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Talking through Technique

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"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!"
Robert McNamara, Thirteen Days

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 means.note  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.

Compare Hand Signals, where signaling is done by use of hand gestures, and Double Meaning. Subtrope of Public Secret Message. Also see Multitasked Conversation, Deception Non-Compliance and Covert Distress Code. Contrast I Do Not Speak Nonverbal.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • 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.
  • In Bokurano, Takami "Komo" Komoda ends up doing this with her opponent from the other world, when he ends up being lured into a trap at her piano recital, when the man asks her to play. After a moment of doubt and fear, Komo realizes that rather than try to make the piano "obey" her, she then plays, thereby expressing all her feelings about the world. After hearing Komo play, the man, who'd previously crossed the Despair Event Horizon by losing his daughter, who was Takami's age, gets up, leaves and lets Komo's father shoot him dead, thereby allowing Komo to win the battle.
  • 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.
  • In Fist of the North Star, a bunch of bad guys threaten to kill a captured Airi and Mamiya if Kenshiro and Rei don't fight to the death. With no means of communication, Kenshiro and Rei engage each other, ending in a seemingly Mutual Kill, but when the bad guys go closer inspect their corpses, the heroes reveal they're very much alive. The finishing blows they had used on each other seemed brutal, but were specifically designed not to kill, and the reason why both heroes knew to use their respective techniques was because Kenshiro went into his move's fighting stance, which a skilled martial artist like Rei would have recognized. When Rei went into his own technique's fighting stance, he essentially confirmed their plan with neither fighter having to say a word, and the rest was just waiting for the bad guys to get cocky and come closer for the two to start exploding their heads.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Card Games 
  • 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.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman communicated with former Batgirl Cassandra Cain via combat, which makes sense since her father had overwritten the language center in her brain to better her combat training.
  • 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.
  • Robin Series: Tim Drake did likewise while he and Cass were working together to take down Penguin in Bludhaven, but he was much less certain of his own ability to read her actions and second guessed himself a lot. He did figure out she liked sweets and long showers from her taking all his rice crispies and coming to his place to use the shower for hours on end without though. By the time he's Red Robin, Cass is the Batman's sidekick he trusts the easiest and asks along if he wants someone to work with.
  • According to the "Hawaii 2.0" arc in the Wild C.A.T.s (WildStorm) 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.

    Fan Works 
  • 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.
  • During an undercover operation in In the Kingdom's Service, Jaune realizes that the Atlas agent he's fighting was trained by Oobleck due to the particular stance she uses. Jaune takes another stance taught by Oobleck to covertly signal that he's with Vale Secret Service without tipping off the nearby Emerald.
  • In the Star Trek: Voyager Parody Fic The Killer Dame, Tuvok and Seven of Nine communicate while held prisoner via the Fascinating Eyebrow trope.
    The young Borg realised that Tuvok was inquiring if she was all right. Seven quirked her ocular implant in reply, conveying that such a question was irrelevant and she was currently trying to free her bonds. Tuvok raised his other eyebrow, conveying his disapproval at the emotion of arrogance that might distract one from the task at hand. Seven answered with a scowl, conveying that she was experiencing some difficulty with the knots but she was Borg and would adapt, and that she would be as arrogant as she wished thank you! Tuvok took a deep breath, dropped his eyebrows to normal level, then raised first the right brow, then the left brow, then both brows together, then the left, then the right brow, two raises of the left again, then a wiggle of his pointed ears, then a slight twitch of his right brow again, and last of all a final poetic dance of supercilious motion by the two hairy arches.

  • 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.
  • Bat*21 starring Gene Hackman, was 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.
  • The USSR does this with troop movements in 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.
  • In The Hunt for Red October, Jack Ryan communicates with Soviet Captain Marko Ramius 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 is 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. Fortunately, the perplexed officer carrying out the order is his executive officer and in on the defection conspiracy.
  • 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 Ocean's Twelve, Danny Ocean and Rusty are speaking in code to Robbie Coltraine's character and it's played for laughs when Matt Damon's character doesn't get it.
  • The Phantom Menace; according to Expanded Universe sources, this is how Padme Amidala communicates her orders to Sabe, her decoy bodyguard. When Padme poses as a handmaiden, a subtle system of body language lets the two communicate in code.
  • 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."
  • In the second Rush Hour movie, Detective Carter is having a difficult time getting his informant, Kenny (Don Cheadle in a traditional Chinese Changsam), to calm down, much less tell Carter and Li what they need to know. When Li tries to put a reassuring hand on Kenny's shoulder, Kenny spins around and engages Li with surprisingly good kungfu. After trading very similar blows, Li recognizes the technique Kenny is using as the 'Twisting Tiger' and they both release, and Kenny becomes much more cooperative.
    Li: Where did you learn that?
    Kenny: (in Cantonese) Master Ching taught me.
    Li: (in Cantonese) Master Ching from Beijing?!
    Kenny: (in Cantonese) No... Freddy Ching from Crenshaw.
    Li: (In English) Oh! They're brothers!
  • A minor scene in The Sum of All Fears shows 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 Baroque Cycle has Jack Shaftoe encounter a Master Swordsman so skilled that he's able to communicate irony while swordfighting.
  • 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.
  • In the short story "Down on the Farm" of Charles Stross's The Laundry Files 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • In The Algebraist, a spy communicates with her contact (who is also her lover) by tapping out a message on his body while they are in bed under the sheets.
  • In Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, the novel Skin Game 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 covert communication method where Harry can communicate with an undercover associate in plain sight.
  • 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.
  • In Forgotten Realms: 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 Foundation, the members of the Second Foundation have developed a method of nonverbal communication which allows them to "speak" through imperceptible changes in expression and body language that nobody but them can even notice, let alone understand. It's effectively telepathy, and to the outside observer their meetings look like a group of men sitting in a room perfectly silent and seemingly totally still.
  • A British spymaster in The Fourth Protocol is able to determine that a Soviet spymaster is trying to let him know about an operation that he wants blown away (it was done without his approval, and has the potential for severe global consequences if it goes wrong), because a Soviet operative who comes through the border is so incompetent, so blunderingly obvious, that only someone who wanted him noticed and followed would have sent him.
  • Robert A. Heinlein's short story Gulf has two supergenius spies locked in a monitored cell communicate through a game of cards (with the card values corresponding to letters of the alphabet). The very first message is a warning that they're being watched.
  • 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.
  • In Kea's Flight, Kea and her friends use a chess code. At first each move stands for a letter, but they soon invent a move for each common word. They create variations for other board games, like Chinese checkers and Mancala.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • The Lorridians are descendants of a human colony that had been taken over by Scary Dogmatic Aliens, who did not allow groups to speak to one another (as to prevent a slave revolt). As a result, the Lorridians developed an elaborate form of body language communication to skirt around the restrictions, ran Scary Dogmatic Aliens off their planets, and their culture produces some of the finest actors and spies in the galaxy due to their mastery of reading and communicating through body language.
  • Twi’leks use their head tails or lekku for this. Owners of Twi’lek slaves sometimes put restraints on the lekku to prevent it.
  • 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 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • The Covert Affairs episode Horse to Water used the standard Chess version: an ex-CIA operative imprisoned for a decade used 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.
  • 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.
Emma: What?
The Doctor: Daleks don't have noses.
Emma: Scraping the barrel a bit there, aren't you?
The Doctor: 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.
  • 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.
  • In an episode of M*A*S*H, Hawkeye is sent to a frontline aid station, then the Army loses radio contact with them after receiving a report that a doctor there has been killed. The rest of the 4077th is concerned, until B.J. receives a patient from the aid station who has been sewn up using a technique that is specifically Hawkeye's style.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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.

    Video Games 
  • Bravely Default has Eternian Grand Marshal Braev Lee and Swordmaster Kamiizumi as examples of this trope. An amusing rumour late-game about a past duel between the two of them is revealed to simply be a misunderstanding, brought about by the fact that they are both poor with words and "let their blades do the talking".
    Edea Lee: For three days and nights?
    Mahzer Lee: I suppose it's no wonder people thought it was a duel.
  • Civilization can sometimes do this with the AI. A friendly AI makes suddenly one sided demands of you? They want war. The AI might do a show of force of troops along your border. A particularly clever move is for the AI to send a message demanding you withdraw your troops from their borders. Agreeing to will appease them... for now, as you don't have to do it. Unlike other requests, you cannot brush them off... you must declare war. The resulting Xanatos Gambit unfolds for the AI:
    • Agree and withdraw your troops: The AI is under no pressure to demilitarize their side of the border and you are bound to keep troops away for 30 turns, a tactical victory for them.
    • Agree but leave your troops in place: You are shown to break promises and be unreliable, justifying their war because you are the aggressor.
    • Refuse: You declare war, but you lose your first strike. Depending on how smart the AI is, they may have forces in place that are willing to devastate your forces and since they can only send the message on their turn, they can have the first attack. Oh, and because you declared the war, you are the aggressor in the rest of the world's view, which will ruin any diplomatic standing (It gets worse in VI, where this counts as a surprise war, netting you the worst warmonger penalties, but if you had wanted a war for a justified reason, the penalty would be less).
    • Agree, but then declare a justified war during the 30 turn demilitarization period: Broke your promise, which still reflects poorly on you.
      • All of this translates that the AI wants a war with you, but wants the war to start favorably for them. Your best bet is to Agree and let the AI come at you, thinking your borders are less secure, but keeping your troops just out of view, but that puts you at a disadvantage.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, Kaede Akamatsu, the Ultimate Pianist, believes in the ability to express oneself with the piano. After hearing Izuru Kamukura play, she notes that his piece is very good, but is a bit disappointed that he isn't really expressing himself.

    Western Animation 
  • 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 Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends Bloo's idiotic antics land him in the care of a heartless producer that keeps him in a cage and uses Bloo's convenient shape to promote Deo Brand Deodorant. During a huge promotional show, Bloo tries to communicate with his friends using various methods including Tap dancing in Morse Code. It's Mac, who is all of eight years old, that correctly deciphers and responds to the message.
  • In an episode of Scooby-Doo a kidnapped composer leaves behind a piece of sheet music that doesn't sound right. When converted into letter notation, it spells out the kidnapper's name.

    Real Life 
  • 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 Hotline, 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.