How Humans Deal with Other Humans

Two dog walkers meet in the park. They stop, say hello, and exchange pleasantries about their dogs, the weather, mutual friends. Maybe they exchange phone numbers or make plans to talk again. Either way, they end up going their separate ways. And, while these two members of Homo sapiens are talking, what have the dogs been doing?

Sniffing each other’s rear ends. What gives?

It turns out that dogs are actually sniffing at a pair of glands that provide an enormous amount of information about the dog, including genetics, diet, and health.

While many people think of this sniffing as ‘just something dogs do’, rarely do we think of human interaction in the same terms, just as we rarely acknowledge the similarity between the city and the anthill.

When one human being meets another, various initial assessments are made, almost always based on superficial visual evidence. We see a woman with an elegant silk scarf and assume that she has taste and means. We see a man with worn shoes and a moth-eaten jacket and assume he is poor. But, in the back of our minds, we may know that we cannot entirely trust our first impression. There, as Hamlet put it, is the rub. Unlike the glands at the tail end of a dog, people can try to tell the story they want told.

Today’s political scene has brought into sharper focus the different degrees of trust that humans have in one another.

Too large a fraction of the American population blithely assumes that most immigrants are rapists, thieves, or child molesters; too many people believe that immigrants are here to simultaneously steal your job and lazily live off your tax dollars. But why is that inevitable?

The evidence certainly suggests otherwise. Today’s America is primarily populated by the descendants of immigrants. These people came to America because they wanted a better life. Whether fleeing oppression or poverty, they saw the United States as a place where they could get a fresh start. And while these immigrants were not always welcomed with open arms, it soon became clear that they were no worse than any other group.

In fact, without immigration, it is indisputable that we would have a far less intelligent, cultured and ambitious population; our ability to innovate would have been hampered; and our economy would not be the strongest on the planet.

Even so, lack of trust remains startlingly clear.

Almost one hundred years ago, half of Americans lived in sparsely populated, rural areas. As a result, most people actually knew a significantly higher percentage of the folks in their communities. But today, about 97 percent of Americans live in a city or suburb. As a result, most people are surrounded by an ever-changing whirlwind of strangers.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the world has shrunk dramatically in recent years. With digital technology, we can now instantaneously interact with people all over the world. What this means is that people increasingly split their attention between many more people, and actually really get to know far fewer.

We know that humans’ earliest and most important experiences are the ones they only share with their families. That was true thousands of years ago and remains true today. However, over those thousands of years, the basic unit of human society ceased to be just the family and became the tribe, then the city-state, then the nation, and perhaps soon the species.

Despite all these changes, people still pull on their pants one leg at a time, eat no more than a few times a day, and sleep six to eight hours a night. We still laugh at the same antics. The same experiences still make us cry. And while mating for life is growing increasingly uncommon, must of us still live with and love one person at a time.

We need to be careful about how technology impacts our behavior, as unintended consequences distort our social fabric and fundamentally change the way we process relationships.

It is easy and comfortable to assume that all change is progress. Perhaps, given enough time to evolve and adapt, that may turn out to be correct. In the meantime, however, we are likely to see greater confusion and distortion of the kind we are seeing in this election year.

The old rules of the road no longer seem to do us much good.

Perhaps we should be putting a little more trust in our noses and ears.

If it smells and sounds like a Trumpet, it must be!


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