Copyright 2002 by Jon Bondy, All Rights Reserved.
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Jon Bondy, firstname.lastname@example.org
We all have to try to empathize with other intellects. Were we too aggressive? Too conciliatory? Too friendly? Too cold? Did we act too dumb, or too smart? It all depends on our ability to try to "read" the other guy (or gal). Life is a dance, where we adjust our opinions and behaviors based on what we perceive in others. We try to discern patterns, and try to react based on our evaluations.
Much of this is based on an implicit assumption that the other gal (or guy) is 'like us". That is, they have our needs, our values, our fears, and our joys. Part of the joy of learning about other cultures has to do with trying to comprehend other systems of values. Part of the joy and frustration of cohabitation is learning how differently the other sex thinks and feels. And part of our revulsion for sociopaths involves our concern that such people have values that are so alien to ours that any attempt at understanding them is likely to fail. We revel in dolphins because they are like us; we shudder when we try to comprehend sharks. We enjoy cats, even as we try to forget what unforgiving carnivores they are.
Most of us enjoy novelty, and that drives us to far off places to enjoy other cultures, and to zoos to enjoy other species. But, in the end, our instincts are usually prejudiced towards our own species and our own cultures.
Most of us are not psychic. I'm intuitive at times, but at times I'm counterintuitive. I think I know what the other guy is thinking, but after a bit, it turns out I was very wrong. My most amusing failures concern my menagerie of cats, birds, and fish, known collectively as The Livestock.
I have two african grey parrots, Karma and Tiger. The two look identical, but they're fairly antithetical. Karma is an acrobat, happily flipping upside down at the end of a branch, flapping her wings, and bouncing up and down. Tiger is a bit of a klutz, avoiding unstable situations most of the time. Karma's claws have never needed to be trimmed: they're always pleasantly blunt. Tiger's claws are needle sharp. Karma balances on my fingers precisely; Tiger is almost always leaning backwards, thoughtlessly digging his claws into my fingers. Karma is very verbal, saying almost a hundred distinct phrases and even more sounds, and using some of them meaningfully; and Karma can learn a new sound in just a few days. Tiger says perhaps 10 words or phrases, and learns them slowly. Tiger's feathers are immaculate, while Karma always looks like she's just come out of the shower. Tiger loves affection, soliciting long sessions where I stroke her neck and back; Karma dislikes being touched in any way. Tiger loves to sit on my shoulder, gripping my shirt with his claws; Karma's claws are so dull that she is unable to sit on my shoulder without falling off. Tiger mouths my fingers with his beak, but almost never bites; Karma will bite if given the opportunity.
It is erie hearing a bird saying things in your own voice. One's instinct is to trust such clear enunciations as if they came from a thoughtful entity. And the fact that they're in clear English leads one to believe that the speaker thinks and feels as one does.
I take Karma to her feeding perch at least three times a day. There she sits, eating some of what I give her, and dropping the remainder on the floor, passing judgment on my guesses at her appetites. Sometimes she asks for specific foods, but more often than not, she is merely chatting, not actually requesting.
She shows her enthusiasm for something that she sees by trying to fly over to it. She bends her knees and spreads her wings, obviously about to launch herself. She does not actually fly that often, but her body language is clear.
I usually take containers full of food out of the refrigerator and offer some to Karma. She seemed to be more interested in some foods than others, so I naturally offered those foods to her. They went straight down to the floor. At some point, I brought a container full of food out to her and offered it to her. She happily started biting the container, ignoring the food. The message? The "obvious" object of interest (the food) was not what interested her. She wanted to chew on the container.
I often I placed some of each food in small plastic bowls, and put the bowls on her feeding perch. She reacted by picking the bowls up and dropping them onto the floor, whether they contained food or not. My interpretation was that she was being mean. Do parrots have The Terrible Twos?
A few weeks later, I heard Karma making a strange noise, with some enthusiasm. A kind of "clack ... ... ... clack ... ... clack ... clack, clack, clack, clack" noise. The sound of impacts occurring at first slowly, but eventually faster and faster. It took me a while, but I eventually understood that this was the sound that the bowls made when they hit the floor. Apparently, that noise interested Karma quite a lot. After that, I would give Karma the empty bowls, and she would enthusiastically pick them up and drop them on the floor, often saying 'Karma dropped the bowl!" to me. So much for my initial take on the situation: to Karma, a bowl is not a food container, it is a noise making toy.
I have used a cordless phone with a headset for almost 15 years: it is the only way I am willing to talk on the phone now. I sometimes muse at what this looks like to the parrots. I wander around the room, doing minor errands, and muttering to myself (talking on the phone). I would say that I must appear to be demented to the parrots, except that they seem to prattle on to themselves a lot of the time. Maybe they learned that from me.
At one point, while talking on the phone, and with Tiger on my shoulder, Tiger suddenly, and without obvious provocation, bit me on the neck. I can tell you that I was both surprised and angry. Tiger had a rapid trip into his cage after a loud scolding. A few weeks later, the same thing happened again.
Since Tiger is not a mean bird, I tried to figure out what was going on. It took me a while, but I'm guessing that Tiger sees the cord that runs between the headset and the phone as if it is a snake. When he bites me, he's trying to kill the snake that is wrapped around my neck. Needless to say, Tiger no longer sits on my shoulder when I'm using the phone.
Such misunderstandings are not limited to my relationships with my pets. Long, long ago, when I was in grade school, I was part of a new way to teach the French language. The idea was to totally immerse the class in French. No English used at all by the teacher. She tried to explain French in French. I'm not much for foreign languages, but I thought I understood what she was saying.
She would often discuss something (in French), such as naming the clothes that she was wearing, or naming various objects that she had brought in. Whenever she was finished with that mini-lesson, she would turn to a different topic. Her method of changing pace was to put down the original materials, turn to the class, say "maintenant", and then proceed to the next topic. I was sure that I knew what "maintenant" meant: it must mean "class". She turned to the class, said "class", and then went on.
Well, years later, I discovered that "maintenant" means "now" in French. So much for the French lessons.
So, what is the "take home lesson"? One friend of mine said "You know what other people say; just remember that you only imagine that you know what other people think". I'd say that these stories are validation of my friends aphorism.