Thursday, November 01, 2007

Civilized Behavior

The December issue of ASIMOV'S contains a Christmas story about alien ambassadors by Connie Willis, "All Seated on the Ground." The aliens land but show no sign of wanting to communicate. They don't respond to any of the overtures made by the committee of experts assigned to interact with them. Instead, they simply glare disapprovingly (or so it appears) at everything and everybody. The first breakthrough occurs on a field trip to a mall, where they hear recorded Christmas carols. At the words "all seated on the ground," they sit in unison. The narrator and her new friend, a choir director, experiment with dozens of songs to find out which ones affect the aliens' behavior. It turns out that the extraterrestrial visitors are responding to choral songs (not solos) with content that refers to signing together. They have been waiting for evidence that the people of Earth have the capacity to cooperate in harmony. Only when they find this evidence in our holiday music do they acknowledge us as capable of "civilized" behavior and deign to speak to us. In essence, communicating with the aliens depends on proper etiquette.

This story ties in with a discussion recently conducted on linguist and SF writer Suzette Haden Elgin's blog. The topic is the etiquette of asking and granting favors. Here's the link:

I urge you to read through the past week's posts and as many of the comments as you can. They bring up some fascinating ramifications. Is it polite to ask for a favor outright? If the “askee” has to refuse, should a reason be given? Is it rude to say “no” without a reason, or will offering an explanation be misheard as an invitation to negotiate? How do the etiquette rules of asking and granting favors depend on the degree of the relationship? A consensus emerged that in this area of human interaction, people tend to belong to either an “Ask” culture or a “Hint” culture (originally labeled “Guess”). “Hint” people perceive outright asking for some thing or action that might be inconvenient or difficult for the other person as rude. It's more polite, in their view, to frame the request for help indirectly, so that the other person won't be put in a position to have to say “no.” They would also find a blunt refusal rude. “Ask” people, on the other hand, often perceive “Hint” culture customs as confusing, time-wasting, and even manipulative. In Japan, I've read, it's rude to tell someone “no” outright. When Americans don't recognize a polite circumlocution (e.g., “that would be very difficult”) as a refusal but mistake it for an opening to negotiate, the potential exists for much misunderstanding and inadvertent giving of offense. I've also heard of societies in which you mustn't admire any of your host's possessions, because the host is then obligated as a matter of good manners to give you the object.

If such pitfalls exist in social interaction between members of the same human species, imagine what misunderstandings might lurk in wait for first-contact teams trying to establish friendly relations with aliens. As Miss Manners often points out, many etiquette customs are arbitrary. Simply showing consideration and “making other people comfortable” isn't an adequate principle to ensure that our manners will satisfy the local mores. We can't always know in advance what makes other people comfortable. Some cultures regard burping at the table as a compliment to the meal; we teach our children that it's crude. We might meet extraterrestrials even less forgiving than the stern etiquette sticklers in Connie Willis's story. For example, among the Venusians in Robert Heinlein's SPACE CADET, eating in public or talking bluntly about eating (except when a dire situation requires confronting the topic) is considered obscene. Imagine what the Venusians would think of the almost universal Earth custom of offering food and drink as an essential component of hospitality.

Maybe our first-contact teams should include not only linguists and xenobiologists, but cross-cultural etiquette experts.


  1. Anonymous1:47 PM EDT

    I'm reminded here of Anne McCaffrey's Acorna series, wherein that character's vegetarian race perceived a smile that showed one's teeth to be a hostile gesture because it was associated with meat-eating predators.

  2. This is one of the most intriguing topics for an SF writer!

    In some scenes, your protag may deliberately want to be rude, as an aggressive act designed to win a point.

    You don't always want to know the rules in order to follow them!

    But we often assume that customs of politeness are arbitrary, and its only a matter of learning the code of the people you're among. What if that's not true?

    Or what if it's not true for everyone else in the galaxy except Earth?

    What if there exists an objective, external "politeness imperative?"

    What if some customs are in fact superior to others?

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. Oh, yes, this is a major part of world-building. One of my favorite things about anything Sci-Fi is the alien cultures. Just like in real life, the humans in the story might try to accomadate an alien's sense of manners only to get it horribly wrong. I love playing with that.

  4. After posting this entry, I remembered a silly little short-short SF story I read somewhere, about Earth's first contact with a hermaphroditic species. The Terran ambassadors tried everything to communicate with the aliens, who ignored them. Eventually, one of the Terrans got fed up and told an alien to go f-- himself. Delighted at finally being greeted in the most minimally courteous terms (according to his-her-its culture), the alien responded cordially. :)