Darmok was a Star Trek The Next Generation episode where the Enterprise goes on a mission to establish communications between the Federation and an alien race called the Tamarians after all previous attempts to establish talks had failed. Above the planet El-Adrel IV the Enterprise rendezvoused with the Tamarian vessel captained by Dathon, played by the late Paul Winfield. Captain Picard followed standard protocol to establish communication, but although the universal translator had no problem converting the Tamarian language, it sounded like nonsense. I won’t bore you with all the details from the show, but in a desperate attempt to establish communications, Captain Dathon put his life on the line and lost it. Thankfully, his sacrifice was not in vain.
The communication problem stemmed from the fact that the Tamarian’s language was built on a series of allusions and metaphors. While anybody else would point to something being unsuccessful and use the single word “failure” to describe it, a Tamarian would point and say “Shaka when the walls fell”. Unless somebody knew the point of reference the Tamarian phrase would be meaningless, hence the problem with establishing communication.
Captain Dathon approached the communication problem with the Enterprise with a plan. He knew the only way his people could establish communications with the Federation was if the two parties could share an experience that would be a reference for their mutual understanding. Prior to the encounter with the Enterprise the Tamarian phrase for cooperation was “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”. At the end of the episode, the new phrase for cooperation for the Tamarians was “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.” No doubt, the phrase was one of the first of a new series of communications specific to the Federation and the Tamarians.
When I first saw this episode I thought it strange that people would communicate by metaphor. I thought that such a form of communication would be too cumbersome to relay an idea or a message. It’s been years since I saw the episode or gave it much thought, until I actually used a metaphor to relay a message to my significant other. The two of us were engaged in a family conversation about our mother’s house. My brothers and sisters were home for our mother’s funeral, and while sitting on the front porch of our homestead my family remarked at all the changes in our neighborhood. The giant tree that stood in front of a neighbor’s house was cut down by the city not too long ago and somebody noted it missing. Before anybody else could say anything I looked at the misses and said, “Rita’s when the squirrel fell.” She immediately bust out laughing and I followed suit. The family looked at us like we had lost our mind. What could have possibly been so funny about such an innocuous statement?
We tried to explain what happened that day the tree was cut down. The family followed the story. We explained in detail what the tree being cut down had to do with a squirrel and my family still couldn’t appreciate the reference. We explained how the story related to our neighbor’s daughter Rita. They just scratched their heads. We explained the Star Trek connection and the reference to the Darmok episode. But without the experience of being there that day the city workers played lumberjacks, plus the Star Trek reference, no one could really appreciate the words. In order to give them a better comprehension, we would have to sit them down and watch the Darmok episode together. And even then something would be missing. To get an even better understanding, we would have to sit patiently and wait until some event manifested itself that would give us an opportunity to apply a variation of the Tamarian phraseology that we could all share.
Sharing experiences should lead to a better understanding between people. It would lead to better communication between people with totally different backgrounds. Shared experiences should bring people closer, except when people’s differences are just too profound to overcome. Instead of focusing on the development of cooperation and mutual understanding some people only want to foster mistrust and apathy. Instead of looking for a chance to foster support and teamwork people want to concentrate only on disagreement and obstruction. Some people are hell bent on being a Shaka when the wall fell.
When the fictional Captain Dathon met the Enterprise he wanted to build a relationship with the Federation so bad he was willing to risk his life when he didn’t have to. He did it with the conviction that the payoff would be a better future for his descendants. He could’ve done like everybody else. He could’ve used whatever passed as the Tamarian phrase for hello and then threw his hands up in the air in faux exasperation when it didn’t work and warp up out of there. But he was an alien committed on a successful outcome.
Just imagine the possibilities if people with a lot more in common than the Federation and the Tamarians could focus on working together for a common goal. Dathon and Picard had to commit themselves to learning just how to communicate. We don’t have that hurdle to deal with. We have the ability to actually communicate and we still can’t commit ourselves to working out our issues. Truly a sad “Shaka when the walls fell” moment if there ever was one.