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Season 2

Ep 11: ‘The Beast at Tanagra’: Allegories, Metaphors, and Connecting With Your Audience

With Sara Rivera & Ron Yamauchi

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We’ve said it once, and we’ll say it again (and again…), know your audience! Get specific and think of them early and often. It’s all too easy to try to be all things to all people, and casting too wide a net that can leave you connecting with no one. But sometimes getting very specific and using insider language leaves people out. Metaphors, allegories, and unique shared experiences can make us feel connected while alienating others. How do you toe that line? How can you target a niche audience without being totally inaccessible to newcomers?

Few things are more polarizing than Star Trek, so we dig into a very specific episode to really demonstrate how language can bring us together or pull us apart. Join host Brian Tomlinson in conversation with Star Trek super fan and former legal investigator Ron Yamauchi and writer and professor Sara Rivera. They’ll talk about what’s so special about this episode and what it says about communication at its core. Whether or not you’re a die-hard ‘Trekker,’ this episode will make you dig deep into the question: “Who are you really writing for?”


Brian Tomlinson: How many of these do you get?

Television characters: Mattingly!

Get rid of those sideburns!

What you talking about, Willis?

Lend me your ears.

Oh my God! They killed Kenny!


Get two birds stoned at once.

Brian Tomlinson: References, idioms, inside jokes, allusions, jargon. These are all ways we can get to the heart of the matter with the people we are connected to. It makes you feel like part of the group. It's fun. But sometimes, these shorthands can make others feel like outsiders.

As we'll hear, they can also be used to bring outsiders in. It all depends on how you use them. You're listening to Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase. I'm your host, Brian Tomlinson. Have you ever had one of those conversations with someone where it's just not working? Your jokes aren't landing. They don't get what you mean. You're speaking the same language, but you're just not connecting. It's off-putting, alienating even. But I think, or at least I hope, that we've all also had the completely opposite experience. It's often with a close friend, a co-worker, or maybe a family member, someone you've spent some serious time with. You just get each other. You have so many shared references, you can almost speak in code. Long-running television shows seem really good at giving us this kind of language. The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Friends, The Office. We've got years worth of references to throw back to. But for our purposes today, we're going to get, dare I say, nerdy. We are going to talk about Star Trek. Wait, wait, come back, come back. I promise this will be good. And you'll learn a lot about coded language. But just bear with us for a minute as we dig into a fan-favorite episode. How do we know it's so popular? We asked Ron Yamauchi.

Ron Yamauchi: I'm an unashamed Star Trek nerd. I've loved this show since I was three years old. All my dreams were set on a round room with flashing lights, and a guy in a yellow shirt speaking in staccato ways to a guy who was talking like a robot. Oh, I just loved that show. I loved it so much.

Brian Tomlinson: Ron loved that show. He was hooked on Star Trek at an early age.

Ron Yamauchi: I'm not really sure what started me on the Star Trek path. We had two channels in black and white. Grandpa only liked to watch Westerns.

Star Trek Announcer: In the suspense-filled tradition of High Noon, a shooting!

Ron Yamauchi: And Mom likes The Edge of Night.

Star Trek Announcer: And now, the second half of The Edge of Night.

Ron Yamauchi: Star Trek was neither though, so I think it was just totally random.

Star Trek Announcer: To boldly go where no man has gone before.

Ron Yamauchi: I was three years old. I remember I've got these drawings of a rocket ship. It's the Enterprise, the rocket ship, and a little stick figure standing beside it. That's me, and I'm helping. I don't know if you can see, because we're on podcast. But behind me is pages of Trekkinalia. I am immersed in this stuff.

Brian Tomlinson: Ron is into Star Trek. And right now we are going to focus down on one episode in particular. It first aired on September 30th, 1991. It's an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called Darmok.

Dathon: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

Ron Yamauchi: I love this episode. I love The Next Generation, and I believe it.

Brian Tomlinson: We're here to talk about shared references, so let's make one together.

But first, don't forget: our episode isn't about space aliens and phaser battles. It's about people trying to be understood. And so is Darmok, according to Sarah Rivera.

Sara Rivera: Yes, I am Sarah Rivera, she/ her, and I am a writer. I write fiction and poetry. I'm also a visual artist and a literary translator and educator.

Brian Tomlinson: Sarah teaches a writing class all about Darmok. She knows it inside and out, and is going to give us a quick rundown of what happens. Let's dive in.

Brian Tomlinson: Engage. Captain's log, stardate 45047.2: The Enterprise is en route to the uninhabited El-Adrel system.

Brian Tomlinson: Wait, wait, wait. Come back, come back. Sorry, sorry, sorry. That was for the fans. And for the non-fans, all you need to know is that Star Trek is set in space on the starship Enterprise. Captain Picard is the ship's captain. So here's the gist.

Sara Rivera: The basic premise is that the starship Enterprise has come to this uninhabited star system that is near the territory of this enigmatic race of people called the Children of Tamar. And anytime the Federation, anytime humans, have tried to make contact with the Tamarians before, they haven't been able to understand one another.

Brian Tomlinson: The two groups make contact from their respective ships. The crew of the Enterprise has a universal language translator, which normally makes everyone understandable.

Crew member: Computer, search for the term Darmok in all linguistic databases.

Brian Tomlinson: I mean, it is the future. But in this case, they can understand the words the Tamarians use, but not their meaning.

Sara Rivera: The Tamarian captain Dathon repeats phrases like, “Shaka, when the walls fell,” or, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”

Dathon: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

Sara Rivera: So there are words in there that make sense like, “when the walls fell.” But the entire phrase has no discernible meaning.

Brian Tomlinson: Captain Picard is kidnapped by the Tamarians and beamed onto a planet with Dathon, the Tamarian captain.

Sara Rivera: At first Picard thinks that Dathon wants them to fight, because he keeps trying to hand him a dagger. But things never really escalate into a fight.

Brian Tomlinson: The two have to learn to understand each other.

Sara Rivera: Captain Dathon, the first night that they're camping out, gives Picard a torch. And he says, “Temba, his arms wide” when he gives him that fire. So Picard starts to understand that maybe the image of arms wide means something like generosity, like giving.

Brian Tomlinson: The next morning, the two captains hear a dangerous beast approaching.

Sara Rivera: And Dathon again says, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”

Dathon: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

Sara Rivera: And Picard starts to realize that maybe he's referring to a particular situation that is similar to their situation, that maybe the Tamarians communicate by citing examples.

Captain Picard: That's how you communicate, isn't it? By citing examples!

Brian Tomlinson: The two captains have this beast to deal with. And they fight bravely, defeating the monster. But during the battle, Dathon is gravely wounded. Then the next day-

Sara Rivera: Picard is with a wounded Dathon, sitting by a fire at night. And he uses that phrase, “Temba, his arms wide” to ask Dathon to give him more about the story of Darmok and Jalad.

Captain Picard: You must tell me more.

Sara Rivera: The story is that Darmok and Jalad were these two heroes, and they both came alone separately to this island. And on this island they fought a beast. After defeating the beast together, they became allies and they left the island together. So Picard realizes that Dathon brought him here so that they could face a common foe, and learn to understand one another in the process.

Captain Picard: And you knew from the tale of Darmok that a danger shared might sometimes bring two people together. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

Brian Tomlinson: Dathon risked both of their lives in order to gain an understanding of each other; that's commitment. Dathon's wound is looking to be fatal, though. And he asked Picard for one last story. Picard tells him about one of humanity's oldest tales from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the part about losing one's companion.

Sara Rivera: And near the end of the story, Dathon breathes his last. The next morning, the Enterprise crew finally manages to bring Picard back on board. But to do that, they had to attack the Tamarians. So the two ships are in the middle of fighting. As soon as he's on board, Picard hails the Tamarians. And he uses the phrases he's learned of their language to communicate what happened to Dathon, and to show them that he's understood a piece of their language.

Brian Tomlinson: They part ways with a mutual understanding. Both sides put the work in to finally crack the code of mutual communication. That sounds like a good watch. But more than that, Sarah sees a lot of takeaways and interesting concepts in Darmok, like the coded ways in which we speak to each other.

Sara Rivera: My best friend and I were talking about this in the context of the episode. She told me, “If I say to you, 'Shocked Pikachu meme,' you understand me. You know what meme I'm talking about. But my mom doesn’t.”

Brian Tomlinson: And here are a few other examples.

Sara Rivera: Juliet on her balcony, it stands in for romance. Something like the kiss of Judas might stand in for betrayal. We have some of these shared images and illusions that we would understand in our own language. And they communicate entirely through those images.

Brian Tomlinson: It's something that we, as social beings, do quite naturally.

Sara Rivera: We're always creating these private internal languages with people. It can draw us close together with people. It can create a shared foundation. It can also create moments of exclusion, or ways of excluding someone else from the conversation. I think anyone who's ever been in a situation where you're around people who all have a completely different occupation than you, and they're speaking in the jargon of that occupation, you just feel like it's a different language that you can't access, right?

Brian Tomlinson: We've all been on the giving and receiving end of this one, like those special acronyms that you have when you go into a company. You know, like GRI, ABM, NBA, TMI, TLDR. Our superfan Ron was with the Canadian government for three decades. He was an investigator with the Human Rights Commission and involved with the Immigration and Refugee Board. He has seen heavy jargon in action.

Ron Yamauchi: We started to have people coming through the system with no lawyers. And it's a very, of course, intimidating system, all this legal jargon. And not being a lawyer myself, I had grappled with what this legal jargon means. I worked on trying to get our materials in plain language, using graphics and stuff that made sense to me. I tried to simplify it and not dumb it down. Quite the opposite: make it clearer. Because I think sometimes specific jargon is a barrier that serves no function other than an in-group kind of professional lingo that you use to signal to other members of your tribe that you've gone through the requisite training, rather than actually having a functional value.

Brian Tomlinson: And Ron, of course, draws a parallel with our Star Trek episode.

Ron Yamauchi: In Darmok, you have people who can't understand each other's references, but insist on using them anyway.

Brian Tomlinson: And then also-

Ron Yamauchi: You have people who need to talk to each other, because very important. And they can almost make sense. But then you have to actually understand the person's perspective, before you understand why they're using the words in the way they are.

Brian Tomlinson: Just as Sarah said, these insider vocabularies can bring people together or move them apart. As a writer and a teacher, she says using language that might be outside a reader's grasp can be a good thing.

Sara Rivera: If I'm setting a story here in Albuquerque, and I use so many Albuquerque references and I talk about Albuquerque street names and details of the Albuquerque weather, some people might worry that that alienates people who have never been here. But the idea of the particular universal, which is the quote from Joyce, is that when you are that particular and when you use specific detail, you are actually inviting people into the work in a different way: because every reader has had their own experience of place that is equally specific.

Brian Tomlinson: What Sarah's referencing here from Irish writer James Joyce, is, “I always write about Dublin because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” His point was, instead of making stuff to appeal to a mass audience, make things that are specific, honest, and true to you. People will relate to this.

Sara Rivera: Maybe they might not understand every single thing about that place, but it feels like a real place. It feels true; it feels fleshed out. We all live in the sensory world, and we know what it feels like to be in a real place, that it feels that rich and complex and detailed. That's why I encourage my students to dig into the five senses, and dig into detail as much as they can, and to allow details to enrich their language. Because I think that there is truth to be found in that.

Brian Tomlinson: It's true, isn't it? With any storytelling, setting the scene, giving the reader/ listener/ watcher/ whatever a sense of place is such an important part of bringing a story to life. And, as we say again and again, know your audience. You can't be all things to all people. So it's good to get specific about who you're writing for, because Sarah doesn't want writers to default to an assumed audience.

Sara Rivera: There is a default white gaze, a default cisgender, heterosexual, white American reader in the American publishing industry. And writers are expected to frame their language towards that. And that comes up in the creative writing workshop when we're talking about, “Oh, what is relatable to the reader?” Or, “What is likable for the reader?” Or, “What do you have to translate or contextualize for the reader?”

For example, if I am using Spanish phrases in my short story, somebody might ask me to include an internal translation, or not use so many so that I alienate this imagined reader with the language I'm choosing. But I've been thinking a lot about how that reader is not ultimately who I write for. And I think that writers are starting to interrogate this question quite a lot. If I'm writing for the audience that actually matters to me: for young Latinas, for second-generation Americans, for people who feel like they're between identities, or on the margin of certain identities, then there are things that I don't have to translate. Then my foundational language shifts.

Dathon: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

Brian Tomlinson: Sarah can use Spanish phrases in her writing. That doesn't make it totally inaccessible for me, even if I don't speak it. So maybe I take a few minutes to translate it online, or I ask a friend who speaks Spanish. There are ways to overcome these hurdles that might even be good for me.

Sara Rivera: It's just a matter of who is expected to give a little bit more effort, or who is expected to be on the outside versus the inside. And certainly, there are books that are much more dense with particular references, right? A famous novel like Ulysses by James Joyce is so outrageously dense with details of Dublin in Joyce's time: with in-jokes and references that you can only know if you understand the context, that it can be really difficult to read as a contemporary audience. But you still can; it just requires more effort. If you don't understand a few phrases, maybe that's okay. But you are connecting really deeply to a particular character, experience; or you're connecting deeply to the arc of the story and where it ends up. So I think that there are different entry points for people.

Brian Tomlinson: This is bringing back memories of reading Shakespeare in high school. It was a little painful, but I read it anyway. And imagine if we only experienced books, movies, podcasts, and music that made us comfortable, or was familiar to us. We'd miss out on a lot; kind of like how social media algorithms can cause havoc in our lives today. Check that out in Episode 4. I read Julius Caesar. So now when Lottie sneaks behind my back and steals my lunch out of the fridge, I can throw out things like-

Brian Tomlinson: Et tu Brute?

Brian Tomlinson: ... with abandon. Sarah also finds the concept of a language based on past myths and events utterly fascinating. It feels like history is easily forgotten. We're so quick to move on from one thing to the next, that historical context falls by the wayside. The Tamarians would have a much harder time revising their history, because it's baked into their language. How would things be different for us if we did the same?

Sara Rivera: Functionally in their language, there's no present without the past. Everything in the present is seen through the framework of the past. That's really interesting to me, because I wonder if that was our language: if we could never forget elements of our past or the stories of our past, because everything in our present is seen through that lens, what would change in our own value system? Maybe people would be less resistant to the idea that problems are systemic, right? That they have a history, or that things that are happening in our society today have happened previously in history. Maybe we wouldn't be able to forget and re-narrativize the past as much as we do, because we would understand the present through that framework.

Brian Tomlinson: But we don't. It's not how it works. Though, luckily, we have sci-fi to help us think through these issues. For example, first contact stories. Sarah teaches an entire writing course on them. People want to write and read them because it's a story we as humans seem to be drawn to again and again.

Sara Rivera: One of the biggest movies recently was Jordan Peele's Nope, which was a first contact story. So people are still constantly taking this idea of humans and aliens, or humans and completely new species, interacting for the first time and finding interesting themes and meanings using that framework. We have experienced first contact many times. Our human social groups have had many, many instances throughout our history of first contact. And that history has left a legacy in every country in the world.

Brian Tomlinson: That can look like colonialism and violence. Or it can leave a legacy of two cultures coming together.

Dathon: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

Sara Rivera: I think that sometimes sci-fi is a space where people feel like they can explore these ideas without the baggage and complexity and heavy emotion that comes from exploring our own human history. Sometimes having that degree of removal in sci-fi, where we are thinking about colonialism or we are thinking about cultural contact, sometimes that gives people a space where they feel they can analyze those subjects. I feel strongly that speculative fiction is a way to talk about reality, and a way to still reveal human truths.

Brian Tomlinson: And one of those truths is that mutual understanding nurtures empathy.

Sara Rivera: There's a Rachel Cusk quote from Outline, which is that “the simple act of translation very often renders things harmless,” which I found really interesting in the context of the end of this episode. Where it's like, if we can create this small bridge of understanding, then we are less mysterious or dangerous to one another; that there is something so valuable just in the attempt and in the desire to open a door. Sometimes we will fail to communicate exactly what we want to communicate in the way we want to. And sometimes we'll communicate it better than we could have imagined, and reach people that we didn't even think we could reach.

Brian Tomlinson: And speaking of reaching people who we didn't think we could reach, Ron was kind enough to come on our show and geek out on Star Trek. So we'll throw in this little plug.

Ron Yamauchi: The dream, honestly, is to get a little role on Star Trek, just to pop up and go, “Hi. I'm the three-year-old kid that loved you in 1969.”

Brian Tomlinson: So if any of you listeners out there can get Ron on some version of Star Trek, let us know. But in the meantime, science fiction is cool, right? Clarity and concise language is best, but don't be afraid to challenge your audience sometimes. Take a chance on a funny reference. Get specific, be creative. If you know your audience well enough, they'll be right there with you. Your shared experiences mean something. Carry your universal translator. But on the odd occasion that it doesn't work, never forget: battling a beast together is the key to connection.

Dathon: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

Brian Tomlinson: Today our guests were Sarah Rivera, an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and teacher from Albuquerque, New Mexico. And Ron Yamauchi, a self-proclaimed Star Trek nerd, a former bureaucrat, and a soon-to-be Star Trek walk-on. Fingers crossed for you, Ron.

I'm Brian Tomlinson, and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase with production support from JAR Audio. Join us next time when we dive into ... What did you say? Ah, listening.

Doug Showalter: They call 911. They are upset, they're scared, they're nervous. When you're asking them questions, they don't even know what's going on.

Brian Tomlinson: If you enjoy the show, tell your friends, tell Dathon, tell the Tamarians, and proclaim it over the loudspeaker of the starship Enterprise. You can also follow us on your podcast app and leave a review. We'd love to know what you think. Until next time.

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