Greeting Correctly in the Human and Animal World is Important
Probably the most famous historical greeting is “Dr Livingstone, I presume!” – words that the New York Herald reporter Henry Morton Stanley spoke in 1871 when after a track of nearly eight months he found the Scottish missionary and physician Dr David Livingstone in a small village near Lake Tanganyika in East Africa. Not famous is the “greeting” by a Papua Niugini Highlander “You know I can kill you”, meted out to me when in 1972 I approached his dwelling and he pointed a bow and arrow at me. Greetings in humans are ubiquitous, often ritualized behaviours, designed to impress, reduce or suppress aggression. And they, of course, have roots in behaviours expressed by animals.
Take for instance the pressing of foreheads together or nose to nose contacts among Polynesians: isn’t that very similar to what you observe when two cats meet each other? Or why do the French “s’embrassent” on so many occasions and seek a cheek-to-cheek contact when they greet each other? Celebrating New Year’s Eve in France in 1983, I was to my displeasure even included in this hugging and kissing at midnight by party guests I did not even know and then had to politely remind them that I was a New Zealander, not accustomed to this kind of behaviour. It has been surmised that the hugging and kissing stems from an assessment of the opponents odour, when our noses were still more sensitive than now and that recognition by another individual’s smell. This still plays a significant role for most mammalian species. However, it usually occurs when two individuals are very close to each other and because closeness can escalate and be dangerous, distant greeting signals have evolved to lessen the risk of a closer encounter. My grandfather used to tip or lift his hat to greet someone; we wave, nod our head, avoid direct eye contact, or behave like an old colleague of mine, who ever so briefly used to flick his head to one side (away from the other person) only to bring it back to its original position immediately thereafter. As with animals that can harm each other, briefly looking away or exposing a vulnerable body part are signs of trust, indicative of peaceful intentions and the crane’s famous dances with running around in circles, flapping its wings, may also be just mock flights. Waving and shaking hands, moreover, show that one isn’t concealing a weapon and the touching of antennae in ants when they meet also precludes the simultaneous use of their biting mouthparts, allowing individuals to smell and assess each other and perhaps to exchange food.
Touching sensitive body parts would be the ultimate of expressing trust and I was somewhat amused in 1972 to see adult Onabasulu men in the Southern Highlands of Papua Niugini (even photographed them) touching each other’s genitals. A similar behavior had earlier been reported from Central Australian Aborigines and in the animal world it finds its equivalent amongst the baboons for whom genital fondling is a well researched ritual amongst adult males. Vocalizations often precede more physical greeting rituals and while we may shout “How are ya” or say “Hello” or “G’day”, animals may announce their presence and intentions by songs, grunts, stamping of their feet, etc. Bill clapping in storks can serve as a warning and be a greeting. In fact, many signals used in greetings can also be part of warning rituals, depending on their intensity, context and (if vocalizations are involved) pitch as well. You can, after all, often distinguish the ‘happy’ from an aggressive dog’s bark.
My aquarium fish don’t bark, but when I introduce a new swordtail male, old and new individuals line up in opposite directions and wriggle, a “greeting” that usually escalates and turns into a fight. When two dogs meet for the first time, they also often stand side by side in opposite directions as part of their greeting ritual and begin to explore each other’s backsides with their noses. My grandfather used to say jokingly that they wanted to identify the culprit that had stolen and eaten the roast at the dogs’ great convention and that they were still searching for the ‘felon’. Well, a dog’s anal region is a treasure of information (if you’ve got a nose with 150 million receptors in it) and mood, gender, age, state of health and much more, including the dog’s last meal, can be sniffed out in the cocktail of odours that is emitted from the anus and its associated glands in the rectum.
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