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Friday, December 05, 2008

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Human communication as "polling behaviour"

Fairly regularly, I ask my daughter "how she is". I just asked myself why I do this, apart from fatherly interest and concern.

It occurred to me that I am just checking her current state of morale and happiness. Checking that she is OK and there is nothing she wants to complain about.

It reminded me fleetingly of something I learned about in computer science, "polling". In some computer set-ups, one device repeatedly checks on the status of another, to see if it has any data to submit for example. It occurred to me that one function of human verbal communication is simply to check a couple of basic things 1) that the person is there and 2) to gauge their emotional state (from language cues such as intonation). Robin Dunbar has suggested that language is a form of social grooming, but it seems to me that it can also be seen as a way of quickly polling other people on their "current status". Think of a morning greeting - generally very perfunctory - which really only conveys presence and gives a rough indication of mood and readiness for the day's activities.

Anecdotally, parents seem to "poll" their children verbally more than vice versa. And wives seem to "poll" their husbands more than vice versa. In both cases, a grunt may be all that the parent or wife gets back. At least a grunt signifies presence.

Julian

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