We all have that one friend who bizarrely — and publicly — holds a conversation with their cat or dog. Sometimes, even more bizarrely, that same friend will actually supply a response, because of course the pet cannot speak. Okay, it’s not that bizarre. We all do this ourselves, but most of us are smart enough to refrain from doing it within the public’s prying eye. It turns out that this type of behavior is completely normal.
But why do we do it?
Nevin-Giannini is a 31-year-old vocational trainer who owns a dog named Maverick. And he does exactly what so many of us do: He speaks both to, and as, his pet.
Giannini said, “I find that my dog’s personality, or the voice I give my dog, is somewhat sarcastic or critical, particularly of me or my girlfriend. His most common phrase is ‘You son of a bitch.’”
We don’t exactly have a lot of scientific data to help explain why people choose to perform as their pets, but at least one study was conducted in 2004 by a Georgetown University linguist, Deborah Tannen. She used family members, so it was hardly an impartial study. But she said that people seemed to imitate a pet for specific reasons, including: “effecting a frame shift to a humorous key, buffering criticism, delivering praise, teaching values, resolving conflict, and creating a family identity that includes the dogs as family members.”
She continued: “People make use of whatever’s in the environment to communicate with each other. The fascinating thing to me is how people find it easier to say things to each other if they don’t say it directly, but they say it in the voice of the dog. It introduces humor, and it becomes indirect. The dog’s criticizing you—not me.”
In other words, we occasionally use the pretend voice of a dog or cat to say the things we’re not comfortable saying in our own skins. Is this a problem? Not really, according to Tannen, because any effective communication between friends and loved ones is good communication. This is especially true because pet owners often see their dogs and cats as members of the family.
But unsurprisingly, it doesn’t just stop with pets. People also make up voices and personalities for babies and stuffed animals, too, and mostly for the same reasons.
Tannen says, “the kinds of motives and feelings you might impose on the baby would be closer to what the baby might have, because it’s a person.”
What’s more noteworthy is that a lot of us perform these functions so habitually that, after a while, we don’t even notice!