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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bow and Lawrence and Nonverbal Cues

Every Wednesday Lawrence comes in to sit with Bow so I can run some errands. Bow and Lawrence are very good friends. Bow eagerly waits for Lawrence to arrive. He knows that Lawrence is coming, and he looks forward to that. He even makes eager, impatient sounds of happiness when he sees Lawrence's car arrive in the driveway.

However, you would not know any of this if you saw how Bow behaves when Lawrence first comes in. Bow's hair stands on end. He makes himself look twice as big as he actually is. He makes threatening sounds and throws himself against the glass and the walls of the pens, in some cases even injuring himself through the violence of his own aggression.

Lawrence knows better than to go in while Bow is in the middle of such a display. If he did, he would stand a very good chance of being injured. But all Lawrence has to do is wait until the display peters out. Eventually, Bow settles down, and then he may even gesture to let Lawrence know it is safe to come in. Then, when Lawrence does come in, Bow greets him happily and starts to groom Lawrence.

This pattern repeats every single week, unless Lawrence has been here a day earlier. Bow does not feel the need to display if the two have just seen each other. But if a whole week has gone by, the display must take place. There is no way to get around it. We just have to go through it.

Some people tend to say things like: well, of course, he's a chimpanzee. What did you expect? But I don't think it's just a chimpanzee thing. The more I get to understand Bow's peculiar and inevitable behavior, the more I recognize that I have seen similar things in humans, but at the time, I did not understand what I was seeing.

For instance, when I was in law school, I was surprised during negotiations with another student, that he appeared to get very angry and hit his hand on the table so hard that he broke the wristband to his watch and may also have injured his hand. At the time, I thought this was a sign of the man's stupidity and lack of self-control. But I was woefully unaware of the power of non-verbal signals at the time, and I did not realize that disputes are often settled by non-verbal displays of strength and posturing and that you cannot reason your way out of what is essentially a power struggle.

In my real life experiences as a lawyer, I learned that I could not ignore non-verbal signals. People were communicating important things to each other without words -- and often the words they used belied the real messages they were sending. We ignore non-verbal signals at our peril.

Many repeated patterns of aggression and then submission appear in human relationships all around us. It does not necessarily have to be overtly violent, but it is there nonetheless. Naive do-gooders often try to teach people not to repeat those patterns over and over again, but the people who do really well in life are those who learn to go with the flow. Instead of preaching to others that they should break the pre-programmed pattern, they learn the pattern, and they find ways to come in without getting hurt.

By learning to live with a chimpanzee, and experiencing this first hand with him, I am able  to understand a lot of things now about human relationships that I was not able to see before. I have incorporated some of this understanding into my new book, Theodosia and the Pirates, which will be out next year.

Dominance displays and patterns of submission are a part of life. Instead of trying to reform everybody into behaving more like a robot and less like a primate, wouldn't it be better to understand and incorporate that understanding into our lives and our institutions?

When Lawrence came the day after Christmas, he brought with him a couple of belated presents for Bow: a sports shoe and a shirt. Bow was delighted with the gifts. Of course, he knows what we normally do with shoes and with shirts. He even briefly wore the shirt. But afterwards, he went back to enjoying his own natural pattern of behavior with shirts.

Literacy and education are all well and good. We each can benefit from those. But who we are, underneath the education and the clothing, is not going to change. This is one of the many things that I have learned from Bow.


  1. This was quite compelling reading, and I think the key message is let everyone be themselves, and stop trying to conform everyone to a certain mold.

    1. Thanks, Julia. That is indeed the message. It's not even a question of whether it's desirable or not to expect conformity. It does not ultimately seem to be possible. Why expend so much on a goal that is not attainable, when we could just enjoy people the way they are?