Friday, November 25, 2016

Lost in translation

How do we know whether those with whom we are dealing have hostile intentions? How do we establish communication with them? How do we develop trust? The new science fiction movie Arrival addresses these common problems in conflict resolution.

Confronted by forces that appear new and dangerous, our human instincts urge us to fight or flight. Those instincts may also lead us to interpret ambiguous gestures in a threatening way. We face these challenges even when we are dealing with people we know who are speaking our language. Imagine being confronted by an alien race that communicates with symbols we have no key to interpret. The movie nicely illustrates the linguistic complexities involved in asking a simple question like, "What is your purpose here?" It also shows what can happen when communication is misinterpreted. Did the aliens really use a word meaning "weapon"? Or did they mean "tool"? A lot rides on getting the right answer to this question.

The film attempts to make some larger points about language, arguing that the language we speak can actually affect the way we think. The idea that learning a new language might also awaken some new abilities in ourselves takes this point to a more magical level. But sticking to the known and  familiar, we know, when we try to resolve conflicts across cultures, that different cultural norms and habits can affect the way people perceive a problem. The way people of different backgrounds express a problem also affects the ways they approach solving it.

Not only does this film show just how difficult it can be to establish communication, it also preaches the virtues of collaboration over competition. The problem presented by this story can only be solved by twelve different nations working together and sharing information. Once these groups start distrusting one another and withholding information, they risk war. So it's a film that works both on the micro level of establishing communications between two parties who have difficulty understanding each other, and on the macro level of building world peace.

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