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Conversations with aliens Conversations with aliens
by Jan Sand
2006-10-31 09:58:59
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Kurt Vonnegut once speculated that if a friendly alien landed his spaceship in a populated area and made his greeting speech in his native language, which consisted of tap dancing and farting, he would have a very aggressive reception.

Stanislaus Lem, another marvelous writer with curiosity about communication, told a story wherein a pair of Earth astronauts became frustrated with the natives of a strange planet. They looked like loaves of bread and totally refused to answer queries about their planet. The enraged Earth explorers finally destroyed the entire place.

These ideas about human-nonhuman communication are not particularly optimistic and although there have been stories of horse whisperers the general misunderstandings in interspecies gossip has most likely led more towards hoarse whispering.

My own experiences with animals have had questionable success. Aside from parrots and a couple of other clever type birds, the expectations of a conversation in human words are nil. So flexibility in sounds not usually associated with human speech must be acquired or we need to resort to gestures, which can be significantly useful.

I am aware that chimps and bonobos have great symbolic linguistic capabilities and dolphins also have revealed reasonable communicative talents, but I must admit in my casual peripatations through New York City and Helsinki that I have encountered none of these. So I must be satisfied with whatever wildlife that presents itself.

My Finnish is not terribly competent, so I make do with dogs, cats, pigeons, ducks, squirrels, seagulls, horses, sparrows, crows, jackdaws, magpies and tits (the kind that flies - the other kind is visually interesting but totally silent, at least to my attentive ear). I have never been able to catch the ear of any insects. Probably because their ears are located in improbable places and because of the mayhem humans regularly inflict on insects we are not considered particularly friendly by them. Occasionally an adventurous horsefly will attempt to share a meal with me but since he obviously refuses to wash his hands before meals, I decline the opportunity.

Some bird sounds can be made by a high chirp done with a high pressure kiss. Another sparrow sound is done by squirting saliva through your teeth with tongue pressure. Dog and cat sounds are done with the vocal chords. Crow sounds are done with air pressure on the back of the tongue to vibrate the tongue against the inside of the mouth. That can be done softly or quite loudly.

Different animals, even of the same species, respond differently, more or less in the same way that different people respond differently. Crows and jackdaws are smart enough to be very suspicious of people. Pigeons are easier to convince and seagulls can go either way. The big problem is not with the animals but with people passing by and who seem to possess an inherent fear and hatred of animals.

Small children have a fierce inner drive to frighten and chase birds. The people, of course, are sure I am somewhat insane to be so friendly to animals and I reciprocate with a like judgment on their attitude. I have had people fling open their windows and scream at me for my interest in fellow creatures. It is amusing and slightly uncomfortable.

When passing a dog being walked by its owner, if you look at the dog instead of the owner, the dog, not used to being treated as an equal creature, can react in several possible ways. It can return the friendly interest, it can be suspicious or it can be frightened and start barking. Cats are usually very cautious and tend to run.

Humans have some universal communication reactions. Smiling, laughing, frowning, and several facial expressions are common to all humanity, as are some total body gestures. Dogs and cats and several other animals, in my experience, blink their eyes slowly as a friendly gesture. Dogs pant with joy and if they get pleasurably excited they sneeze. Licking motions with the tongue, not necessarily with contact, can indicate friendliness. Cats make all sorts of different meows but they are not easily describable. Offering food to animals is a universal gesture of friendship, but likely to evoke nasty reactions from people nearby.

I haven't had contact from any of the larger carnivores who might interpret my proximity as a friendly offer of myself as food, but quite a few smaller species have never made an aggressive gesture to me even if they might be considered 'wild'.

People are a different matter…


 
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