My very dear young friend has a fantastic shirt printed on the front with the oversized face of a white tiger and studded with sparkly beads. “Rrrrrrraaaarrrrrrgh!!!” She sports this fashion forward garment on the regular and is sure to provide an accompanying vocal stream. After all, tigers are growly, powerful, awesome predators! Beautiful, fierce and mysterious, they are the perfect symbol of power.
Revered by Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar, South Korea and Vietnam, these beasts are royal. India’s national animal is the Royal Bengal Tiger, or panthera tigris tigris, a truly kingly beast. Tigers have the largest brains of all of the big cats and while lions are physically heavier, on average, the upper range of potential size for males makes tigers the largest big cat. They hunt at night and are a bit slower than lions, though about equal with respect to their force of strike. Though they hunt alone, they produce larger litters and mature more quickly than the other four related species.
Emulating the sounds that a tiger makes while wearing that tiger print t-shirt gives my young friend a boost; she feels quite powerful, possibly even regal! We’ve played audio files of the growly roars that tigers produce and compared them to those of lions. While lions are certainly louder, the otherworldly, guttural sounds of tigers make for some scary listening.
Ever noticed that humans also tend to get a bit growly, hostile and loud when they want to assert their dominance or emphasize a point? Whether complaining, crying, screaming or shouting, we use our own tactics of dissuasion for those who insult us, instruct us without having been asked or intrude into our space. Feeling anxious, angry or attacked makes us take up more room physically, psychically and vocally. We project a presence that we believe is likely to deter others from taking advantage of us.
Creatures have all kinds of reactions to discourage perceived threats. Vocalizations, scent or ink production, posturing and physical changes in color or size are all ways that they communicate “I’m able to defend myself… stay away!”. Roars are seen in big cats, elephants, gorillas, howler monkeys, red deer and some bovids. Scent is used as a deterrent by skunks, striped polecats, and stink badgers. Vultures will vomit to gain an advantage, stupefying the threat with odor, messiness and acid. Possums poop out a deterrent while playing dead when under attack. The sea hare exudes a slimy purple ink to dissuade predators and it has been noted to cause anxious behaviors in lobsters. Squids, octopi and cuttlefish all squirt ink to confuse predators. Pufferfish increase in size and many animals have either protective coloration or are actually able to change colors.
The range of human behaviors in response to perceived threats is almost equally broad, and is based as much in behaviors as in biology. Norms of clothing divided by roles, gender, function and class separate us with respect to behaviors. I’d hesitate to ask someone in a suit and tie or skirt and jacket to help me move something heavy. I might also conclude that someone dressed in such apparel is acting in a formal role for work or socially. Many people dress up when appearing before a court or attending services in a faith community.
In addition to style points for ourselves and those around us, we also have defensive mechanisms when requesting a favor or assistance in the form of language. “Please”, “thank you”, “would you mind…?”, “may I…?” and similar forms punctuate our interactions and are designed to position us favorably. Or at least to communicate that we are not a threat and therefore are not potential objects of hostility, irritation or violence.
Money, or at least the perception of wealth, is another discriminator that serves as a defense for many people. Possession of an income that exceeds monthly liabilities, property that is adequate to shelter the household and a profession that secures the stability of the family unit are all indicators of stability, security, prosperity and order. Working systems are less likely to break down and therefore, households that have a baseline of cooperative collaboration are far more likely to endure and even to thrive.
Clothing, language and money are shields of a sort; so, too are standards that accord to an acceptable degree with the social and political norms in force. Peacocks and other birds have feathery displays and dances designed to attract a mate. Other creatures use color, movement and vocalizations in the same manner. These standards are often codified for certain roles and distilled into a set of norms that include dress, special forms of expression and ritualized routines.
Think about flight attendants preparing for departure, military personnel at a comrade’s funeral, police officers on parade- these are all instances where norms are rigidly formal and there is more moral force behind decisions to comply or complain and disrupt the setting. Often, settings where there is heightened risk of harm or loss have more comprehensive requirements for normal conduct by the actors on the scene.
Students might argue with a peer but be disinclined to do so with a parent, policeman, principal or teacher. Employees might disagree vocally with their colleagues but be hesitant to do so with a board member, boss or director. Norms are designed to guide conduct in such a way as to prevent us from being targets of aggression, judgement or ostracism.
Sometimes, we run into a disconnection between the norms in force in a given context and the agency that we wish to exercise. Mom wants to take the evening off for a girls’ night out and would like dad to take over the evening dinner, homework and parenting routines. Gaining cooperation is harder if her partner holds a belief that such tasks are “women’s work” or that they “aren’t difficult” and that “good mothers don’t take time off”.
Mom in that case faces a choice of accepting the status quo or of expending the energy needed to engage and shift the perspective of her partner. The roles could certainly be reversed! Dads need time off, too! Or older siblings… or grandparents… The point is, when norms are at odds with felt experience, there is some work to do. And- it’s likely that some defensive or even some aggressive posturing and communication will be deployed on one or both sides. Unless we cultivate the habit of awareness of our own values and those of others, we may not even understand what is behind the conflict.
Norms, in and of themselves, aren’t morally good or bad. A quiet, ordered home isn’t better than a noisy, boisterous one. Traditional divisions of labor in the home aren’t better than half-half or rotating arrangements. Who stays home, who earns the money, who lives with whom… these are matters of personal preference and perspective. In even the most closely aligned relationships and in even the best designed institutions and organizations, awareness of the need to work together for the common good in ways that are equitable and sustainable are critical.
Disagreement will come. Discord, too. Allowing these differences of felt perspective to become too entrenched, however, is detrimental to the whole space and all of its occupants. Recognizing the rising anxiety and its accompanying defense mechanisms before they get away from us buffers our reaction just enough… so that we can use our curiosity and awareness of ourselves, others and our respective values to find common ground.
Common ground isn’t agreement with respect to values. Or perspective. It’s agreement with respect to workable outcomes. It’s perfectly fine for one partner to be more conservative and the other more liberal. It’s understandable that some children prefer books, quiet and study while others crave crowds, constant activity and collaboration. It’s been said that it takes all kinds to make the world go around, and so it does. Let’s use our insight, intelligence and intuition in such a way that the world goes around in an equitable, peaceful and sustainable manner. That’s a pretty good definition of success. (Rrrrraaaawwwh!)