Talking through Technique
"This [the Cuban Missile Crisis] is not a blockade. This is language! A new vocabulary, the likes of which the world has never seen! This is President Kennedy communicating with Secretary Khrushchev!"
Two characters need to communicate, but can't. They might know they're Being Watched
and don't want to give away vital information, or can't transmit or receive messages by normal meansnote
. However, both share a common talent at some game, combat style, art form or other skill. They're experienced enough thanks to practice and knowledge of it that they can analyze the moves
to tell what their friend on the other end is thinking. So what they end up doing is Talking Through Technique
, passing information not through words but through actions, and interpreting them.
Observers and spies will be very, very
confused by this. They'll assume their Cryptic Conversation
is deeply layered Spy Speak
, when both are actually
talking with chess pieces, fists, or interpretive dance. On that note, this kind of communication can be highly interpretive, analytical,
or both! Often, the best way to make these communiqués secure is to require a final bit interpretive of inductive reasoning to avoid decoding by third parties. This communication likely isn't perfect, but it's a lot more secure, and if paired with a normal conversation can add enough subtext
that it becomes Spy Speak
A few possible variations include:
- Using a game of chess, or any other strategy game, either through the moves themselves or using their names.
- Using different combat techniques and stances.
- Playing musical pieces in sequence (or through notes) that can decode a message.
Naturally, if the signal is misinterpreted due to a completely irrelevant misunderstanding of chess rules or somesuch
, this may result in the whole "conversation" being misunderstood. An especially devious communicator may anticipate this
and deliberately send out a clue indicating that he is not at liberty to communicate freely
Contrast I Do Not Speak Nonverbal
. Compare Hand Signals
, where signaling is done by use of hand gestures, and Double Meaning
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Anime and Manga
- Subverted in the Cowboy Bebop episode "Bohemian Rhapsody". The crew of the Bebop thought that the chess pieces they found on apprehended thieves might hold some secret message, but they were merely a signal from the mastermind to his former employers that it was he who was pulling the jobs. He had a reputation as a chess lover.
- Invoked in Naruto when Sasuke fights the title character. Sasuke says that two powerful ninja are able to understand each other's thoughts just by fighting.
- Ichigo in Bleach is able to understand the feelings of his opponents by feeling them through their sword clashes. It was how he knew Gin wasn't really fighting him seriously, and that Aizen craved to have someone stronger than him.
- Saki seeks to reconcile with her older sister Teru, but their parents are separated, with each of them in the custody of a different parent, and Teru refuses to speak with Saki. Saki then comes up with the goal of "talking" with Teru through mahjong, hoping to face her in a mahjong tournament and get her to talk with her again.
- In Bridge, this is an explicit part of the game. The first phase consists of the two teams betting for how many tricks they can take, and the two partners each try to communicate what kind of cards they have to make a reasonable bet, not with words but with the betting mechanism itself. Secret "languages" are generally prohibited, and the opponents may ask for the meaning of a given signal if they don't understand their language.
- Poker is an odd case in that the players are having a conversation through checks, bets, raises, and folds... in which every player is attempting to lie to every other player. A straighter example is when two players collude by betting and raising with an eye toward getting some of a third player's money into the pot and then forcing them out of the hand, splitting the proceeds later, but this is explicitly against the rules and getting caught doing it will get you kicked out of any reputable casino or card room.
- Batman communicated with Cassandra Cain/Batgirl via combat, which makes sense since her father had overwritten the language center in her brain to better her combat training.
- According to the "Hawaii 2.0" arc in the Wildcats comics, the Coda have a martial art that doubles as a language. Zealot and Nemesis use it to talk past an immortal madman with microscopic vision and superhearing.
- Played for Laughs in Nodwick when it's revealed Piffany can receive and interpret entire speeches from Nodwick, based entirely on various expressions of despair in his face and angling of eyebrows.
- Played with in a game of shogi between Shikamaru and his father Shikaku in Escape from the Hokage's Hat. Shikamaru plays according to no conventional defensive prescription, but instead plays each of his pieces as one of his age group against his father's remainder of the Konoha ninja. After the game, Shikaku notices that while his position is technically weak, he's put all of his pieces in position to assassinate most of Shikaku's—which is, correctly, taken as a declaration of allegiance for Naruto and the second generation against the older shinobi, who mostly hate him.
- The page quote comes from Thirteen Days, where Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has to explain to a well-intentioned but particularly dense U.S. Admiral that any action by U.S. forces could be interpreted as a direct message from the President himself.
- This is very common in silent films: To cut costs, movies tended to use as few intertitles as they could, meaning actors must convey what they want to tell through nonverbal means. Naturally, comedians quickly jumped on how easily misinterpreted such behavior could be, most famously Charlie Chaplin. For instance, in Modern Times, some nearby cops interpret Charlie swinging a red flag as him being a Communist revolutionary rather than him simply gesturing to a driver that it fell off his truck.
- In Red Cliff the two strategists talked through playing music together and in fact the most vital question of their whole meeting was asked and answered this way. "We're leaving? We didn't get the answer." "It was in his music."
- The twist at the end of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes is that the lady in question is a spy. Her secret message is encoded as a song melody. We are never told what it means.
- In The Hunt for Red October, Jack Ryan communicates with Soviet Captain Ramius Marko by using morse code in flashing lights attached to their periscope. Since Marko couldn't respond with morse code (the code would be recognized audibly by the crew of his ship if he tapped it out), they resorted to yes/no questions he could answer by sending a sonic range verification 'ping' to the US sub.
- This almost backfires, as Marko asks for a single ranging active sonar ping on the US ship, which the submarine equivalent of pointing a flashlight in someone's eyes and shouting "Here I am!". And then he does it again, without any explanation.
- Bat 21 staring Gene Hackman, based on a real life rescue in which a downed pilot's knowledge of golf was used to give him directions when he was Trapped Behind Enemy Lines — the directions matched the layout of various golf courses he had played.
- A minor scene in The Sum of All Fears shows the Jack Ryan and other CIA analysts looking at satellite photographs of Russian tanks, still parked at their bases despite recent events that should have resulted in their mobilization. Jack theorises that the fact that the tanks haven't moved is a message from the Russian President, firstly affirming that he does not have warlike intentions, and secondly quietly stating that he did not order the recent attacks.
- The USSR does this with troop movements Countdown to Looking Glass. The Americans don't respond, the press fails to run the story, and the Soviets take the whole thing as a slap in the face.
- The Drasnian secret language, of the Belgariad, by David Eddings. All Drasnians involved in the intelligence community (which apparently means all of them) are taught a language. On more than one occasion, two such speakers converse verbally about something unimportant while having a completely separate discussion with their hands. The language is specific enough that a speaker can gesture with a recognizably outlandish "accent", and that a particular tilt of the hands can indicate sarcasm.
- Subverted in Tad Williams Otherland. Mr. Sellars, who is kept prisoner in a government Gilded Cage, has a play by letter chess partner. His captors spent weeks trying to crack the code in the letters and moves, because he seriously is that intelligent. However their messages were actually contained in a packet of nanomachines in the final period.
- There's also !Xabbu's and Martine's string game (basically a Bushman version of cat's cradle), which is a particularly strange example. The characters were perfectly capable of talking to each other, but had each had very different insights into the system that were difficult to describe in words (Martine, as a blind person in a VR simulation, was basically "seeing" code, while !Xabbu had made some kind of mystical connection with the AI running the place). They weren't able to compare notes in English, but using the string game, they could. It's also an unusual example in that they WEREN'T both experts — !Xabbu had to teach Martine the game as they went. Apparently it still worked better than talking.
- Star Wars Expanded Universe
- The technique-plus-normal-speech version shows up in the short story "Fool's Bargain". A squad of Imperial troops, trying to help overthrow a corrupt warlord with the help of the local population, work out a Trojan Prisoner ploy with a militia group. To communicate with one another in front of the enemy, they alternate truthful and lying statements, using a code to tell the others which is which.
- The Echani view combat as a form of communication, and have elaborate forms of ritual combat for everything, including courtship rituals.
- Spider Robinson's short story "Tin Ear" involves two men in remote solar outposts who, upon being captured by an alien and learning that their communication is monitored, continue their exchange of song snippets, but now with embedded clues in the titles of the pieces.
- In the short story "Down on the Farm" of Charles Stross's Laundry Series, the titular "funny farm" is an asylum for genius-level civil servants working in the Laundry. Since their service deals with Eldritch Abominations on a regular basis, an insane necromantic scientist is a bit of a security risk; hence the building is sealed off tight from the outside world and insulated in every form imaginable. Communications with the outside world tend to be on the imaginative side. Because of the insulation, the Farm is also a good place for secret research — since banging away on computers is a bit on the obvious side and a big security risk, the scientists "program" with a chessboard, chess pieces, and a language made of chess moves. Hidden, but very clever.
- In The Sorceror a spellcaster who could not use magic at this time suspected the presence of an invisible enemy. He moved his fingers through the somatic components of a spell he wanted until a wizard looking at him understood and cast it.
- In the Exordium series by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge, a group of prisoners use subtle hand gestures to indicate which of the many words they are saying are actually significant, thus allowing them to carry on two parallel conversations. Shortly afterwards, one of the prisoners gets to communicate with someone on the outside, with the resulting conversation using both this technique and one built around understanding obscure allusions. Actually, a lot of the conversations throughout the series involve obscure allusions that only some of the listeners are expected to get.
- Robert A. Heinlein's short story Gulf has two supergenius spies locked in a monitored cell communicate through a game of cards.
- In one of The Vampire Files, Gordy wordlessly coaches Jack through a conversation with a rival gang boss by playing a round of solitaire, in which he makes legal or illegal moves depending on whether or not Jack's words are the right ones to mollify the rival.
- Iain M. Banks's Culture novel The Player of Games contains a rather interesting take on the concept. Throughout the story, the main character, Gurgeh participates in a number of games, but the readers are only given hints as to the rules and play of each of them. This is particularly true of the game of Azad which is considered complicated and realistic enough that success in the game is literally equal to success in the Empire of Azad where the routine tournaments function as a civil service exam. When Gurgeh plays Azad, particularly during his last game, he and his opponent are described as conveying so much information via their moves that their entire philosophies are discussed without a word being exchanged.
- The Hunger Games: Katniss gets very good at reading Haymitch's hidden messages from what sorts of things he sends her in the arena, and the timing of some of them. Since this would be difficult to convey in a medium where you can't read Katniss' every thought, in the movie Haymitch includes literal notes.
- The Baroque Cycle has Jack Shaftoe encounter a Master Swordsman so skilled that he's able to communicate irony while swordfighting.
- Codex Alera (being an endless Gambit Pileup between Chessmasters and Manipulative Bastards of varying competence,) has a fair number of messages being hidden inside actions. It's particularly pronounced with the Canim, (who, even in face-to-face conversations, rely much more on body language and non-verbal communication than humans do,) and in Captain's Fury Tavi tries to explain Nasaug's indications that he actually wants to take his invading troops and leave Alera to senator Arnos without success.
- In the Relativity story "Master Blankard's Pawn", Blankard communicates to one of his henchmen from inside jail by using a code consisting of chess moves.
- In Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, the novel Skin Trade has a brilliant example of this. Harry has to fulfill a high profile heist due to a favor Mab owed Nicodemeus even though the employer is able to literally overhear everything Harry says during the operation, and wants nothing more than to see Harry dead "by accident." With Mab's approval, they set up the convert communication method where Harry can communicate with an undercover associate in plain sight.
- There was an NCIS episode where people were communicating in code through a MMORPG or something; they managed to crack part of it, but didn't crack it all perfectly and accidentally ordered a hit on someone while trying to arrange a meeting.
- The Red Nose Day charity spoof Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death had a particularly humorous example of Talking through Technique, coupled with Bizarre Alien Biology and Toilet Humor
The Doctor: There is just one thing you've forgotten.
The Doctor: Daleks don't have noses.
Emma: Scraping the barrel a bit there, aren't you?
: Think, my dear! Back on Tersurus The Master
and I both bribed the castle architect. Not only do I speak perfect Tersuran, so does he.
Emma: You mean...?
The Doctor: Yes! I can communicate with the Master by carefully controlled breaking of wind.
Emma: Could I be tied to a different chair?
- This is a parody of a scene in Spearhead from Space, where the Doctor can communicate in Delphon by wiggling his eyebrows.
- The Covert Affairs episode Horse to Water used the standard Chess version: an ex-CIA operative imprisoned for a decade using a slow chess game to get secrets outside to be sold. Played with slightly in that the daughter he was playing with just thought she was playing chess with her wrongly-accused father: he kept the game in his head, but she kept its state on a board in her house, which his other daughter was reading for its secrets.
- In an episode of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Starbuck is flying a Cylon ship and has to communicate with the human pilots that she's friendly using only her piloting. After evading their initial fire, she falls into battle formation with one of the ships. Once they start to get the hint, she dips her wings back and forth, a traditional pilot salute, to further confirm that she's a friendly.
- This is a nod to an episode in the original series, where Starbuck and Apollo were tasked with attacking the Cylons with a hijacked Cylon Raider and then returning to the Galactica. Starbuck makes an offhand comment to Boomer about "waggling his wings" if the coded transponder they took with them failed, and having lost the transponder during the operation, he waggled his wings to signal the Galactica not to shoot them down.
- Frasier: Nicos and Crystal in "Beware of Greeks". She turns up at his wedding rehearsal dinner, splutters helplessly... and then starts juggling bread rolls with him. That's enough to convince him to leave his fiancée.
- The "Gunboat" variation of Diplomacy bars verbal and written communication between players. Negotiations and communication, however, can still take place via the actions of the players' pieces on the board each turn.
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender, certain moves in the board game pai sho, which appears to be based on a blend of both Go and Shougi, are used by the Order of the White Lotus as secret code. A pai sho player who isn't in on the secret would just think the opponent was playing in an old-fashioned way.
- There are also code phrases associated with the signal, which reference how those who remember the "old ways" can always find a friend. It also adds dramatic weight to an episode of the previous season, where Iroh derailed the plot with a shopping trip because he was missing a rare pai sho tile: the White Lotus, which as might be expected is key to the code gambit.
- In an episode of Scooby-Doo a kidnapped composer leaves behind a peice of sheet music that doesn't sound right. When converted into letter notation, it spells out the kidnapper's name.
- The real life Cuban Missile Crisis was an example from the points of view of President Kennedy and Secretary Khrushchev, as the crisis descended upon them with little warning and the two could not communicate directly, having to rely on their government's words and actions (which was slower and didn't always tell the other side what they wanted to say). It was this Crisis that spurred the establishment of the Washington-Moscow Hot Line, which allowed both heads of state to get on the phone at a moment's notice and talk to each other more directly in order to avoid another one.