When you offer someone a gift, does it come bursting with ribbons, bows, and bright colors – or is it a black-and-white ho-hummer wearing yesterday’s discarded newspaper?

Does the bright wrapping paper mean someone is special, or does the newsprint wrap-job mean they have become yesterday’s news? Eager gift-getters want to know. And because they do, they will often subconsciously intuit an answer whether the gift-giver intended any hidden meaning or not.

That’s because social animals come hard-wired for message hunting.

There are, after all, advantages in being able to discern what others think of us, especially when we depend upon them for food, clothing, shelter, or social standing. Although hardly mind-readers, we are pretty good at picking up on the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) physical gestures and audible tones that accompany the messages we receive.

When someone turns to us on a busy street corner and gruffly says, “Hey, there,” palms up, shoulders shrugged, jaw clenched, and eyebrows raised, they don’t need to add, “Easy, bub.” or “Where’s the fire?” We’ve gotten the message to watch our step.

When the “Hey, there” is accompanied instead by lilting tones, a hand on thrust hip, head lowered, limpid eyes raised – we’ve likewise gotten the message that this could turn out to be quite a different kind of encounter altogether.

It turns out we humans are not alone in caring about how messages are delivered. Other animals besides ourselves mount behavioral responses to the ways in which we choose to communicate.

Bugs was an Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin I once worked with as an animal trainer for the U.S. Navy. As part of his voluntary boat transport training, I was asking Bugs to jump out of the water and onto a plastic beaching mat similar to those that cushion the falls of gymnasts during a workout.

Bugs was having none of it.

When I asked him to station in front of the mat Bugs, more often than not, would remain just beyond arm’s reach and then sink slowly down in the water, clearly displaying his reluctance to participate. As a novice trainer, I was becoming discouraged, and Bugs picked up on my mood through the low energy levels I was displaying, to the point that my own subconscious expectation of failure was becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I thought I was asking nicely, and it turns out I was – but when it comes to communication, there’s a big difference between being polite and being enthusiastic.

When a more seasoned trainer decided to take over, the picture changed entirely. In contrast to my own despondent lethargy, the veteran trainer was all enthusiasm and high-octane energy. He smiled and waved. His gestures were large and inviting, communicating a sense of fun, and his movements were rapid and eager.

Bugs responded without hesitation.

He lifted his head from his watery hidey-hole and left trailing wakes behind him during his rapid swim toward the beaching mat, this time clearly anticipating adventure rather than grudge work.

Bugs didn’t vault onto the beaching mat right away. Gaining his cooperation required multiple requests over several sessions. Behaviorally speaking, the veteran trainer didn’t ask anything other than what I myself had requested of Bugs – but he asked for it differently and that made . . . well . . . all the difference.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2013

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