You Had Me At ‘Hello’ — The Politics of Greeting


Drawing by Eva Meijer

Next time you walk across your local park you might want to try a new form of political communication – ‘greeting as recognition’.  If a squirrel crosses your path, say hello. If a crow fixes you with one of his sharp black eyes, offer a respectful nod. If you’re lucky enough to encounter a dog companion, crouch low, ask if she’s having a nice walk, and let her approach and greet you if she will.

Eva Meijer is a Dutch artist, novelist and philosopher. In her current work, on animals and political communication, she is considering the role of greetings and other interspecies “language games”. We generally think of language practices, such as ‘protest’, or ‘greeting’, in a human context, but in fact, these words and the rituals they represent (like our language more generally) have been formed in an interspecies context, not a strictly human one. This is true in socio-historical terms, since we have always lived in multispecies communities, and at the individual developmental level. For example, many of us had beloved animal companions (or neighbours) as children, and learned the meanings of words like ‘love’ or ‘friend’ (or ‘need’, ‘want’, ‘hope’, ‘intend’) through interaction with nonhumans as much as humans. And so, when we use these words in relation to animals we are not making an anthropomorphic error of projection; rather, we are using words in the very context in which we (and other animals) originally came to understand and shape their meaning. So too for more politically charged linguistic practices such as greeting, or protest, or resistance.

How are greetings political? As Meijer says:

all conversations in which animals are taken seriously as interlocutors are political, because they challenge the stereotypical image of non-human animals as mute and because they show us new ways of thinking about communication and, more generally, living with different kinds of animals.

So the first political aspect of greeting is that it is a form of recognition. We can see this starkly when we think about the political import of the denial of greeting, as when servants and slaves were treated as inanimate wallpaper, as when we snub someone on the street, or in more collective forms of social ostracism and shunning.

Thus, even if a greeting doesn’t evolve into a conversation, the very act of greeting is a mark of respect and recognition. Ethologist Barbara Smuts expresses the idea this way:

Before… if I were walking in the woods and came across a squirrel, I would enjoy its presence, but I would experience it as a member of a class, ‘squirrel’. Now, I experience every squirrel I encounter as a small, fuzzy-tailed, person-like creature. Even though I usually don’t know this squirrel from another, I know that if I tried, I would, and that once I did, this squirrel would reveal itself as an utterly unique being, different in temperament and behaviour from every other squirrel in the world. In addition, I am aware that if this squirrel had a chance to get to know me, he or she might relate to me differently than to any other person in the world… Such relationships can be ephemeral, like those developed with the birds in whose territories we might picnic, or life-long, like those established with cats, dogs, and human friends.

Fans of Star Trek (Next Generation) might remember the episode (The Big Goodbye) in which Captain Picard prepares obsessively for first contact with the Jaradan people, practicing the elaborate greeting ritual which he must execute perfectly or risk insulting his hosts, thereby sabotaging the possibility for diplomatic contact. International diplomacy is replete with such rituals for signaling respect. This is because closely tied up with the idea of diplomatic greeting is the idea of respect for territorial sovereignty. When we cross into someone’s territory, we should acknowledge that it is their territory, that we come in peace, and seek safe passage or respectful engagement. We respect this diplomacy in intra-human relations, but not in human-animal relations. We humans invade animal territory all the time – colonizing, ravaging, and pillaging resources. And so it is a revisionary political act, when we enter the squirrel’s ambit, or approach the chickadees’ favourite tree, or cross the dog’s back yard – to acknowledge (through body language, gesture, or intonation) that this is their place, that we come in peace, and seek safe passage or respectful engagement.

When it comes to more elaborate political acts such as protest or resistance, we can also see patterns of resemblance between the communication practices of humans and other animals. The recent blockbuster, Blackfish, tells the story of an orca, Tilikum, driven to violent resistance in his desperation to escape enslavement in marine parks in Victoria, and later, Florida. A chimpanzee at the Welsh mountain zoo is renowned for using sign language to ask spectators to open the gate to his enclosure. The spectators have no difficulty understanding what he is requesting, and why. Equally eloquent are the many captive chimpanzees who throw sticks, stones, and feces at spectators. Historian Jason Hribal has extensively documented acts of resistance and protest by animals in zoos, as well as farm animals (including vocal protest, physical escape, work stoppages, equipment destruction, and sometimes, violence).

Indeed, once we take the first step of acknowledging the presence of these communicative others in our midst, once we say ‘hello’ – we open the door to a readjustment of many of our political concepts, and, in Meijer’s words, “a gateway to further political interaction and extended conversation.”

Submitted by Sue

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