Animals Talk To Each With Civility

It’s been long believed that one of the ways humans separate themselves from the animals is that we talk civilly to one another, and animals don't. Today's blog is written to debunk that theory. According to David Nield at Science Alert, when animals chat with each other, they’re actually very human-like. In fact, “according to a comprehensive new study, many species take turns in their conversations, just like we do.” So, if the animals came before man, maybe we actually learned this technique from them?


Talking back and forth to each [aka "turn-taking"]  — long believed to be an act of civility in humans — isn't only a characteristic of homo sapiens. Researchers now say that may not be the case at all. The same patterns are omnipresent in nature - from the chirps of birds to the rumblings of elephants.

Consequently, their research focused on how our languages got started.

"The ultimate goal of the framework is to facilitate large-scale, systematic cross-species comparisons," says one of the team, linguist Kobin Kendrick from the University of York in the UK.

"Such a framework will allow researchers to trace the evolutionary history of this remarkable turn-taking behavior and address longstanding questions about the origins of human language."

The Awkward Pause or Stepping on Another’s Line

“Talking habits” research in humans dates back some 50 years. However, very little work has been done to draw comparisons with animals.

In the case of taking turns with conversation, the timing gaps in conversations vary from species to species. Timing gaps is also a form of civility.  We are all familiar when we step on another person's line or experience an awkward pause when nobody is talking.

For example, certain songbirds wait less than 50 milliseconds before replying, while sperm whales can leave a pause of up to two seconds. With humans, we tend to leave a gap on average of 200 milliseconds.

European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) try to avoid overlapping conversations. So when one occurs, it might be met with silence where one of the birds might actually fly away  — perhaps thinking the other is no longer interested in continuing a conversation.

By detecting patterns across multiple studies and a good number of  species, we can better detect how animals talk to each other. In so doing, it'll be easier to uncover the origins of human language, according to researcher, Sonja Vernes from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands.

"We came together because we all believe strongly that these fields can benefit from each other, and we hope that this paper drives more cross talk between human and animal turn-taking research in the future," says Vernes.


It’s certainly a startling observation to learn that all animals make an attempt at civility — that aggression isn’t always the ‘go-to’ emotive reaction in the animal kingdom. This might actually support that old adage “making love, not war” is our primary reason for residing on the planet — and that perhaps it is sometimes lost, when we don’t truly take the time listen to each other.

Primary Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B