Column: In search of the elusive soft-speaking human

Sep. 30, 2013 @ 11:30 AM

The first sentence of the story on National Geographic’s website said, “Humans aren’t the only animals who know how to speak softly.”

Now this seemed like serious news, a major scientific breakthrough. Until Friday I had not thought that researchers even suspected that humans know how to speak softly.

Perhaps it would one day be possible to sit through a movie without hearing commentary from adjacent seats. Imagine a meal at a restaurant of any kind where, because of selective but extensive breeding of these humans with both a loud, broadcasting-to-the-room voice and a quiet, speaking-just-to-you voice, you wouldn’t have to learn about the polyps revealed by that nearby grandfather’s colonoscopy, or the intimate details of what transpired after the young woman at the next table allowed her tipsy date into her room, although maybe after a slow day you might like hearing that one.

Blood, infected wounds, sex, animal droppings, hospital smells, raw sewage – is there any unpleasant topic you haven’t unwillingly heard about while at a nice restaurant?

I had visions of a strange, new world where people considered their surroundings before speaking, selecting a volume that would allow their companions to hear what they said but wouldn’t carry the message to the next village.

It thrilled and frightened me, like the first step into the cold ocean on a spring beach vacation.

I read on.

But it turns out this was another case of sloppy journalism. The second sentence burst my bubble as soon as it had formed. In fact no other part of the entire story even mentioned soft-speaking humans.

Instead the story focused on monkeys called cotton-top tamarins, which have a white, upward-sprouting shock of hair atop their heads much like the vintage 1990s version of formerly famous boxing promoter Don King.

Two researchers at the City University of New York were studying the loud calls and “mobbing behavior” that tamarins often make in response to seeing people they fear, but one time the monkeys unexpectedly seemed to go silent instead. When the scientists studied their recordings, they found “low-amplitude signaling,” chirps too soft for humans to hear, presumably the tamarin equivalent of, “Psst! Hey, if he comes over this way, cover me. I’ll go for his eyes while you distract him by throwing feces.”

But maybe the scientists misinterpreted the reasons the tamarins switched to whispering. After all, the scientists live in New York, so maybe they just didn’t recognize when some monkey is being polite.