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Last Updated: Friday, 9 April, 2004, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
Monkeying around on company time
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online Magazine

Act like a chimp, say scientists at the Zoological Society. They want to see if human volunteers can better defuse daily tensions by adopting the body language of our ape cousins. I'm game. Even if I get sacked.

Chimpanzee
The Zoological Society of London is looking for 100 human volunteers to substitute chimpanzee calls, facial expressions and gestures for their normal behaviour as they go about their everyday lives.

The researchers hope to find out if chimps are better communicators than those of us supposedly further up the evolutionary ladder.

I want to help further science as much as the next person, but will impersonating a chimp advance human knowledge sufficiently that it is worth the risk of acting very oddly?

"Very few researchers have asked whether humans can learn to communicate like another animal," says Dr Laurie Santos, director of the Primate Cognition Lab at Yale University.

"Most of the research on animal communication consists of mostly failed attempts to see if animals can use human language. Researchers spent decades and lost many fingers trying to teach chimpanzees to speak, manually moulding their mouths into the right positions. So this is a neat twist on an old question."

Hardly a ringing endorsement of the experiment, but I guess it won't kill me to help them out.

Monkey business

So how do chimps act, exactly? Wracking my brains, I vaguely remember that they used to be good at having tea parties, advertising tea and, er, duffing up Johnny Morris on BBC TV's Animal Magic. Or was that gorillas?

Downloading the Zoological Society's pdf fact sheet gives me some pointers and sets out the parameters of the experiment.

If I feel distressed, scared, relaxed, playful, friendly or downtrodden, I should adopt the chimp response as described on the fact sheet, then note down how it worked out.

GROOMING
Takes place when relaxed
A dominant chimp will demand to be groomed by sitting with back to a subordinate
I'm feeling relaxed, so let's start there. According to the Zoological Society, I need to find a more dominant figure to groom, which should "mellow any tensions" in the office.

"Ryan... Ryan... What are you doing?" says my editor, as I pick fluff off the arm of his jacket.

"I'm grooming you. To relax you," I reply, giving him my best chimp playful face (an open-mouthed smile) and emitting a throaty "oo oo oo" sound which verges on a laugh.

PLAYFUL
This is paired with a high-pitched "oo oo" hoot which may turn into laugh
Indicates happiness, and that you're ready to play

"It's a bit unsettling, Ryan. Best stop now."

It seems I need a little professional coaching. So I consult Dr Lisa Parr, an expert in chimpanzee facial expressions from the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Centre in Atlanta, Georgia.

"I don't know why anyone would want to act like a chimp. I occasionally slip into using their expressions when I'm not at work and people think I'm weird," says Dr Parr.

Just as actors sometimes need to know a character's motivation before they feel comfortable in a role, I ask Dr Parr to talk me through what lies behind the ape actions I am to undertake.

Thus prepared, the experiment proceeds.

The next emotion to surface is the feeling that I am downtrodden. My computer is playing up and the technical support man doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry to fix it.

AUTHORITY
Usually used by males in a group to show who's boss
Make as much noise as possible, while brandishing objects so as to appear bigger
As I hover over his desk, pleading with him to take a look at my dodgy PC, a thought dawns on me. Doesn't he know how important I am?

What would a chimp do? Dr Parr told me that to assert my authority chimp-style, I need to make myself appear a big as possible and brandish objects over my head.

The fact sheet shows a chimp waving a vicious-looking stick and a jagged rock. Improvising, I grab a floppy mouse mat and a paper cup - which turns out to be a quarter full of cold tea. Waving my arms in the air only serves to spray the remaining liquid and cause my jumper to ride up, revealing my pot belly.

Result: raised eyebrows, but one fixed computer nonetheless.

DISTRESS
This expression is paired with a high-pitched "oo oo" call
This alerts the group to danger
Malfunctioning technology also gives me the next opportunity to go ape, when I become trapped in automated, revolving office door.

Unable to go back or forward, I understandably feel distressed. To communicate this to the female receptionist, I purse my lips into an o-shape.

"Research in the 1960s suggests this pouting has its roots in baby chimps being denied their mothers' nipples, which causes them to feel distress," Dr Parr had told me.

I'm not sure if the receptionist knows that behind my Frankie Howard grimace I'm thinking about nipples, but she comes to my rescue rather gingerly.

GREETING
Extend arm with open fist, relax mouth but keep teeth covered, no direct eye contact
Pair with short, throaty "huh huh" pant
Hoping to curry favour, I try to appear friendly - chimp friendly, of course. I hunch forward, stare into her eyes and hold out my right hand as if I am carrying an invisible banana. "Huh, huh, huh," I pant softly.

"It's as if you're offering food," Dr Parr had advised. "You are inviting the person to approach you."

FEAR
This expression is usually paired with submissive body language
That's shoulders up, head lowered, body crouching
Recoiling from me, the receptionist frantically beckons a burly security guard. I feel fear.

I crouch submissively and bare my teeth - which Dr Parr said had its origins in the physical response of chimps drawing back their lips when they taste some bad (and possibly dangerous) food.

The security guard merely quickens his advance. I revert to the behaviour of another animal, the chicken, and leg it.




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