Humans live with the illusion that there is a distinct line between us and everything else in the animal kingdom. People are unique and independent, with our own special ambitions and traits, while animals fall pretty much into one of two categories: pets and dinner. That's why every once in a while we like to remind everyone of all of the insane ways animals are just like us. For instance ...
5 Marmosets Make Polite Conversation; Chimps Will Fake Laughter
Dean Pennala/iStock/Getty Images
We know that animals can communicate, but not like humans. An animal barks or roars to communicate simple things like, "Stay away or I'll kill you!" or "Let's fuck!" Humans, on the other hand, devote most of our words to the fact that we don't have anything to say -- we'll make small talk to avoid awkward silence with the cab driver; we'll fake a laugh to pretend we got the joke with a group of friends. You'd never see, say, monkeys doing that pointless shit, right? That kind of social anxiety takes an advanced brain.
Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images
"Oh God, I said 'you too' when I just meant 'thanks'!" -No monkey ever.
Well, maybe not.
Marmosets (a kind of South American monkey) share the otherwise exclusively human trait of chatting for the sake of it. Scientists have no idea what the monkeys are saying when they're chattering in groups, but have observed that they take turns shooting the shit. In fact, they're even more polite about it than most humans are -- waiting a few seconds after the other has finished speaking so as to avoid interrupting. Researchers observed conversations lasting for up to 30 minutes at a time, at which point, we suppose, even the marmosets made up an excuse to leave.
"Well, I should probably get back to flinging poop. Good talking to you."
The researchers note that chimps and other almost-human apes have a tendency to speak over the top of one another rather than engage in polite discourse. And that marmosets tend to chat more frequently with monkeys other than those whom they are mated with, which, when you think about it, is also an oddly human phenomenon.
And then you have chimpanzees. Scientists know that, chimps being highly playful creatures, most of them spend their time in groups jumping out from behind things, tackling each other, throwing their poop around, etc. Chimp stuff. But in a study of chimp behavior done by researchers at the University of Portsmouth, they found that chimps had two distinct kinds of "laughter" during play time. The ones that were actively engaged in play responded with ordinary laughter, but the other, nearby chimps made a much more forced, less intense, and more deliberate sound. In other words, it was more like the chimp equivalent of you going "heh" after your dad tells a particularly horrid joke.
Or when the alpha chimp tells his racist joke about the two bonobos who walk into a bar.
The researchers suggest that this is the way a chimpanzee who isn't actively engaged in the joke signals to the others "I, too, am having fun." In other words, they're being polite and assuring the others that they aren't moody assholes, a level of social etiquette that even some humans have failed to master.