The Uncanny Valley

I live in the Uncanny Valley. No, this isn’t the name of a pseudo-luxury, prefabricated housing tract; it’s a techno-sociological theory proposed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. The theory basically states that a robot that looks and behaves more realistically humanlike will evoke a more positive and empathetic emotional response from the human beings that interact with it. The “valley,” then, refers to a strange thing that happens when a robot is very nearly human, but not quite; at that point, the differences between robot and human behavior become magnified and obvious to the point of being repulsive. “Rosey” from the Jetsons was cute. Haley Joel Osment in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film Artificial Intelligence:A.I. was just freaky.

Obviously, this theory normally applies to robots. Recent uses of computer-generated imagery (CGI) in television and film, however, has brought a whole new application to the Uncanny Valley theory. Back in the seventies and eighties, the “special effects” in the original Star Wars films drew audiences in to George Lucas’ fantasy worlds. The fake “polar bear” on last week’s episode of Lost just seemed cheesy. The funny thing is that Chewbacca was obviously a guy in a furry suit, while the bear was much more realistic.

You might have guessed that the Uncanny Valley theory applies to missions, too. When we first arrive to our places of service, few of us are going to be mistaken for locals. Our clothes, our language, even our posture, give us away and can be real barriers to positive interaction with nationals. It doesn’t take long, however, for the halfway intelligent missionary to realize that he or she can do a lot to minimize some of those differences. A change of clothes, an adjustment in habits, and a closed mouth will get one much further along in terms of being accepted by people. These efforts are usually noticed and applauded by the host culture. “Look, the silly little foreigner is trying to learn our language!” “Let’s invite the Americans over for dinner and watch them squirm when we serve them snails!”

But there comes a time when we become almost national. We reach a level of language and behavior that closely resembles the local culture, but we never fully arrive. In some ways, this is actually worse for our acceptance in society. When we approach a bank teller or shop keeper they expect us to be able to communicate and understand as a native would. At that point, when we stumble over a word or reach the limits of our vocabulary, our foreignness really stands out. Little things like lazy vowel sounds and eating with one hand in your lap suddenly become jarring to nationals. We might as well be wearing a baseball cap and white tennis shoes.

For this post, I borrowed heavily from Wikipidea, which has an excellent entry on the topic. The post there says of expatriates,

“…the transition from Western European culture to the culture of the United States might put a European in the middle of the uncanny valley, whereas if he or she had experienced an Asian culture, he or she would be instead at a point in the first curve, before the uncanny valley.”

This is the sort of thing they don’t teach in missionary training. We come to the field thinking that our hard work toward contextualization will pay off, and that we’ll become at the very least acceptable outsiders. Nobody ever told me, “Just wait until you’re nearly fluent- that’s when nationals will really start to make fun of your accent.”

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to minimize the differences between us and the people we minister to. I believe that our approach must be relevant and culturally appropriate. I just wish someone had told me about the Uncanny Valley- how frustrating it is to live there, and how hard it is to move out. I’m going to assume it’s because no one wanted to burden me with that potential discouragement, and not because so few of my colleagues ever integrate into to their host cultures…

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.