Hello Friend. Welcome to Earth.
This planet is a weird place. Probably one of the weirdest in the entire galaxy (though don’t tell the inhabitants of Alpha Centuri I said that, as they have won “The Weirdest Planet Award” for the last millenia and they get uppity about that type of thing… but Earth didn’t enter that award… it most certainly would have won).
The main thing that makes Earth a weird place is its dominant race: human beings.
Humans are particularly weird because of their communication patterns. Unlike in other worlds, where people say honestly what they think and clearly say what they mean, human beings instead communicate through a strange system of implications, subtext and white lies.
Take this common interaction:
Human 1: Hello, how are you?
Human 2: I’m good. How are you?
Human 1: Good. Everything is fine.
As an alien, it’s understandable if this exchange seems extremely unusual. It seems to be both filled with wonderful news and a complete lack of interest in the other person.
Any reasonable life form might see a more reasonable interaction to be:
Person 1: Hello. You are a person who I know. How are you in you life currently?
Person 2: You are a person who I know also. I’m doing good in life. Which is wonderful! It is so pleasing that everything is good for me right now, as often there are difficulties in life.
Person 1: That’s great news! I am pleased that things are good for you. I am also a little envious, because I have been having a difficult day and I am feeling unwell.
Person 2: Your envy is understandable. Would you like to talk about your difficulties? Or should we talk about the good things in life to help lift your mood? Or perhaps talk about another topic entirely? Or not talk at all?
Person 1: I am interested in talking about the new technology machine I’ve just bought. Would you be interested in talking about that?
Person 2: Yes, let’s talk about that.
How can it be that human beings communicate so little in such an important interaction as the beginning of a conversation?
The answer: Humans are very poor communicators. They communicate very little.
The problem with human communication is that it is based on what is known as “subtext” – the real “meaning” (if you want to call it that) of a conversation is made in what is not said.
Let’s look at that human interaction again:
Human 1: Hello, how are you? (Meaning: I am a human and you are a human. I am not a threat to you.)
Human 2: I’m good. How are you? (Meaning: I am a human and you are a human. I recognize that you are not a threat to me. I am not a threat to you either.)
Human 1: Good. Everything is fine. (Meaning: We are agreed. We are humans and we are not a threat to each other.)
As you can see, human beings are primarily concerned with whether or not you are a threat to them. They are, despite some technological developments, an extremely primitive race.
In this way, you can think of human “small talk” (which is what they call this type of interaction) in a similar way to Earth dogs.
A dog interaction may go:
Dog 1: <Wags tail> (Meaning: I am a dog and you may or may not be a dog. I am not a threat to you.)
Dog 2: <Wags tail and sniffs other dog’s bottom> (Meaning: I am a dog and you may or may not be a dog. I am not a threat to you and I will now sniff you to determine if you are a dog.)
Dog 3: <Sniffs other dog’s bottom> (Meaning: I will also sniff you to determine if you are a dog.)
When you first arrived to Earth, you might have seen dog interactions and considered them to be just as primitive as human interactions.
However, thanks to our research, we can now reveal that there is much more going on in a dog’s first interaction.
In this primary interaction, dogs actually communicate far more information than most humans manage in an entire conversation. In this way, dogs are far more sophisticated than many of us gave credit to.
During the sniffing of each other’s bottoms, dogs communicate aspects such as:
- Their health and reproductive status.
- Social hierarchies.
- Emotions and mood.
- The unique identity of the dog.
Humans are in no way as sophisticated as dogs in this regard. Instead of using smell, humans rely on so called “social cues.”
Social cues are an extremely flawed system of communication. They are imprecise, highly specific to both the macro culture (e.g. country) and micro culture (e.g. family) that the human belongs to, and very open to misinterpretation.
An example of a human social cue is crossing your arms (arms are the upper appendages of a human, they are used for everything from eating food to scratching the human’s bottom).
Some interpretations of crossed arms might be:
- The human is angry or displeased with the other human they are talking to. Perhaps because they are hungry and the other human ate the last prawn cracker.
- The human is cold and trying to raise their body temperature. This is a more socially acceptable method than setting yourself on fire.
- The human has stiff shoulders and is stretching the muscles of their arm. Humans are prone to muscle stiffness as they are often anxious, probably due to their confusing communication protocols.
- The human is bored and wishes to end the social interaction. It is the height of bad manners to say “I am bored. Goodbye.” so instead humans will sit in discomfort for hours rather than offending anyone.
- The human has merely developed the passive habit of crossing their arms when speaking or listening. Humans often develop meaningless habits that mimic their social cues… which is extremely confusing.
How can you tell which of these many interpretations is true?
Answer: You can’t.
If you were to ask the person outright for the meaning of their “social cue”, the most likely outcome is that they will become offended.
Why do humans get offended when we ask for clarification about the social cues they are sending? Surely, if their entire communication protocol is based on sending and receiving social cues, they should be happy to clarify a particular cue’s meaning?
The problem is that humans are usually unaware of their own social cues. They happen on the “subconscious level” (which means that they don’t know they are communicating).
If you were to ask a human why they were crossing their arms, they are likely to be shocked. They probably didn’t even notice they were crossing their arms.
Because human communication happens on this subconscious level, humans are often scandalised to realise that they may be communicating something that they hadn’t consciously intended.
DO NOT SCARE HUMANS BY DRAWING ATTENTION TO THEIR SUBCONSCIOUS SOCIAL CUES
This is a surefire way to “break” their fragile communication protocols.
How can we, as caring and compassionate aliens, understand these social cues if we are not allowed to talk about them?
Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to gain understanding of social cues.
While we can learn some cues (such as learning supposed “body language”), these are of limited usefulness in the general human population.
Social cues vary greatly between social groups. A person from the country Gambia will have a very different set of social protocols and cues than someone from Alaska, USA. Even two families living next door to each other may have different social cues.
As a result, we aliens just need to muddle through. This is what human beings do.
Interacting with human beings is a lesson in “letting go” and being adaptable. As much as we aliens rely on clarity, on Earth this clarity is hard to achieve.
Just remember this…
Most of human communication is miscommunication.
Humans communicate very little in any one interaction. This is because most of the interaction is spent trying to correct the mistakes of the human’s primitive communication protocols.
If you feel that you don’t understand what is going on in a particular human communication, don’t worry. It’s likely that the humans also don’t understand what is fully going on.
And you are one step ahead because you recognise your own ignorance.