Last week I was in an elevator with a young couple, and was thinking about the nature of human interaction in confined spaces. Evidently I’m not the only one who is given to such thoughts, as the following can attest:
Elevators are relatively recent inventions, but the social challenges they pose are nothing new. Close proximity to other people in restricted spaces is a situation that has occurred millions of times in the history of humankind.
I think about the demonising of modernization, as I am bent to long wanders through the great outdoors; but cannot help but think of Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote, “Like all men, he was given bad times in which to live.” Are many of the problems faced at every juncture in human history the manifestation of a deeper instinct?
Imagine two Paleolithic cavemen who follow the tracks of a large bear into the same small, dark cave. There is no bear in there, only the other hungry caveman ominously waving his club: clearly an awkward situation that requires an exit strategy. In those Paleolithic days, murder was an acceptable way to get out of socially awkward situations, much in the way we use an early morning doctor’s appointment as an excuse to leave a dinner party early. In the cave, one of the cavemen whacks the other over the head with his club and the party is over.
The tragedy of the human condition is to look upon the gradeur of our creations with foolhardy self-satisfaction, and this mindset has brought us to the brink of global ecological collapse. If the heights of our technological accomplishment truly are to save us from ourselves, or lead us from darkness, we must outgrow our opinion of ourselves as creators and destroyers, and learn humility. We are no more than animals who walk the earth, if we do not.
When two rhesus macaques are trapped together in a small cage, they try everything they can to avoid fighting. Moving with caution, acting indifferent and suppressing all the behaviors that could trigger aggression are good short-term solutions to the problem. The monkeys sit in a corner and avoid any random movements that might inadvertently cause a collision, because even a brief touch could be interpreted as the beginning of hostile action. Mutual eye contact must also be avoided because, in monkey language, staring is a threat. The monkeys look up in the air, or at the ground, or stare at some imaginary point outside the cage. But as time passes, sitting still and feigning indifference are no longer sufficient to keep the situation under control. Tension between the prisoners builds, and sooner or later one of them will lose her temper. To avoid immediate aggression, and also to reduce stress, an act of communication is needed to break the ice and make it clear to the other monkey that no harm is intended or expected. Macaque monkeys bare their teeth to communicate fear and friendly intentions. If this “bared-teeth display” — the evolutionary precursor of the human smile — is well received, it can be a prelude to grooming. One monkey brushes and cleans the other’s fur, gently massaging the skin and picking and eating parasites. Grooming can both relax and appease another monkey, virtually eliminating the chance of an attack. (You wouldn’t bite your masseuse, would you?) So, if you are a rhesus macaque and find yourself trapped in a small cage with another macaque, you know what to do: Bare your teeth and start grooming. If you are a human and find yourself riding in an elevator with a stranger, I recommend you do the same: Smile and make polite conversation.