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Um, what is that? (aka alien communication)

(I learned this at Kani Club, the great "Yes, and..." improv group in Tokyo.)

This game, done in pairs, challenges the listener and the speaker alike to clarify the meaning of words and phrases used. Like all games it is, as Huizinga says, "pointless but significant." The fun is in the pointless interruption and unnecessary explanation. The significance is in the verification of mutual understanding of even the simplest terms.

The flow:
The joker divides the group into pairs, one person taking the role of Speaker, the other of Listener. The speaker is told to think of a simple story s/he can tell in three or four minutes -- anything is good, something that happened on the way to the class, the first day on a new job, anything.

The Speaker begins to tell the story. The joker keeps time (3 minutes)

As the speaker tells her story, the listener interrupts frequently, asking for clarification of certain words, as if s/he didn't understand their meaning. (The words the listener chooses should be utterly obvious ones.) The speaker then earnestly explains the meaning of the words -- as if to someone who really had no idea that they meant -- until the listener is satisfied. The listener says, "go on" and the speaker continues. The listener interrupts again, etc.

When the joker calls time, the players switch roles and play again.


Speaker: This morning I woke up, put on my slippers and...
Listener: Sorry, "put on"?
S: Yes, I took the slippers from the floor and placed them on my feet, like mittens, with my toes at the front of the slipper, inside, like shoes, but slippers are softer and for use in the house, to keep your feet warm...
L: Okay, I see, go on.
S: Then, I went to the bathroom to take a shower.
L: A shower?
S: Yes, I went into a small room where I stood under a kind of spout that sprays water. People do this to wash their hair and bodies so they don't get smelly. If you get smelly it makes others uncomfortable and it can be unhealthy..."
L: Okay, I understand.
S: So, then I ... and so on.

Things to watch for

  • Give the speaker a moment to think of a story that they can tell from start to finish so they don't lose the thread as they are interrupted.
  • What makes this funny is the way words we assume to be immediately understood are treated as if they were unclear, and the way the speaker explains the obvious. But, it takes a little practice to get the feel of it, and it helps to have good models who can show the humorous potential.
  • The ideal tone or attitude of the speaker and listener is friendly and supportive -- they really want to understand each other.
  • Don't let it go on too long, unless people are comfortable with it and want to see how it works in a longer story.


  • Have the listener interrupt not just during the story, but during the explanations, so that the story can never get told. This derails the story in a way that can be both exasperating and entertaining.
  • Give the speakers a place or situation to prompt their stories and give them a thematic element -- e.g. a recent union meeting, talking to a co-worker about the next union election, etc...
  • Give the speakers a theme to prompt their stories -- fear, trust, power...
  • Debrief about the relation between this absurd game and daily life, the things we assume are understood, but should be questioned so that we can understand each other better. I say I support the group grievance or the weekly demonstration, but do you and I understand them the same way? What do we mean by support?
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