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How Animal Language Helps Us More Than Political Language

Communicating like an animal, rather than a politician, benefits us.

Communication is one very important ability that distinguishes humans from animals. Humans use verbal and nonverbal language as ways of communicating what they see in a situation to other people. This way, other humans do not have to experience that same situation in order to understand what happened. They can just hear what the other person saw and do not have to see it themselves.

There are several theories about how and why language developed for humans. Some theories propose that the development of language occurred very slowly, and others propose it developed much quicker. But what all of these theories have in common is they reflect that language developed to allow the transfer of knowledge from one individual to another.

Being able to transfer knowledge from one individual to another has a lot of obvious benefits. Most obvious would be that one person could prepare another for dangers or opportunities. “There’s a tiger who seems hungry up over that ridge” is important information to share. “I think I saw some apples on the tree around the corner” would be another.

Both of these examples allow one person to share something they saw with other people who did not. People who did not see what the other person saw are still able to benefit from the information. They are better able to survive because of something that they did not actually experience.

Language having a direct impact on survival is one major reason why it developed. But another benefit is less direct. Language allows for social connectedness. It allows humans to connect with each other in a variety of ways that do not exist when language is not present.

Humans have always had reasons for connecting with each other. But before language, most of those reasons were very practical and direct. Humans interacted to address situations that needed to be addressed immediately (e.g., getting food because everyone was hungry).

Language allowed them to do more preparation (e.g., preparing to get food for when they are hungry later). It also allowed for ways that people could connect without addressing something immediately. “Chit-chat” might seem unimportant, but it is a way that humans connect with other people without being involved in something needing everyone’s immediate attention.

This is, of course, all very simplistic, and language works on a number of different levels. And there are a lot of different types of language (for example, verbal and nonverbal language). We all communicate with each other in a number of different ways, and it all makes up what we call “language.” And much of it helps humans connect with each other. But there is also a lot that causes people to be less connected with each other. Language has a lot of benefits, but also a lot of problems.

And it would be wrong to say that animals do not ever “communicate” with each other. All animal species transfer information to each other. It is just that human communication works on a lot more different levels (although there is debate even about this). For the most part, animal communication relates more directly to immediate situations, and human communication relates more to unseen situations (that is, communicating information that others do not see) and future planning (that is, preparing for things that have not happened yet).

So, human communication allows people to share information with other people about things those other people don’t see. And animal communication focuses more on immediate environments and situations. Animals communicate about what they all need to do together right now, and humans communicate much more about what they need to do or plan to do in the future or in different places. This aspect of human communication is called “generalizing” information from one place to another (whether that “place” is somewhere else or sometime else).

But what’s interesting here, and important to keep in mind, is that animal communication is not always worse, or even less effective, than human communication. It often gets presented that way, with humans being described as more “advanced” than animals because human communication allows for discussing and addressing so many more topics and situations. Saying that human communication is always “better” than animal communication is wrong. Sometimes communicating and thinking “like an animal” can be better for people as well.

Here’s why. How we communicate impacts how we think. When we communicate information across different times and different situations, we tend to think that way as well. We think not only about what is in front of us, but also what is occurring somewhere else and what might likely occur in the future.

In a lot of ways, this occurs because the way we talk to other people impacts how we talk to ourselves. Communicating with ourselves becomes “internal communication” (or what we call “thinking”) and follows many of the same rules associated with “external communication” (or what we call “talking”).

Human communication and human thinking then lead to us expecting that we can understand the world outside of our immediate experience. As humans learned that they could talk about things they could not see, they started to expect that they could understand things much larger than what they could see immediately. They started to try and explain the whole world rather than just their own part of it.

This more global way of thinking and communicating is, of course, not a bad thing altogether. It is how philosophy and science started. Wanting to explain things outside of what is going on right here and right now has been essential for humans’ growth over the centuries.

But this expectation that we can explain more than our immediate experiences carries with it some considerable problems as well. Humans not only gather information about different times and places but then try to make sense of all that information. Gathering information about a lot of different materials leads us to want to group that material together so that we can make sense of it.

And that is where the problem comes up. Because just because we can group information together and talk about that information in ways that make sense does not mean that we are necessarily correct. We may group together a lot of information that we have about ourselves and our world in a way that is not accurate and may even be problematic. This can impact a lot about how we feel about ourselves and our world without being accurate in terms of what is actually happening.

Animals communicate with each other in a lot of ways that are much more accurate than humans. Their focus on what is happening immediately around them and in front of them is a focus only on what is actually known. We really only know what we are experiencing at the moment. Everything else is really just a guess. It may be a very accurate guess based on many experiences, but it is still just a guess.

Animals not relying on verbal communication (what we call “words”) may actually be a reflection of how effective their communication really is. Focusing only on what is happening “in the moment” allows animals to focus only on what they really know. And their communication styles often reflect that. There is much more focus on what is going on at the moment and what steps are needed to address something right now. Words are not needed as much as communication patterns focus everyone’s attention on something shared and on specific behaviors each individual needs to do.

Words are very important but can have a lot of problems. Because we use words to express very important concepts, we often think of words as being much more important than they actually are. We often mistakenly connect words we use with the reality they are meant to reflect. But that is not always the case. Just because we say something is so does not mean that it is actually so.

Politics is a good place to see this. Politicians often say things they do not mean. And we often call this “lying” (because it often is lying). But if you watch the language politicians use, you can see that the “lies” they tell often are not really just lies. They often reflect material that is being used for purposes other than reflecting reality.

One clear example that you see in any major political race is when a candidate says, “We are going to win this race, and this November I will be your next ______________________ (fill in government office here).” What is interesting to watch here is that every candidate will say something like this. Even candidates who are way behind in every poll will make some sort of statement like this.

But what is interesting here is that every one of those candidates knows that they can’t all be right. Literally, every person but one who makes that statement is wrong. So, is it a lie? Maybe.

But it more often is a way of using words to stir up supporters’ emotions. It serves to get people moving as they focus on what may be possible. Getting people emotionally involved so that they act (with things like knocking on doors and getting to the polls) is more important here than reflecting an actual reality.

Using words and language to stir up emotions and get people going is not necessarily a bad thing. And we all use language in this way at one time or another, even with ourselves.

But it is useful to consider that our words are not always what we think they are. They do not reflect reality as much as they reflect the reality we want or the reality we expect (whether that reality really exists or not).

People make judgments about themselves based on their experiences. They often tie those experiences together to make judgments about themselves. Past experiences are grouped together, and people often make statements about themselves based on that. Internal statements (or what we call “thoughts”) about ourselves reflect how we group experiences together. What is important to keep in mind, based on what we know about human communication with others and ourselves, is that how we communicate our experiences is not always accurate.

It can be very useful to consider that what we say to ourselves about ourselves, about others, and about our world is not always accurate. Just because we say something is so, does not mean that it actually is so. We tend to group experiences, good and bad, together in ways that help us feel like we are making sense of the world.

But how we group our experiences together is not always accurate. And they may lead us to make very negative and very inaccurate judgments about ourselves, our world, and other people. Statements about ourselves like “I’m no good,” and “everything I do turns into failure,” statements about others like “nobody likes me,” and statements about the world like “there is nothing good about the world around me” are all global statements that require tying together a large number of experiences. And just because those experiences might seem to fit does not mean that they actually do.

Thinking like an animal can actually be more helpful for making use of our experiences. Focusing on the here and now is often more helpful than trying to figure out what to do next. And even figuring out what to do next is often best done by using the information you have right now and realizing that what happened before is not necessarily what will happen next.

You do not know that what you had problems with before will be what you have problems with next. And even if situations do not work out how you want or expect does not mean they will not work out in some way. Knowing what happened before does not mean you know what the future holds. That is, in part, because you likely grouped together only some of the information that was relevant for understanding what happened before. You may have very well forgotten, or not paid attention to, material that was important then and could change how you think about what happens now.

Treating each experience as something new, one that will not necessarily work out how things worked out before, can be helpful. And recognizing that each outcome is unique, and will not necessarily have the same impact or meaning that outcomes had before, can also be helpful. Experiencing each situation as unique and one that is occurring “in the moment” helps you to gain the most out of what happens. It also helps to not group negative experiences together in ways that make you feel bad about yourself or your world. When something negative happens, it is one negative event. It does not need to define who you are or how you see your world and other people.

And it is useful to keep in mind that words do not always mean what we think they mean. Just because we can find words that seem to reflect our experiences does not mean those words are accurate. Words like “loser,” “failure,” “no good,” or “bad person” might seem like they reflect what we have gone through. But the reality is much more complicated than that. Words are much more accurate at reflecting one event and are much less accurate in grouping together what many events mean.

Taking steps to live in the moment and lessen the impact of negative words can help improve how we feel. It can help to try and separate how you feel about yourself from what you say about yourself. Keep in mind that words often reflect emotions and expectations rather than the reality of what is actually going on.

Focus on experiencing what is happening, rather than being concerned about what those experiences mean. Recognize that just because one experience (or more than one experience) did not work out well does not necessarily reflect what will happen elsewhere.

Focusing on the here and now is often how animals communicate and live their lives. And that can be a helpful approach for humans as well.

More from Daniel Marston Ph.D.
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