Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Being Pirahã Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

The Trap of "Phatic" Communication

I've just finished reading Dan Everett's account of his life among the Pirahã people of the upper Amazon, called, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle. Everett has spent practically his entire adult life among the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN), who are fascinating in many surprising ways that have forced linguists and psychologists to revisit some of their most central assumptions about universal human traits. (See this New Yorker profile of Everett, written by John Colapinto for an excellent summary.)

One of the quirks of Pirahã culture/language that stands out is the absence of "phatic" communication: "communication that primarily functions to maintain social and interpersonal channels, to recognize or stroke ... one's interlocutor," as Everett explains. The Pirahã language is free of expressions like hello, goodbye, how are you?, I'm sorry, you're welcome, and thank you—utterances that, as Everett puts it, "don't express or elicit new information about the world so much as they maintain goodwill and mutual respect." Rather than a verbal expression of appreciation for a favor or gift, "The expression of gratitude can come later, with a reciprocal gift, or some unexpected act of kindness..." Similarly, Everett says, "They have no words for I'm sorry. They can say, 'I was bad,' or some such, but do so rarely. The way to express penitence is not by words but by actions."

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All this got me thinking about our society, one in which we have plenty of words with which to express regret—sincere or not. In fact, we're taught from a very young age to, "Say you're sorry!" even when we're not at all sorry for hitting that snot-nosed kid who stole our lunch money. The 6-year-old who learned to apologize on command later has little compunction about stepping up to the microphones to beg forgiveness from God and country ("and my lovely wife, who deserves better") when circumstances require the appearance of contrition. There are times, lots of them, when saying sorry and being sorry are mutually exclusive. Which is it?

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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