Humans need a play stance.
I came to this conclusion yesterday — adding yet another item to the list of things dogs do better than us — as Ace and I arrived for the first time at the only dog park in Winston-Salem proper (and Winston-Salem is pretty proper).
Being new and mostly friendless in the town in which we’ve decided to temporarily base ourselves, we left our quarters in the basement of a mansion and, for a little socialization, headed a couple miles down the road to Washington Park, where dogs can run and play in a fenced-in area.
Of course, Ace hardly romped at all. It being a new scene for him, his first priority was to give all things a good sniffing – other dogs included. But, on this day, he was more the sniffee than the sniffer.
The second I closed the gate behind us, five other dogs — realizing there was a new face — bounded over for a whiff, following so close behind his rear end that, when he stopped abruptly … well you know the rest.
Butts aside, it’s an intriguing thing to watch, this seeming welcome, and one I noticed often back at Ace’s old park in Baltimore. When a first-timer arrives, all the other dogs come over to give the new guy a sniff. To view that as an act of kindness is, of course, anthropomorphic. But still it’s kind of sweet.
This weekend, Ace — though he was used to being the dean of his old park — was the new kid on the block.
He courteously sniffed those who sniffed him, but was more interested in checking out the space, the water bowl and the humans than in playing with the other dogs. We’d been there a full hour before he even chased another dog — all of whom were playing energetically with each other.
Dee Dee, a beagle, and Bailey, a whippet mix, (both pictured atop this post) had great play stances and used them often: Butts pointed skyward, front legs stretched all the way out, heads lowered. It, in the canine world, is a universal signal, a way of saying “You don’t need to be afraid of me, this is all in good fun, it’s playtime, let’s go.”
I can think of no counterpart when it comes to human body language — no gesture or stance we have that is as easily noticeable and understood. The handshake? No, that’s just standard procedure, basic manners. Perhaps the one that came closest was the peace sign.
Rather than having a universal play stance, we resort to words, which often only make things more confusing. We try to make sense of subtle body language and interpret what we think are queues, neither of which we’re that good at, either.
All that could be resolved if we only had a human play stance — a position we could place our bodies in that signifies we’re open to getting to know a fellow human.
We’ve got the war stance down. We all know the fighting stance, or at least enough to put our dukes up. But there’s no simple gesture or motion we humans can make — at least not without possibility of criminal charges or restraining orders — that sends a signal that peace, harmony and fun are ahead.
But why can’t we come up with a play stance — one that says I’m open to getting to know you better, and perhaps even frolicking a bit?
Because that would be too easy for a species as complex as ours? Too honest? Too direct?
It was easier when we were children. A simple “Wanna play?” sufficed. Somehow, on the way to becoming adults, we started opting instead for far less direct, far stupider comments, like “Do you come here often?” and “What’s your sign?”
Adopting a play stance for the human race, at this point — with all that we have evolved, with how sophisticated and suspicious and manipulative we as a society have become — would be difficult. It might be too late.
Two thumbs up and a grin? Standing with arms outstretched, knees bent, while waving people toward you? Most anything I can come up to signal you are accepting new people into your life would have the exact opposite effect, and send them running.
In the final analysis, being human, maybe we’re stuck with words, and small talk, and being less straightforward, sincere and, quite likely, pure of heart and motive than dogs.
Ace will make friends his way, and I will make friends mine (which is most often with his help). But between him and my conversational skills, I’ll be fine. And by the way, do you come here often?