I was in my office the other day, working on a short city tour film for presentation to an agent abroad. To do this, I have to have total concentration and be in a quiet environment. My office is not a studio and any noise that is not part of the ambient noise within the clips would render the film useless, or unimpressive.
I was doing well for sometime but just when I was lining up the background music on the timeline for editing. I heard shouts outside my office. I had to switch off the editing suit to avoid recording the noise outside. Then I went outside to find out what the problem was.
Two women stood on the balcony of the flat next to my office, facing each other and obviously angry. One was visiting while the other was a resident within. They were shouting at each other. Each woman would come up with accusations against the other, recollecting early incidents that related to the present flare-up.
The story line had progressed such that it was difficult to know the original sin that gave birth to the shouts and abuses. They stood close to each other and kept their hands busy gesticulating and pointing fingers. But they kept their distance, safe enough not to touch each other. The shouting got louder by the minute and more people came out of their flats to watch. We all got close to the warring parties just in case we were called upon to separate the two if the shouting got physical.
In our neighbourhood, we have embraced the Nyumba Kumi initiative where we watch over ourselves to keep peace. Over time, one woman got the better of the other in the shouting match. The visiting woman seemed to be winning the war of words. Looking somewhat dejected, the resident woman walked back into her house and banged the door shut. The visitor lingered around the corridor for a few more minutes and threw out her last reserve of insults before walking away from the flats, with her head held high. We all walked back to our respective places and settled back to work.
Although the episode had disrupted my schedule and destroyed my line of thoughts in the editing suit, I was excited to have watched yet again, the exhibition of the animal behaviour in humans. I do not suppose the two women knew what they were doing is perfectly normal and in line with our primitive animal behaviour. It is called sparring. Giving information that helps weigh probabilities and possibilities of a future conflict, and winning formulas.
Animals will make a kind of cost-benefit calculation from the signals it receives from an opponent. In such context, there may be scope for misinformation as well, in the form of bluffs. When a male baboon or a hippo yawns widely to reveal those dangerous-looking canines, their display may not necessarily reflect actual fighting ability. Call it cold war if you want. But the act may deter a vicious physical confrontation and save the energy for other uses. The woman who won the shouting match may not have been strong enough to sustain a physical assault but her bluff paid off. The resident, though probably stronger physically, was intimidated by the strength of the insults from the other woman. She retreated.
Having decided not to press on with her aggressive behaviour, the losing woman will have her ‘hands up’ gesture of giving up, or what we may call a white flag of truce. That will be enough to signal the end of the sparring moment and accept defeat. There are equally unambiguous signals among animals that communicate exactly such messages of truce.
If you have watched such confrontations between domestic animals like dogs, you will have noticed how the loser grimaces open-mouthed at their adversaries while lowering their heads and putting their tail between their hind legs. They may also lie down on their backs, exposing their stomachs to the winner. This is to make it plain that they want to back out of the confrontation.
Without such bodily postures and vocalisation indicating submission, there would be more risk of animal aggression, or human aggression getting out of control. Such are the powers of communication – verbal or otherwise.