Turning Together Without Words

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lab and bird
Photo from the Ontario SPCA.

Over the years I’ve written a lot about animal communication on this blog. From parrots who learn our language, including syntax and composition, much more easily than we learn theirs, to simians who teach sign language to their children, to ravens who sing themselves to sleep and mimic the sound of flushing toilets just for fun, to hunting packs who wordlessly self-organize to corner prey, to whales who speak to each other in Now Time, the message is clear: We have no corner on language skills, either oral or non-verbal. Our only apparently unique invention is written language, and there’s lots of evidence that it’s the least effective form of communication we have, and the form most prone to misunderstanding.

The word conversation comes from the Latin root meaning “turning with”, and it originally had nothing to do with language, but rather with association. Interestingly, the word convert comes from the same root, which suggests that early human association might have been a mixture of friendly conversation and hostile adversity (from the Latin root ambiguously meaning both “turning [attention] towards, warning” as in advertise, and “turning away from” as in averse). All of this turning in response to others reflects the inherent and ancient power dynamics of all human relationships. [The word relationship, by the way, comes from the Latin meaning “flattened back, brought closer”, while the word association comes from the Latin meaning “joining to” and companionship is from the Latin meaning “having bread with”]. No use of language is required, etymologically, for any of these things.

The word talk, by the way, comes from the same old Norse root as the words tell and tale, and they all refer to story-telling. That is how deeply rooted story is in what we now call conversation. The words discuss and discourse are from the Latin meaning “pull apart and arrange words, analyze.” Convey likewise means “go with” and explain means to “flatten out, simpify.”

The oral “language” of wild animals is generally thought to be a combination of warnings and alerts (when loud and abrupt) and recreational sounds (when soft and drawn out). Think of the sounds of birds and cats and it’s not hard to appreciate which is which, and the value of each. The obvious metaphor is to our human chatter (loud and abrupt, warning and invoking “listen to me!” power dynamics) versus song (soft and drawn out — and incidentally our words for songs all originate in the descriptions of birds).

One could theorize that our human languages arose largely to complement our “body language”, which is all about power dynamics — displays of dominance and submission. As our society became more complex and hierarchical, more sophisticated language was needed to convey instructions downwards, and information on compliance with those instructions upwards, and an oral (and later written) language was a natural choice.

By contrast, when you watch wild animals meeting for the first time, they are generally (unless they have been improperly socialized or isolated) silent at first, feeling each other out, reading the body language, establishing (almost always peacefully) which is the dominant and which the submissive clearly to both “conversants”. They “turn together” with their whole bodies! What happens next depends on the circumstances — in the case of domesticated animals that live permanently juvenile, dependent lives, the next step is often play, which entails dominance/submission games with the conversants taking turns in the different roles, while in the case of adults the next step is usually more businesslike, conveying boundaries or invitation depending on the circumstances. When alone and/or stressed, domesticated animals, like humans, tend to emit lots of loud and abrupt sounds (the dog’s bark), while wild animals tend to emit mostly soft and drawn out sounds (the coyotes’ howl, the songbirds’ trill).

Listen to human conversation at the dinner table, in restaurants, on cell phones and at conferences, and you will witness astonishing displays of dominance and submission, and dismayingly little conveying of information, or explanation. It mostly appears to be about getting attention, appreciation, and reassurance. Most conversations are asymmetrically selfish — one party is seeking attention, and will offer appreciation to get it; the other vice versa. Both get reassurance in the process — that they are important, loved, capable, right.

Wild animals witnessing this cacophony would surely view it as ineffective, inefficient and rather pathetic. Our bodies, faces and hands convey much more than our words ever could, if we could only re-learn to pay attention and “read” them. Dogs know what we’re going to say to them before we speak because we betray it in advance with our body, face and hand language, and probably more articulately.

I wonder whether the reason that we chatter so much, instead of just communicating with body language and enjoying each others’ company in (oral) silence, is that there are so many of us crowded so close together that there is an attention and appreciation deficit, so we have to compete for attention and appreciation and resort to our loud and abrupt oral language to try to get our share of them. The hierarchies we’ve had to put in place to keep us all in line in this crowded and cramped society increase competitiveness and friction, so like dogs in a kennel or chickens in a henhouse we keep turning up the speed and volume to be heard, and to establish our territory. What’s more, compared to most mammals and birds, which seem almost universally beautiful and well-groomed, the large majority of humans seem (even to us) ugly and unkempt (perhaps due to a combination of excessive and undiscriminating breeding, and a relentlessly stressful and unhealthy lifestyle). So while beauty naturally attracts attention and appreciation, those of us not so naturally endowed must obtain our attention and appreciation and reassurance through cleverness, or manipulative dominance, and to establish that takes a lot of loud and abrupt noise-making.

It’s my hope that the world that the survivors of civilization’s collapse find themselves in, will be one in which humans can, once again, simply enjoy each others’ company wordlessly. And if and when they must use words, let those words be poetry instead of rhetoric, argument, even instead of story.

Something deep inside me tells me that if we can learn, again, to listen and pay attention to the soft unhurried songs of all-life-on-Earth, we can discover that, all along, our chatter was unnecessary, unpersuasive, meaningless, and all we really had to do was turn together, without words, and we would know all we ever needed to know.

Category: Conversation

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9 Responses to Turning Together Without Words

  1. Brent says:

    Beautifully written, Dave… which is a compliment (in regards to your topic) that comes with a smack of irony. Your observations are most astute. I think that an upgrading of the quality of our messages and missions will be more likely, in the meantime, to mitigate the collapse of our 1.0 world than the choice and style of our media. However, the dream of a Planet Earth 2.0 where poetry is the universal linguistic form is enchanting.You are most correct about the importance of paying attention to Nature. If, millenniums back, (and especially over the last few centuries) humanity had learned more “from” Nature instead of following our misguided notion to learn About Nature, we might not be in this mess.Yours is a great blog. Keep up this important work. You have much talent and a rare vision.

  2. Brent, it’s very sad that you use such a phrase as “Planet Earth 2.0” which has deep technological connotations, as well as implying that humanity is naturally dominant. The Anthropocene is merely a convenient term to describe dramatic civilization-induced changes to the biosphere, but to say that a change in humanity takes us to a *new version* of Earth is really odd, to say the least (compare this to the Permian extinction, for example). When Industrial Civilization collapses, there will always be the threat of more civilizations in the future – but in the meantime we will have to have the connections we had before in order to survive. Maybe that view will become the norm, but it certainly won’t mean Planet Earth 2.0.Dave, I encountered what you wrote only this morning. During my wardening round in a local bit of parkland a number of birds and squirrels stopped and looked at me; so I stopped and looked. This could have gone on for a long time, but the moment I spoke, in however low a voice, the spell was broken – the other animal ran or flew away. We don’t need to talk, most of the time.

  3. vera says:

    Brent, thanks for the important point. I have been wondering for some time why anthropology is so pathetically un-useful when it comes to the tribes. It’s because civilized people go to learn About the Hopi or Samoans, not to learn “from” them.

  4. vera says:

    Dave, I don’t know why the word ab**t gets caps and highlighted. I said “ab*ut.”Thanks for the fantastic picture, as always! :-)

  5. John Graham says:

    Hi Dave, I was closer to your position on “No more stories” than I dared admit, and pondering it has nudged me further. The trouble with stories is not that they’re manipulative, but that they’re not manipulat-ive *enough*. ‘Stories’ and arguments don’t work as they are alleged to, they’re unpersuasive, as you say. I think Perls, Hefferline and Goodman got a lot fundamentally right in “Gestalt Therapy” of 1951. One core element of their psychology and social theory is that the repression of *aggression* in society can help explain, among other things: the gross, large-scale out-of-sight-out-of-mind violence of our collective behaviour; the popular representation of sado-masochistic romantic love in movies (in 1951!); and the “otiose narrator” in our heads. It can account for the otiose conversation you mention, too. They also contrast poetry with this otiose narration. I’m saying I think you should read at least part two of this book, Dave. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gestalt_therapy#The_seminal_bookThey also mention that other social animals check each other out a lot more physically, touching, sniffing and so on. Could be part of the picture you’re building here. I agree with you that creative response is ugently needed to limit the damage done by our collective madness. I think the Gestalt therapy experiments in freeing up spontaneity and reclaiming healthy aggression can play a pivotal role here.

  6. vera says:

    John, I am very interested in what you say, but not looking to spend more years in therapy. How does one go about “reclaiming healthy aggression”? I am learning non-violent comm which is very useful, but what do I do with the pent-up aggressive emotions? I used to channel some of it to faily brutal arguments :-) but don’t care to do that any more. What now?

  7. Amy Leung says:

    Hi DaveYour writing brings to mind dance and movement. In particular, contact improvisation which is pure movement- weight, flight, gravity, turning, tension, release. When moving with another, often with eyes closed, one is fully attentive to the relationship between self and other, the energy exchanges and subtle transmissions. In these moving dialogues one senses is fully tuned into what is offered, what is possible and what the limits are from moment to moment. Respecting what one senses of the other is a critical aspect of this way of moving, turning together. I remember once being pushed before I was ready- I landed on my head on a hardwood floor- the pain we both felt was beyond words.

  8. John Graham says:

    Hi vera, I’m certainly not in any position to advise you on what to do with your anger, beyond encouraging you to inquire into it (what do you want to do with it? to whom? how do you pen it up in the first place?). And in NVC terms, value it as something that’s alive in you!I’m no expert on Gestalt therapy either. I find most intriguing the experiments on eating as the most basic aggressive act of organisms in an environment as we are: biting, chewing, swallowing, assimilating. Trying attending to how you address your food, how thoroughly you chew etc, and seeing what comes up or whether you drift off etc…trying just one mouthful a meal, to completely pulverise a mouthful before swallowing, and seeing what comes up. And then there are analogies been what we do with food and what we do with reading and other experiences: do we swallow and stomache or spew up, or digest and make our our (assimilate) – and going from there to how we introject societal norms if this destruction doesn’t take place.From a different angle, I think this latest post of terrapreata’s is excellent, and seems to be pointing to a radical way through this ‘stuff’ that parallels what I’m personally getting from Gestalt.http://terrapraeta.wordpress.com/2009/09/05/an-earnest-desire/

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. This thread is very much like a conversation between trusting community members about to embark together on an important journey. And I agree with John that Janene’s post is excellent, raising as it does the point that our collective grief for Gaia is a trauma, and needs to be healed the same way. It’s funny, after finally giving up on the idea of being at peace and being “the space through which stuff passes”, in favour of giving voice and expression to my anger and rage and grief, I feel more at peace than I have in a long time, a feeling that James Taylor puts in his song Enough to Be On Your Way: of being “wild with expectation on the edge of the unknown.” It’s a good feeling.

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