Stafford: Communication complex, but kindness can alleviate anxiety

Tom Stafford

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Tom Stafford

For people my age, the term audio-visual conjures up memories of metal Bell & Howell movie and film strip projectors being pushed around hallways by fellow students who seemed to be headed either nowhere or to what would become Silicon Valley.

So I raised an eyebrow the other day when I double-clicked on an Internet clip in which the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson described human beings as “audio-visual” creatures.

By that, he meant we learn and communicate mostly by using our audio and visual senses, our sight and hearing. He made the point to illustrate how different we are from other creatures, including the ants Wilson has made his reputation studying.

Rather than exchanging words, ants exchange tastes and smells, what are called pheromones, to communicate. They use a kind of alphabet soup of smells and taste to spread the news of presence of threats and predators to their anthills – the combinations of which produce a rich and varied vocabulary that’s crucial to their health and survival.

On one level, I was floored: Smells and tastes instead of words and letters?

On another level, it seemed a no-brainer.

Smells and tastes are as much a part of the natural world as sights and sounds. Why wouldn’t some creatures use them as the raw materials for communication?

These kinds of thoughts often remind me that everything is more complex than it seems. They remind me, too, that although the ideas we use to understand our own behavior may yet be thousands of years removed from a full understanding, we can behave in a way that help us adjust – often without thinking about it.

We have a sense of those things. And I think I’ve tapped into that sense to manage the anxiety I’ve felt in our unsettled and unsettling political landscape.

I first noticed it a couple of weeks back, when I was in the grocery store and noticed a family of five or six enjoying what, to me, is often an activity that seems like drudgery: shopping.

Two of the kids, maybe early elementary age, were huddled inside a cart. A third, who appeared to be the goofy kind of 10-year-old that reminded me of myself, was pushing a cart of his own. At the gravitation center of it all, latched on to a third cart, were a smiling mom and dad who smiled all the more when I told them how much I enjoyed watching them and their kids enjoy themselves.

Not long after that, on a trip to D.C. I mentioned in last week’s column, my day was made better by a woman at the Dayton airport working for Southwest Airlines who helped me print out my boarding pass from a kiosk.

Granted, the kiosk thing shouldn’t be that tough. But with a backpack on the shoulder and suitcase in one hand, focusing enough to pull it off can seem awkward.

And there she was, calm, smiling and genuinely nice as could be. It was, in fact, her genuineness that struck me. She was someone who’d either found the right job for herself or somehow landed there. I later sought her out and thanked her not for making my day easier, but for making my day.

Then came the guy at the D.C. transit station who saved me the worry over whether I was reading the system map correctly while I was trying to reach the airport.

I asked for his help both because I wanted to be sure and because his open face had an expression announcing he’d be happy to help anybody, including an unsure out-of-towner like me, find his way. All that was apparent, too, when he said, “You’re welcome, sir.”

Something of a similar order happened at a Bob Evans restaurant at Bechtle Avenue and First Street in Springfield. After donating a double unit of platelets, I decided to treat myself to pancakes, eggs and hash browns. I plopped down on a stool at the counter and found myself looking into a friendly face while I worried over the menu. I told her what I wanted, asked her to get convert it into an order I knew had to be on the menu and let it go at that.

Somehow, a brief friendship had been born.

I’m not saying the pattern I stumbled into will work or everybody. I’m not saying it’s a path to untangling political knots that have been decades in the making.

I’m just saying that for this ant, making his way through an anthill that seems more roiled and chaotic than usual, it’s been as nice as walking six-footed across a restaurant countertop and finding a little bead of pancake syrup left just for me: Sweet.

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