The Language of Intention

If I should find myself in a jungle with a hungry tiger and see it crouching with tense and rippling muscles, eyes locked onto mine, doubtless my hair would be on end and fight-or-flight mode ready to kick in. It would be quite clear that the tiger was intending to eat me for supper, not play a little game or offer a friendly welcome.

But how do we know this instinctively? I don’t speak the verbal language of tigers, yet I can sense precisely what this large cat has in mind.

While verbal languages vary, the language of intention is international. Intention is the motive behind one’s behavior—whether you’re a human or a hummingbird or anything in-between. Intention becomes expressed in words but also in body language, hormonal language (such as pheromones), and non-word sounds.

If I were observing the same tiger but it’s eyes were locked onto a native prey species of its jungle habitat and I was watching this as a documentary from the safety of my home, I would have a very different experience from the scenario relayed above! However, the animals around us experience intentions in the now, right where they are.

You’ve seen this in your pets and how they respond to your emotional state. Your dog likely knows it’s time to go for a walk, even before you mention it to them. They also uncannily know when it’s time to go to the vet as well! Pets do learn to recognize key words we speak, but much of what they are reading from us is our tone, posture, and habit rhythms. “Want to go for a walk?” is a useful intention indicator, but just as powerful is standing by the door with the leash.

Other animals in our lives may not have learned words from our vocabulary, but they are still very sensitive to intention. For them, tone and body language are essential indicators. On the farm, we take special care to learn the body and verbal language of the animals in our care. What is aggressive behavior? What is trusting behavior? What is a plea for help or in pain? How is “I’m hungry,” expressions different from, “I’m stuck on the fence” expressions.

Learning to read these intentions not only makes us better stewards of the animals, but it can also be critical to avoid being seriously hurt. Is the ram thinking devious thoughts? Time to either deflect his intentions or scramble out of the pen.

Sometimes it can be amusing to try to learn the verbal language of animals and mimic them. Humans are natural mimickers, which is an expression of our innate curiosity. But this does not always go well. Once, back when we still raised standard breeds of hogs, Kara was playfully grunting back at the pigs while she was in their pen feeding them. We’re still not sure what she said in pig language, but the hogs were furious! They chased her up onto the roof of their mobile summer hut, and she had to stay there trying not to be bitten until they calmed down! She’s avoided trying to talk like a pig since.

Even if animals don’t understand the words I’m saying, I still feel there is value in speaking my intentions openly to them. This tradition is quite old in agriculture, including the tradition of telling the hives of bees when their keeper has passed away. When I was keeping my own honeybees, I felt there was value in explaining to the hive my intentions for the day—that this was a health checkup, that I would be as careful and respectful as possible, and there was no intention of harm. With this statement and a continued calm demeanor, I also never had to use smoke while handling the bees.

Wildlife reads our intentions as well. While I no longer keep honeybees on the farm, I feel a special affinity to the wild pollinators we foster here. The other morning, I was checking on the new tomatoes we’d just planted into our longer high tunnel. The sidewalls were closed, keeping out the morning chill. Near the back of the film greenhouse, a chubby bumble bee was bouncing her head against the inside of the plastic, trying to escape. I reached up to try to help heard her to the door at the other end, but that wasn’t working. She would dodge my hand and keep bonking her head against the semi-transparent film.

This situation as going nowhere, and she would likely exhaust herself before finding the door to escape. “I am happy to help you,” I offered, watching her struggle. “But you will have to trust me. I promise that I won’t hurt you.”

I reached up one more time, and this time instead of dodging my hand, she landed on a finger gently. Her posture remained calm and non-aggressive, as she rubbed her back legs together. I cupped my hands lightly, with fingers spread wide apart so she could easily escape at any moment, should she choose. Together, we walked the path back down the 50-foot high tunnel and through the door. I opened my hand, and she pondered the situation for a couple seconds before taking off into the morning air.

This week, think on how the language of intention affects your interactions and how you can better express your intentions when communicating with others—both people and animals of all types. It may surprise you what happens! See you down on the farm sometime.