Empirical scientific data on pet-human conversations is certainly lacking. This is somewhat of a surprise considering how many of us speak not just to our pets but as our pets. Most of us are brilliant enough to do this when people aren’t watching, but some of us can’t help ourselves — we have to be eccentric for our friends and family. It turns out that conversations with (or as) our pets happen for a reason — and that reason could increase your overall health.
People tend to have these conversations to provide pets with personality. Nevin-Giannini, for example, is a 31-year-old vocational trainer whose best friend is Maverick, his faithful dog. Maverick, he says, is extremely critical of he and his girlfriend.
He said, “I find that my dog’s personality, or the voice I give my dog, is somewhat sarcastic or critical, particularly of me or my girlfriend. His most common phrase is ‘You son of a bitch.’”
Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen became interested in this phenomenon back in 2004 when she decided to conduct a study to help explain why exactly someone might speak to or as a pet.
What did the study conclude?
Tannen said that the small study — conducted using family members and their pets as subjects — showed a variety of ways that people interact with pets. They do this for reasons including “effecting a frame shift to a humorous key, buffering criticism, delivering praise, teaching values, resolving conflict, and creating a family identity that includes the dogs as family members.”
“People make use of whatever’s in the environment to communicate with each other,” she said. “The fascinating thing to me is how people find it easier to say things to each other if they don’t say it directly, but they say it in the voice of the dog. It introduces humor, and it becomes indirect. The dog’s criticizing you—not me.”
There you have it: If you’re having trouble finding a way to communicate with a family member or friend, then all you have to do is simulate the voice of your pet! People also give voices to their infant children and stuffed animals, to similar effect.
Tannen said, “The kinds of motives and feelings you might impose on the baby would be closer to what the baby might have, because it’s a person.”
But the point is that people can sometimes communicate more effectively when they can pretend that their feelings belong to someone else. And doesn’t that mean that talking to our pets can make us happier, healthier people? Especially when they give us an opportunity to criticize our loved ones!