Tuesday, November 15, 2016


On January 20, 2017, Americans will experience the arrival of our new President, Donald Trump. On Saturday night, I experienced the movie, "Arrival," with one of my girlfriends. Even though this film is science fiction, its message rings true today. With the arrival of language, a host of new possibilities for our world emerged. Language is powerful and potent. It can be used as a weapon as we witnessed with all the name calling and mudslinging that took place during the 2016 Presidential election. But it can also be used as a tool to forge new connections. Its power belongs to the individual who wields it and it should be used wisely and with discretion.

Proper interpretation is essential. The same word can be interpreted in many different ways, depending on the recipient's frame of reference. For example, the word, "weapon," holds a negative connotation for most of us, but were you aware that there is a second definition of weapon? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, weapon can also mean "something (such as a skill, idea, or tool) that is used to win a contest or achieve something." 

The environment in which language unfolds plays an important role in how words are interpreted. Fear is a dangerous element when it enters our lexicon. And the rabble rousers know how to use words that invoke fear among the general populace in order to achieve their political agenda. During periods of uncertainty, fearful people often have a knee-jerk reaction to unsettling events and seek quick fix solutions. If they view another person or an entire race as dangerous or undesirable, they look for ways to shut these people down or prevent them from entering our country. The Great Wall of China was built in order to protect China against incursions by nomads from Inner Asia, but the wall was not impenetrable and today, walls cannot protect a nation from being invaded.

[Spoiler alerts] Even the shape of a language can influence one's interpretation. In "Arrival," the language of the aliens was circular, a series of endless loops unbound by the linearity of time. By contrast, the English language is linear. Circles represent connection and continuity. There is no beginning and no end because the continuous line of a circle represents a never ending cycle of generation and regeneration. I love how Louise chose to give her daughter a palindromic name, "Hannah." I have always loved the name, "Hannah" because of its symmetry. The movie, "Arrival" displays many patterns of symmetry and plays with the concept of time moving forward and backward. 

Language affects the way the brain experiences the world. The aliens come from a world where everything is connected and their message was one of connection. But in "Arrival," China chose to view the aliens as invaders instead of connectors. China is an insular society where people who are not Chinese are viewed as outsiders so it was not surprising that initially, China feared the aliens. The alien pods landed in twelve different spots on Earth because it was the only way to teach humans the importance of connection and collaboration. 

When the leader of China finally decided to withdraw from its military action against the aliens, the other countries followed suit and shared what they learned with the other sites. But Louise was the only person who was able to dissuade the Chinese leader from attacking the aliens. If you haven't seen the movie yet, I will not disclose how she was able to do that, but I will give you a hint. She used language. 

Why did the aliens choose Louise as their conduit? Unlike the other members of the scientific mission, she allowed herself to become vulnerable and transparent. Inside the alien pod, she was the first person to remove her oxygen mask so the aliens could see her face more clearly. Even her house is transparent with its stunning floor to ceiling windows overlooking the lake. Her home is my new dream house! 

If you want to form a connection with another individual, transparency is key. In my opinion, lack of transparency was one of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost the election. People who reveal information are seen as more trustworthy than people who decline to disclose information. With Hillary, there were many examples where she wasn't forthcoming, so she came across as a hider, which I think explains in part why she was viewed as untrustworthy by many Americans. For example, when Hillary had pneumonia, she chose not to address the issue and denied being unwell until a video emerged of her fainting. 

Donald Trump was also extremely private about some things, such as his tax returns. But he had a few key acts of proactive disclosure that perhaps made people forget about the situations where he declined to disclose information. What's more, the fact that people felt that he "told it like it is" -- he was forthcoming about beliefs that might garner him social stigma -- enhanced his reputation for trustworthiness. Saying risqué things can give you great bang for your buck when it comes to trust -- though of course, it also has its risks. 

Back to Louise. In addition to being transparent, Louise was also vulnerable, which turned out to be a strength. Being vulnerable with someone establishes intimacy and trust, creating a shared emotional experience to forge a bond. People typically feel open and warm toward someone who indicates she or he is vulnerable. Vulnerability can also humanize you, facilitate learning, and enable optimal problem solving. Louise's vulnerability helped her decode the language of the aliens and save our world. 

Here are my main takeaways from the movie:
  • Words can serve as a weapon or as a tool. Focus on your intent and ramifications of your actions. Are you more interested in attacking or understanding?
  • Before you automatically jump to conclusions, interpret someone else's words carefully. Consider the context of the other person's speech, the environment, his or her history, etc.
  • Examine your own emotions before you take action. Are you in a fearful state of mind? If so, then there's a greater chance that you will misinterpret someone else's words.
  • Be transparent. If you want to develop stronger relationships with others, being secretive about yourself will not score you any points.
  • Have the courage to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is not a weakness. Vulnerability is the courage to show up and be seen and heard even when you can't control the outcome.

​If you enjoy language, communication and linguistics, this is the movie for you. It is not your typical science fiction movie. While there are some special effects, the most powerful effect this movie will have on you is your mind. If you are willing to immerse yourself into the experience of this movie, you will view language and communication in a different light (hopefully in a more inclusive rather than derisive manner). 

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