June 17, 2013

Learning to be Human (From My Dog)

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter KaufmanPic 1

The other day I was out walking my dog, Emma, and we ran into Archie. Archie is a gentle old soul who lives around the corner. He is always eager to see Emma and usually goes out of his way to come over and say hello.

I’ve known Archie for a few years and have come to learn quite a bit about him: his favorite places to walk around town, what he likes to eat, his low tolerance for hot and humid weather, his dislike of cats and squirrels, and even where he likes to take a poop. In case you haven’t realized, Archie is dog, a black lab to be exact. Despite all that I know about Archie there is one thing I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know:  the name of his owner, much less anything about her.

I do a lot of walking around town with Emma and we encounter lots of people on our daily strolls. I don’t say this to make myself feel better, but most of the people we encounter know much more about Emma than they do about me, just like I know more about Archie than his owner. People we meet ask me how Emma is doing, how she is adjusting, did I rescue her from a racetrack, does she like to run, does she get along with other dogs, is she cat friendly. I’m constantly answering questions about Emma from strangers and casual (albeit nameless) acquaintances alike.

Despite all of these questions, I don’t think any of these people have ever asked any similar questions of me: How are you doing? What do you do for a living? Where do you live? How long have you lived here? What’s your name? We might chat about the weather or the traffic on Main Street but the “personal” questions have all been about Emma.

I wouldn’t say I’m offended by this behavior, although I do find it curious. From my perspective, at least I’m having some interaction with these individuals. Maybe I’ve set the bar too low and I should be upset. But when I walk around town or on campus without Emma it is quite common for people to walk past me and not even make eye contact, not even acknowledge my presence a mere six inches away from them. This sort of behavior does bother me. Sometimes I feel like waving my arms in front of these people and yelling: “Hello! Another living creature here! How about a little interpersonal acknowledgement!”

This conduct is even worse than the civil inattention that Erving Goffman spoke about. With civil inattention at least the other person acknowledges your existence. They respect your personal space but they don’t pretend you are invisible. My experiences, unless I’m with Emma, are better described as uncivil inattention because the other person often does not pretend that I exist.  

Pic 2 This is where we can learn to be more human from our canine friends. Emma rarely walks past another living being without making some sort of inter-species gesture: eye contact, craning her neck to greet them, barking, or turning around in fear (she can be a bit timid sometimes). In particular, when she comes upon another member of her species, canis lupus familiaris, she never engages in uncivil inattention. She might be uncivil and bark but at least she is giving attention. More often than not, when she greets another dog they quickly proceed to the customary butt-sniffing ritual that anyone who has dogs knows all too well.

I often think of this canine behavior when I enter an elevator. Typically, when humans get into an elevator we ignore everyone else in this small, constrained space. We could be in there with four or five other people but unless we know someone we usually keep to ourselves and try our best to be inattentive (civil or uncivil). We might utter “excuse me” or “getting off” but that’s often the extent of our interactions.

If a dog walked into an elevator (I know that sounds like the beginning of a joke) with four or five other dogs you can be sure that the dog would take notice of the occupants and interact with them in some fashion. These animals would certainly give each other attention—and yes, it might be uncivil—but at least they would not be ignored like we humans are wont to do with each other.

The great irony that this example illustrates is that it is through socialization that we learn to be asocial (in some instances, socialization even makes us anti-social leading to behaviors such as bullying, aggression, and other forms of interpersonal violence). The socialization process is what teaches us to ignore others and act as if we are oblivious to their existence. Stated another way, in learning to become human we become even less human.

Pic 3We actually don’t even need to look to our canine companions to prove this point. We can just look at younger versions of ourselves—i.e., small children—and think about how they react to meeting other living beings. Much like dogs, young kids have not yet learned how to tune out other people, how to disregard others’ presence, and how to be uncivilly inattentive. In much more stark terms we might say that young kids (and dogs) have not yet been schooled in the unfortunate practice of dehumanization—of treating others like they don’t exist, of denying our humanness.

At the risk of romanticizing a dog’s life, much less anthropomorphizing Emma, I do feel that I learn about, or am at least reminded of, some important “human” lessons when I walk her each day: acknowledging the presence of other people and animals, making good eye contact when I encounter others, being mindful of my surroundings, unleashing (no pun intended) my curiosity about the world around me, stopping to smell the roses (literally and figuratively), recognizing my interdependence with the environment, and realizing that not every moment has to be about me. These all seem like things we should acquire from the human socialization process but sadly we often learn just the opposite.

Pic 4The interactions between animals and humans are obviously more complicated than what I’m making them out to be in this post. If you are interested in learning more, I would suggest exploring the website of the Section on Animals and Society of the American Sociological Association. This group of teachers, researchers, and practitioners are leading the way in developing sociological insights on these complex and vital relationships. Most of us come in contact with non-human animals every day. Even if you don’t feel compelled to study these interactions sociologically you might still ask yourself: can these creatures teach me anything about being human?


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Hi Peter! I think this is my favorite post thus far...so true...I constantly complain about asocial behavior (as I am the one that talks to people in elevators and says hi to strangers that I pass). I've found that most people ARE friendly, but as you mentioned, they've learned to keep to themselves due to socialization.

admirable, i like

I don't remember all of the great pics in this blog -- Emma Lems, Maggie, and Leigh with Cassie.

Re-reading this in 2018 is bringing the ideas and lessons in this blog home to me in a profound way.

Lots of appreciation to Peter for sharing this.

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