How do you talk about what you can’t talk about?
How do you explain, or even refer to, something you’re not supposed to know? How do you ask someone else not to discuss such a thing? What do you do if they are not supposed to know the thing, but are referring to it anyway?
All Terran cultures that I’m aware of have taboos and secrets. Natives of the cultures will navigate them relatively smoothly1. One of the purposes of child-rearing, after all, is taboo acculturation.
That nausea you feel – that’s not an instinct; that’s a conditioned reflex. Your mother didn’t have to say to you, ‘Mustn’t eat your playmates, dear; that’s not nice,’ because you soaked it up from our whole culture – and so did I. Jokes about cannibals and missionaries, cartoons, fairy tales, horror stories, endless little things. But it has nothing to do with instinct.
—Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
But many subcultures also have their own particular prohibitions and references in addition to (or in place of) the dominant one. And they can be hard to explain, particularly if the subculture in question isn’t recognized as distinct and important.
The seed of this post is the question of how a net-savvy employee of Audi might have persuaded the company’s publicity department not to use their current logo for in-car wifi. Would it be possible to do so without explaining one of the aboveground2 internet’s great taboos, one of the huge mimetic leakages from the subterranean web where we keep our non-worksafe ideas and dark secrets? How far does “trust me, you don’t want to know” take one among curious people, and what do you do when that approach wears out?
And of course, not all taboo violations are unwitting. Knowing that there is one, and deliberately violating it (or complaining about its existence) is a genuine form of communication. If the subculture with the taboo is less powerful than the one violating it, the message is You don’t matter. And if the roles are reversed, it can be an act of rebellion.
Taboos and taboo violations will form a part of any meeting of two cultures, whether its human/alien or alien/alien with the human visitors serving as mere onlookers. Nor will all taboo violations be explicable or explained; not everyone is capable of, or comfortable with, detailing why certain things offend or upset them.
So it’s important to remember that humans and aliens will make one another uncomfortable, and they may never understand why. And subgroups of aliens will cross one another’s lines in ways that baffle human observers. Whether it’s deliberate or not, this will add tension and diminish cooperation. Taboo violation can be a real character motivation factory in alien-contact fiction: it can start wars, drive people into unlikely alliances, break up working partnerships, and give characters reasons to act against their own rational self-interest.
It just needs to be discussed carefully, which is to say, subtly or not at all. After all, we readers of fiction have our own taboos, including the one about not telling what you can show.
- I explicitly include people with Aspergers Syndrome here. Aspies have a far richer, more complex understanding of their native cultures than an alien, human or otherwise, would.
- I always think of the internet as being a bifurcated entity, one half above the ground of our shared standards of acceptability, one underneath it.