quite easily.

I noted that in Brown and Levinson's research on Politeness they drew a distinction between "negative" politeness, defined as politeness behavior that deliberately references the autonomy of the person one is talking to, and one's own lack of desire to invade that autonomy; and "positive" politeness, defined as behavior that references an intimate relationship and a sense of closeness. Typically we tend to think of politeness in this negative sense, with our uses of please, thank you, etc. However, aligning ourselves with our friends in their social groups often involves positive politeness. The distinction between the two is definitely a possible source of misunderstanding. There is at least one culture in the world where to say "thank you" to a family member is insulting, because it is considered to be a distancing act that denies the importance of the intimacy relationship.

Reggie talked about her experience as a waitress, because one of the things waitstaff often do is use extreme politeness to create boundaries between them and their customers. She speculated that because we are accustomed to being served food in the home by parents or intimates that a degree of intimacy can be subconsciously expected by the people at the table. Boundary-crossing is common. Depending on the person, it might be welcome or unwelcome.

Another tricky question for misunderstanding is the borderline between politeness and dishonesty. My husband once entertained his friends (or so he thought) with a story about how he'd ridden a kangaroo to school. It went on too long because, he realized, they weren't recognizing that he was kidding. When he brought their attention to the joke they asked, "You were lying to us?" It's a funny story, but when relationships are at stake, it might not be.

Glenda mentioned that misunderstandings are common in negotiations, especially when trying to hash out middle ground. What exactly does "We'll consider that" mean? Is it positive or negative? There is also the problem of taking an exaggerated position as a prelude to more extensive bargaining, but being misinterpreted by someone who doesn't expect bargaining to be part of the interaction.

In a social setting, say one where you don't like the food, do you say you don't like it? Do you say some kind of white lie about not liking it? What are the social expectations for finishing what is on your plate vs. serving more food or drink? In Japan, if your beer glass is less than full, others will pour it full again, so if you want to stop drinking you need to leave it full rather than finishing it. This can cause trouble as it's a great way to get way too drunk! If someone makes you an offer, are you expected to refuse it? How many times? What if you really want help with your luggage but feel obliged to accept only on the third offer... and then the person takes your word for it after two refusals?

There are a lot of missed opportunities for misunderstandings in film and in books. I think specifically about James Cameron's Avatar, where they had a delightful exploration of the meaning of the alien phrase "I see you" but where no substantial cultural or linguistic understandings kept the plot from being anything but full speed ahead. These are real obstacles, and they can add so much to your story!

Another type of misunderstanding, that isn't typically classed as a misunderstanding, but I believe is one everyone should be paying attention to, is the privilege misunderstanding. What I mean by this is that in any given society, there will be social groups with privilege (of various types) and social groups without, in all kinds of interesting intersectional combinations. Typically the group with privilege does not experience the same social patterns of discrimination as the non-privileged group, and so those patterns of discrimination are functionally invisible to them. Thus, the significance of any single behavior is going to be interpreted drastically differently by groups who are privy to the patterns of discrimination and those to whom they are invisible.

One good example of this has been brought to my attention by a number of friends. It is the "black guy dies (because he got close to the white woman, or to save the white guy)" pattern in films. There are similar patterns for gay characters which don't allow them to pursue their own goals, only to support the straight characters and to sacrifice so that the straight characters can achieve what they need to. I will admit that I wasn't aware of these patterns because I hadn't been paying close enough attention. On the other hand, I have been aware of discrimination against women, like objectification, damseling, not letting the female character have any goals that aren't "supporting her man" etc. Typically a person will notice discrimination patterns if it they are highly relevant to them, if they are unusually observant, or if they have them brought to their attention. Without this awareness, however, you get the typical accusations of "you're so sensitive" "you're overreacting" "that's not happening" etc. These are misunderstandings, but of a very critical, and very volatile variety.

I would like to see more examples of privilege situations portrayed in fiction. I challenged the discussants to come up with examples, and Jaleh provided a great one, from Mercedes Lackey's DragonJousters series. The main character, after escaping serfdom and farm life, returns to his people, the Altans. His very different life history causes power and privilege distinctions in the Altan society to stand out to him, such as the power struggles between the priesthood and the Magi. Something's not right, and nobody notices. In this case, an outsider is able to see things differently. People in the non-privileged position also see things that others don't, but face different struggles in bringing them to the attention of others, and trying to make changes. I have spent a lot of time setting up a complex set of privilege relationships in my Varin world. Each caste is very self-centered (naturally) and has all kinds of strange ideas about the others - particularly those in the lower layers. Blindest of all, however, are the nobles, for whom it is quite easy to ignore the constant complexities and conflicts that the caste system sets up for everyone else.

There is plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding to become catastrophic. Glenda agreed that a sense of insult can lead to big effects. Jaleh mentioned conflicts of parenting style which can blow up spectacularly.

Misunderstandings can occur at many different social levels - family, relationship, diplomatic, international, and between coexisting social groups in a single society. A single individual's actions can be misunderstood if the people observing her do not have a sense of the reasons behind her behavior (Reggie mentioned a particular example of a character from her work whose love makes her fear, leading her to become rigid and critical).

Reggie mentioned also how technology errors can have devastating effects, as in This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow, when a bird is misunderstood to be a missile and leads to WWIII. I mentioned the Mars mission that failed because the two groups were using different units of measurement.

Thanks again to everyone who attended! I really enjoyed this topic. Join us at 4pm PST next week for a discussion with Myke Cole, author of Control Point, Fortress Frontier, and Breach Zone.


  1. I love misunderstandings - great way to keep a story from just clearing up because everyone speaks honestly and candidly. The real world is full of assumptions and stereotypes and guesstimates - why should fictional worlds be any different?

    Thanks for posting, and loved the examples. That episode, Our Mrs. Reynolds, is one of our favorites of Firefly.


    1. Thank you, Alicia! I clearly have some catching up to do on my Firefly and Babylon 5...

  2. I just remembered that I didn't mention that the biggest instance of misunderstanding of all from Babylon 5 is what set up the reason for Babylon 5 to exist in the first place.

    When the Humans encountered the Minbari for the first time, Humans were exploring the edge of their territory even after being warned by the Centauri that "if you do not bother them, they will not bother you." A Minbari vessel carrying the members of the Grey Council--the Minbari leadership--was enroute to Z'ha'dum to investigate whether agents of the Shadows were stirring again after a thousand years. The two ships spotted each other. The Minbari were curious about the younger race, knowing little about them, and their scanners were so powerful, they temporarily disabled many ship systems on the Earth vessel. Also Minbari custom says that to show respect, you approach another ship with gun ports open to show that you are facing them with open hands, no deception. To Humans, this is a hostile action indicating that they are soon expecting to fire those weapons. When combined with the effect of the scanners, the Human captain panicked and fired on the Minbari vessel, disabling it enough to stop the scanners which allowed the Earth vessel to start the jump engines and get away. The Minbari saw this as an unprovoked attack ("Why would they shoot us? We approached honestly."), and since the damage caused the death of their leader Dukat, they called holy war down on the humans out of rage and grief, thus starting the Earth-Minbari War.

    And the misunderstandings didn't stop there. One of the attempts to stop the war failed because of a third party misunderstanding. The Humans made contact with a Narn who had a contact with a Minbari official. So they set up a meeting to find out how they could sort things out. But the Centauri Ambassador thought the meeting was just about the Humans gaining weapons from the Narn people, a hated enemy of the Centauri. To prevent a Human-Narn alliance, a Centauri ship made a stealth strike on the meeting, which ended up killing the Minbari representative, further kicking up the hostilities since the Humans and the Minbari each blamed the other for the attack. Finally, in the end, the Grey Council made an important discovery about the Humans right before they were about to wipe them out which prompts them to surrender to the Humans though without telling them why. To prevent such a near tragedy again, the two races work together to build the Babylon Station so that all races may have a neutral place to work out their differences. If you ever want to read/watch the backstory, check out In the Beginning. It was a made-for-tv movie, then novelized. Misunderstandings drive the plot in macro and micro levels all over the place in that. I love it, though since it is framed as a story being told to others many years later, there are some minor spoilers. But it's still well worth it for seeing how misunderstandings can be used awesomely in all kinds of ways.

    1. Wow, that' s great, Jaleh. Thanks for going into such detail! I can see why the show has such a great reputation. I'll have to watch it at some point.