My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and be sure to update your bookmarks. Thanks!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

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...


Publius said...

Stepchild, you are a big ol' nerd. And I mean that with the deepest respect. ;)

I don't know if this is helpful or not, but I might share some of my experience with American church youth.

When I got started, I was sort of young and hip, not too far removed from the groovy college scene... or so I thought. It didn't take long to realize that my tastes in "current music" were actually ten years old, and that I could not actually pass myself off as cool in their contemporary sense. If I tried, I just fell into your Uncanny Valley - I would be using their lingo, but wrongly; dressing in their style, but badly; and acting like a teenager, but in a oldish kind of way. Instead, I make it a joke to play up the "difference" between us. I make reference to pop culture from the 90's, so unhip it's funny. I use badly out-of-date lingo to break the ice. I've become not one of them, but the goofy older guy who knows he's different but is close enough to relate to these kids in a way a lot of the "adults" can't.

I'm not saying I know your situation, because I don't, but what would happen if you mostly tried to fit in with the nationals, by eliminating things which are jarring or offensive, but deliberately kept a few goofy "Americanisms" to let them know that you know you're different, that you're not pretending to be someone you're not? I don't know, maybe speak thair language and dress like a national, but play up an American phrase or badly mispronounced word? Maybe not wear a ballcap, but play up your devotion to something harmlessly but uniquely American, like a college basketball team, or country music, or something? Of course, this only works if you can laugh at yourself about it. But if we can make our differences goofy and manageable, then they become a conversation piece, and maybe not a hindrance. And it'll help others overlook the smaller ways we're not quite like them.

Anonymous said...


I have observed that typically the missionaries who experience the DEEPEST "uncanny valley" are "native speakers" but did not grow up in the host country. This happens in South America when Spanish speaking missionaries from one country are appointed to serve in another Spanish speaking country. They think they already "know" the host culture and they are wrong! And the host culture expects the Latin born missionary to "think like they do" because they are native Spanish speakers.

A similar problem occurs when veteran missionaries who have adapted to one host culture change countries, but not languages.

Bryan Riley said...

I have a thought, better said a question, out of my ignorance. It strikes me that sometimes the very thing that God uses to impact people is our difference. For example, the Koreans here absolutely are amazed and attracted to my children's white blonde hair. And, because of it, they open wide their doors to my children, and ultimately to us. That's just one example, but I wonder if it has broader implications and if this in some way addresses what you are saying. I'm not saying we should never become acculturated, but I also wonder if doing so creates the quandry you are facing, unnecessarily? What did Paul really mean by becoming all things to all men? How far did he take that in the context of culture? Language? Behavior?

I'm asking, not opining.

Strider said...

Good Post. Yes, I am guessing that nobody told you about the valley because very few have ever got there but the question of contextualization is a good one. We have discussed this a lot on our team and have found that trying to be something we are not is pretty offensive and confusion to folks here. I have decided that a better approach is honesty. I really like the national coat so I wear it, I really hate hats so I do not wear the national hat. This makes sense to people. They like it that I genuinely appreciate their culture but feel at ease because I am not trying to fool them for some subversive reason.
After reading Publius' comment above I was not going to say anything since I liked what he said but I just thought I would add my encouragement for the journey your on.

stepchild said...

Good to know that my nerdiness comes through in my posts. I say, why try to hide it?

They say that workers who go to the U.K. often struggle the most, and have a sort of delayed culture shock because they expect the culture to be more familiar than it is. Oh, and the British usually have bad teeth.

I'd never advocate pretending to adapt to the culture. It's just that living among these people has changed me to be more like them. I'm not being fake, or trying to fool anyone. It isn't about trying to be "cool" or "hip." It's about minimizing the differences (things I hold loosely to anyway) that clearly mark me as an outsider. Besides, there are huge cultural implications attached to our appearances. (Wearing the Bible-belt uniform of loafers and a tucked-in Polo shirt in San Francisco just looks gay.)

Bryan and Publius make good points about being able to recognize and live with the fact that there will always be something about me that makes me painfully uncool in this culture.

Early modern M's were considered radical for "adopting the native dress and diet." Why does it seem that, except for you and I, this is still so rarely practiced? Except for "Eat whatever is put in front of you," and "Don't drink alcohol," I'm not sure anyone ever really addressed personal integration with me before I arrived.

David Rogers said...

I know there is a narcissistic tendency for everyone to point out the reasons why their particular mission assignment is the hardest of them all. But, I have long thought that what you so adeptly point out here is one of the reasons why Western Europe has proved to be one of the places in the world where we have seen so comparatively few results, and such a high turnover rate. In Africa or Asia, for instance, everyone knows you're never going to reach the point of coming close to passing as native. But in Western Europe, it is expected of you to do the best you can. And if that best isn't very good, the Europeans don't tend to be very understanding.

I, personally, think we still have to do the best we can, remembering, at the same time, we will answer to God, not other people, when it comes time to give account for our lives.

I also think this is one reason in favor of foreign missionaries giving more emphasis towards encouraging and equipping national believers for the task of front-line evangelism.

I also think Publius makes a good point above. In almost any culture, someone who doesn't take themselves too seriously and knows how to laugh at themselves will end up winning a better hearing for themselves.

Watchman said...

Accepting limitation is a huge step in being authentic. The Robot will always be a robot. The "missionary" will always be a missionary. It's kinda like getting old. Gravity will always win, inspite a great face lift surgery or boob job. Having never been in your situation cross-culturally, its the limitations of communicating and being understood that I identify with in your post.

Watchman said...


just for sake of clarity, I am not speaking from experience. While I am getting old, I have had neither a face lift or a boob job.


Publius said...

I've been turning over a related thought, guys, and I wonder what you think. We are told in the Scriptures to expect to be "strangers and aliens," that we will stand out in the world. "In the world, but not of it" is our mantra. Here in the states, or I should say, here in church culture in the states, it's really hard to stand out, because even if our heart is different, our actions tend to blend in. Does that make sense? In my church, you have to really get to know the devoted Christ-followers to know them as such, because although everyone uses nice words, only a few actually mean them.

In the situations in my life when I've lived and/or worked out among the "heathen," I've found it much easier to stay focused, and to fearlessly distinguish myself from the crowd, not by piety but by grace. It's like everyone knew I was different, and they were willing to engage me on that level.

I wonder if that's why non-European M's have an easier time. There's no fooling the nationals, so they don't even try to fit in - they just engage with an understanding of basic alien-ness.

I don't know what that means for us in cultures that look much like our own, whether in Europe or here in the States, but there's something there that seems important. Like we're missing the key to engagement, because the cultural barrier is just an illusion, or something. I just can't put my finger on it yet.

Sorry for rambling, stepchild. I dig your post, really. Wiki's the stuff, isn't it?

Paul Burleson said...


Thought provoking. You guys face a myriad of things westerners, especially the US have no clue about. That might give more creedance to the silliness of some in the US saying with authority how and what should be done in your part of the field.

I've been away from my office and PC but not from the throne of Grace. You've been prayed for with regularity whether informed of that or not. Keep up the ministry and writing. You're good at it.


Paul B.