Ellen Langer

I recently lectured in Kuala Lumpur and am now spending a glorious few days at the Datai resort in Lawkgawi in the middle of the rain forest. As I sit on the porch, watching the monkeys converse with each other, I decide to join in. I mimic their sounds and try to anticipate the next one in what may be a logical sequence. But to no avail. When I walk down to the beach, more monkeys and more attempts at their language. When I walk to the spa, more monkeys and more vocalizations, but still I fail. Monkeys, monkeys everywhere and not a word to speak.

If as caught in Gulliver’s Travels, I become the Lilliputian instead of the mighty. I see that they are communicating with each other, but I am left out of the conversation. If they took me to their labs and gave me a chance to communicate in exchange for chocolates, I’d continue to try and probably would continue to fail. Would they then conclude that I’m incapable of advanced forms of communication? Perhaps if I really needed to learn monkeyese I eventually could. Why should the monkeys have any greater interest in learning our symbol systems?

We take other species and even people from other cultures and expose them to our ways of being. When they don’t cooperate we invent theories about their lack of capabilities. Chocolates and bananas are nice, but possibly not as important to us as they think. Besides, we’re probably going to get them later any way.