Being The Uncanny Valley
The concept of “the uncanny valley” was developed a couple of decades ago to explain the discomfort people feel when confronted with something that is almost, but not quite, familiar. As the Japanese assiduously developed ever-more-realistic sex dolls, manufacturers were surprised to discover that they would reach a point where the dolls were simultaneously too realistic and not quite realistic enough.
When we see cute robots like Honda’s Asimo or Eve in the movie Wall-E we are not at all disturbed. The wide open eyes enable us to anthropomorphize what is clearly an artificial construct. Our brains respond to the baby-like cue (wide eyes) but we’re not disturbed because there’s no danger of us confusing the robot with a real human baby.
But when we see a hyper-realistic animatronic Japanese sex doll, something akin to revulsion seeps in. This is because the doll is too realistic for us to process as artificial but insufficiently human for us to accept as “one of us.” No doubt this kind of discomfort is at the bottom of a great deal of xenophobia and racism, but that’s a topic for another time.
It is not just Japanese animatronic sex dolls that evoke the uncanny valley, however. At least, not unless there’s something my parents neglected to tell me about my origins.
I have discovered that I unintentionally create my own uncanny valley.
But only in England.
Here’s some background: I was born to British parents in Arabia and after spending the first years of my life there, spent a year in Germany and afterward grew up in a couple of African countries and then Spain. I also spent time in the Netherlands and Australia and then the USA. Recently I spent over a year and a half in Switzerland. All in all, I’ve spent less than eight years in the UK, so although I sound rather English with my received pronunciation Oxford accent I’m about as far from being English as one can imagine.
Consequently my body language and my facial expressions are non-English. I don’t have the apologetic slight hunch the English adopt when walking, nor that beaten-down-by-a-lifetime-of-disappointment expression so many wear without even knowing it. Nor am I soft and flabby.
What this means is that, having turned up in the UK six weeks ago, I confuse those with whom I now interact. I sound English but everything else about me signals otherwise. And this upsets people.
Today, after three grueling weeks during which I worked my usual 45-hours-per-week full-time job plus an additional 25-hour-per-week part-time job, I treated myself to an experience I imagined would be pleasantly relaxing. I thought it could be rather nice to pay a visit to the Bath Thermae Spa. There’s an indoor pool and a rooftop pool and the idea of luxuriating in a hot mineral spring-fed pool while gazing out over Georgian Bath and the countryside beyond seemed like the perfect way to celebrate the end of my period of overwork.
I realized something was not quite right when I stepped out of the changing cubicle, a towel wrapped around my waist. As I traversed the corridor past several loitering couples, I couldn’t help but be aware of the strange looks I was getting. These looks would have been comprehensible had I gone through with my notion of getting a large tattoo blazoned across my chest: If you voted for Brexit you’ll probably have to ask someone else to read this for you.
But as I loathe tattoos and would never impose such a disfigurement on my own body, this couldn’t be the explanation.
I went down to the indoor pool first, in order to see what it was like. Aside from the water being tepid rather than warm, it was quite pleasant. But after I hung my towel on a hook and walked toward the pool I couldn’t help but notice many of the people in the pool looking at me disapprovingly.
After checking to see if I was still wearing my favorite Mussolini Made Italy Great Again baseball cap (I wasn’t) I entered the pool. A heavily tattooed young man, probably aged in his late twenties but with the beer-belly of a much older and indisputably accomplished drinker, muttered, “who does he think he is, eh?”
Oddly enough, I think I’m me.
The mutterings were not confined to the flabby young man. Two young and inevitably overweight women likewise probably nearing their thirties, gave me hostile stares and one whispered to her companion, “I bet he thinks he’s something, the tosser.”
As I looked around I realized everyone else in the pool — about twenty people in all — were all soft and flabby or outright fat. While I am exceedingly old now (my first pet was a pterodactyl) and very wrinkled, I’ve striven to maintain myself in near-operational condition. So while I don’t have a sixpack I do have a fourpack and obvious muscle definition. I began to feel like a feature in the children’s game One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others.
I closed my eyes and let my body float.
A couple of minutes later, I felt a bump against my leg. I opened my eyes and a middle-aged woman was looking at me with embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” she said, in a heavy French accent. A distinguished grey-haired man I took to be her husband was near her. I replied, “C’est pas grave” and she looked relieved. The three of us began a conversation in French, first about the dreary English weather and then on the topic of what had brought all of us to this charming Georgian city.
As we chatted I heard someone behind me exclaim, “He’s fucking foreign! That explains it!”
By speaking French, I’d traversed the uncanny valley. Now I was clearly an alien artifact, the confusion caused by my accent not matching the rest of me was swept aside. Of course I was different from all the English people in the pool! I was “fucking foreign!”
Henceforth I shall wander round this delightful city speaking broken English with a heavy French accent in the style of the late Peter Sellers’ character Inspector Clouseau and the uncanny valley shall cease to trouble the sheltered inhabitants of Bath.
Because I’d rather be Clouseau than an animatronic Japanese sex doll.