Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sniff test


Dogs are social animals. No matter how early my day starts, it starts in a walk with my dog. There are reasons this is necessary but Shadow disposes of them early on. Well, maybe I dispose of them, but then it's time to explore. And Shadow likes nothing better than to meet other canines. Usually this starts with some sniffing about the other dog's ears and continues with sticking his nose in areas generally unexplored in human interaction.

Did it go well? Either way, the exchange moves into more aggressive territory, with a series of feints and lunges. If the dogs are ill at ease there's barking and baring of teeth. If they hit it off, the action seem the same but the growls are in jest. What seems like a tense meeting dissolves into another round of sniffing and tail wagging. Perhaps watching such exchanges was how man discovered irony.

Dogs have a simple life, though, and the meet-and-greet routine gets trickier on the other end of the leash. I've learned the names of a lot of dogs in my neighborhood, but not a lot of their owners' names. We exchange a few pleasantries about our dogs and often the conversation goes no further. It's harder for humans to let their guard down.

It's a fact recognized by Toastmasters International, a group better known for training in public speaking. The issues of making an impression are similar in an ice-breaker speech, a work presentation or a one-on-one meeting. The nerves are certainly similar. So Toastmasters has a series of excercises built to practice interpersonal communication.

Making introductions can be a verbal form of the jousting that amimals do to make themselves at ease. The interaction starts with small talk, an opportunity to size up the other person and tell friend from foe. If the new person isn't openly hostile, it's time to sniff around metaphorically, trying to find something in common. At least at the start, this exchange is nothing too intimate.

There's a hierarchy of disclosure at work here as we try to see what we can find out. First, we exchange simple facts, perhaps details about our surroundings -- more about our pets, or depending on those pets' shedding behavior, about where to find a dry cleaner nearby.

If we're comfortable we might want to learn something about each other -- how we work, what we do in our free time. Again, we start with just the facts. If we like what we hear, we might feel comfortable enough to move from facts to opinions, and see if we still share common ground. That could mean talking politics or comparing notes on favorite restaurants or other pursuits.

It takes a fairly thorough airing of the facts of our lives and what we think about them before we move on to personal feelings. There's a difference between talking about the local school and talking about your kids' problems there, and you can't bridge that gap unless you've struck up a friendship.

But first, you have to get a conversation going, and here's where our pets finally can teach us a few tricks.

First, we should share our pets' enthusiasm. Shadow throws himself into each of his doggie exchanges, and seems just as interested in a dog at their first meeting as he does five minutes later when they've both gone once aroud the block. The human encounter is all about learning something new, and every conversation can expand our knowledge, or to pass that knowledge on.

Second, we need to be angling for more. Shadow always wants to mix it up with his jousting routine, which calls for a response from the other dog. In interpersonal conversation, a real back-and-forth involves listening as well as talking. It also takes questions that require more than "Yes" or "No" answers. Open-ended questions give us something more to work with in keeping the conversation going and learn something new.

Finally, even if we're on our guard, conversations are time for fun. Dogs know not all run-ins are going to be pleasant, but their approach moves naturally from inquisitive to playful. We should be able to shed our inhibitions enough to enjoy a chance meeting.

We're social animals too, and talking to others is one way we explore our world. It's a sniff test without a hint of cynicism, just as our dogs would have it.

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