Semmer (Wednesday, 2011 September 28)

September 28, 2011

Being on Zhen for so long, I’ve started to crave just a little bit of truth every now and then, the same way I crave broccoli or hamburgers or competent dentistry. It’s just one more commodity that’s hard to come by (although I hear sometimes they have it in the bigger cities). As a Missionary here you become familiar with many different shades of lying, which plays a critical if unhappy role here. And as with any linguistic skill, learning how to participate can greatly speed your integration and help you function effectively. Let’s briefly summarize.

First and foremost there’s the empty promise. This is a pretty common form of lying found on Zhen, and it’s sort of the equivalent of the Earther "white lie", an innocent-seeming lie that spares someone’s feelings. If a pup asks you if you brought them candy, you can tell them that you forgot but certainly you will bring them some next time. It’s fine if you don’t bring them any next time either, because maybe they’ll forget by then, and if they don’t, you can promise them earnestly to bring some the time after that. Every Missionary is familiar with hearing "We’ll talk about it tomorrow", which becomes the day after, or next week..

Then you have the half-truth, which you’re probably already familiar with. Someone asks you, "Did you buy that on Earth?" and you can say "No", which can mean "No, I did not buy that on Earth", "No, it isn’t mine", or "It is mine and it came from Earth but no I did not buy it". Depending on context, the questioner may be left with the idea that such things are available on Zhen, maybe even made locally. To be totally truthful, you might say something like "No, the Mission gave it to me" or "I borrowed it from Jamie". It takes a certain skill to be able to listen for half-truths. It helps to pose open-ended questions: "Where did you get that?"

Subtly different is the half-lie, hiding something you don’t want to reveal in something that someone already knows. An example: I can tell you that my last girlfriend was Morgan and that will still be true even if Lara 2 and I exchange vows at the Mission’s chapel. Obviously everyone already knows about Morgan, but I can still manage to keep the marriage thing with Lara 2 secret as long as you don’t ask the right questions.

But the real master-levels of mishonesty come in when you start letting people think things. There are lots of finer-grained levels than that, but you can start with joking and implications. You can get really good at it, really subtle. The idea is that the best lie is the one that the listener comes up with himself. You might be asking yourself if Lara 2 and I really did get married without telling anyone. Or maybe you’re telling yourself that it’s obviously just an example and Lara 2 and I are certainly not married nor even likely to get married. If I pushed a little harder in either direction, I bet I could get you to settle on one or the other.

It’s at this level, of course, where most of our memetics work takes place.

This is the kind of thing I’m thinking about when I’m doing work for Revolution Committee. I’m kicking it in Highest Gardens (my regional capital) at a bar "interviewing" local partners to help with the effort. Each is trying to convince me that he is most committed to the development of his species, most well-connected, most deserving of the per-diem that Revolution Committee is willing to provide for qualified assistance. I am trying to sort out the truths, the real truths, from the things they are saying (and not saying). Of the three Zhenae genders, all the candidates are "male". Periodically street vendors will walk in and try to sell us things. I am tired, hungry, and sober.

"… with more patience and purpose than you will ever know. Purity-force-united. Thank you." That’s the last Zhenae proposal. Vaguely threatening, kind of gravelly of voice, but mostly just angry and sad. As an Earther he didn’t strike me as a Ché or a Fidel or even a Facundo. None of them did yet. But I’m an Education Missionary and that means that at times like these I think, "Maybe I can tease it out of them". So, class, time for an exercise.

"Can you each please interpret me this sentence, one at a time?" I asked, passing them a Sumi triplet I’d constructed for this occasion. The words on it translated as: "Intention (or Deity)-problem-given".

"God gives me problems to solve." That was the gravelly-one, who happened to be closest to me. Literal translation. Not compelling. For an Indigenous Partner, I needed someone inspiring. I noted his response and looked to the next Zhenae.

"Problems, because God wants solutions." That was the skinny one with poor hygeine (by Zhenae standards). He wouldn’t be attractive to his peer group, so that ruled him out, but I was glad all the same to see a little bit of originality and critical thinking.

"God gives me problems with the intent that I solve them. No, wait." This was the one with the thick tentacles — young, probably attractive in the native culture, and now demonstrating some kind of problem-solving abilities. "He who discovers a problem is intended to solve it." He looked at me. "It’s that, isn’t it?"

I made some more notes on my clipboard and tried not to smile. "Thank you. I have your contact information, and I will let you know of our findings as soon as possible." I made a "thanks-that-will-be-all" gesture and they started to turn out of the bar. Only the last one stayed. He tried to make eye contact with me. "Yes?" I said.

"Please," he started, then made a motion analogous to a curtsy. "I was wondering, on your planet, are you an appropriate gender for me to marry?"

I hoped Jamie and Morgan were having better luck.

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