In Dennis Villenueve’s 2016 science fiction film Arrival, twelve mysterious, egg-shaped alien spacecrafts unexpectedly arrive at twelve locations across Earth, hence the namesake. A scholar of linguistics, Louise Banks, is tasked with trying to communicate with the aliens, intent on understanding their origins and motivations and gauging whether they are hostile. Along with military personnel, Louise enters one of the spacecrafts and discovers that the aliens, later nicknamed “octopods” by Jeremy Renner’s character, communicate by using an ink-like substance that forms cryptic but intricate circular symbols in thin air. She connects the proverbial dots through enough trial-and-error and is eventually able to exchange rudimentary information with the octopods. All the while, political discord surrounding their indeterminate presence intensifies.
A poignant twist reveals that the octopods’ language enables humans to perceive all of time at once. Louise uses this to her advantage when she influences a Chinese general to withhold an attack on one of the spacecrafts by calling his private cell phone and reciting his dying wife’s last words. Moreover, the supposed flashback we were shown in the film’s opening sequence – the one in which Louise plays with her sick and dying child – actually takes place in the future, and Louise willingly gave birth to the child despite knowing that her fate was sealed and that she would die no matter what.
I commended Arrival for proposing this mind-blowing idea that human time perception, like memory, like taste, like the other senses, is but an illusion constructed by our brains to make sense of reality and organize its constituent parts. And, more important, it is inherent to the biological hardware with which we’ve been equipped. For if we could master the octopods’ language and perceive the past, present, and future simultaneously, similar to when we look at a painting and perceive all of its shades, colors, lines, shapes, and contours simultaneously, then perhaps how we’ve come to conceive time and chronology is not as simple as “Event A happening first and Event B happening second.”
But let’s be realistic here: To think that we could so effortlessly adopt the octopods’ language like Louise did is preposterous, and does the film zero justice. The wisdom that I took away from the film instead concerns the utility of language.
Language of the spoken and written varieties, when used right and used properly, might as well be a superpower akin to invincibility. It can turn a fool into a genius. A poor man into a rich man. And a skeptic into a believer. Thus, it is through the application of versed interpersonal communication skills that you can defuse virtually any argument, solve any problem, and influence anyone to your benefit. And no, I’m not talking about psychological manipulation with malicious intent.
Where do I get off on saying that language holds such immense power? I remember having a conversation with my cousin at a public restaurant three and a half years ago. It was the evening before our Carnival cruise ship was slated to set sail, and he and I were exploring New Orleans and killing time in anticipation of our great journey. I can’t articulate what, exactly, we discussed at the dinner table, but it was something along the lines of metaphysics – of the nature of life, of death, of the subjective experience of consciousness. Let’s just say that it was more than mere small talk. But knowing my cousin, his opinions inevitably clashed with mine. (Not everyone can agree on what happens after you die.)
After we paid the check and got up from our seats to leave the establishment, the mother of the family from behind looked at me with an almost trance-like look on her face, awe-struck, and stated, “That was one of the best conversations we’ve ever heard. Did you make all of that up on your own, young man? That was so entertaining to listen to.”
It turned out that the family sitting behind us was so invested in our discussion that they were apt to eavesdrop on it and sit in silence. Even the daughter, who was about my age, appeared seduced by my sweeping display of intelligence and gave me a sexually suggestive look. THAT’S how powerful language is: It can render an entire family of 6 you’ve never met before speechless, even supposing that they’ve went out to dinner with the express purpose of speaking to and socializing with each other. I thought that was the whole point of fine dining in public restaurants?
I also learned from that experience that language can manufacture an aura of intelligence contrary to how intelligent you actually are, something I’ve noticed is very useful when communicating with a college professor, a store manager, or a stranger with whom I’ve struck a conversation. In fact, a lot of my more recent friends are drawn towards my presence simply because, upon making a strong first impression and getting to know them, I found interesting things to talk about apart from “Nice weather we’re having.” For instance, someone I met a year ago, who’s now a good friend, can’t wait to see me every time I work because I once proposed the idea to him that sperm cells are sentient.
Use language to your advantage, and you can win pretty much anybody over. Just as Louise won over the octopods.