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Teenage boys — the missing link?

March 3, 2011
By Andy Heller

FLINT - There were seven teenage boys at the house the other night. I mentioned this on Facebook and someone wondered what anthropologist Jane Goodall, famed for her observations of gorillas and other primates, would make of it.

I wondered, too.

Goodall: "I'm here in the wilds of suburbia to observe a gathering of humanus vulgaris, otherwise known as teenage boys. Two of them are about to engage in a greeting ritual. Let's listen in."

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Andy Heller

Teen No. 1: "Hey."

Teen No. 2: "Hey."

Teen No. 1: "S'up?"

Teen No. 2: "S'up."

Teen No. 1: "T comin'?"

Teen No. 2: "Ahdunno."

Teen No. 1: "K."

Teen No. 2: "J-dog?"

Teen No. 1: "Ahdunno."

Teen No. 2: "K."

Goodall: "Fascinating. As you can see, humanus vulgari tend to greet one another with a series of unintelligible grunts and other seemingly meaningless vocalizations. Some take this to mean that the species does not have a coherent shared language, but if you listen closely you can detect subtle verbal patterns that some linguists believe are the beginnings of a rudimentary system of communication. For instance, the interrogative 'S'up' seems to represent one adolescent inquiring into the health and well-being of another, while the response 'ahdunno' appears to be a confirmation that all is indeed well and good. Although it will be decades before scientists know for sure.

"What you may also notice about the greeting ritual among young males of the species is how, while clearly friends, they never express the slightest outward sign of affection. Note how there is seldom even so much as eye contact, much less a more demonstrative expression of affection, such as a handshake or a hug. When groups of them meet at a suburban home like this, they simply trudge in together, then gravitate to the nearest TV set equipped with a video game system, such as an X-Box or Wii, where they engage in a louder and faster exchange of vocalizations, although nothing, certainly, that you or I would recognize as conversation. Let's listen in, shall we?"

Teen No. 1 (shooting another teen's avatar): "Ha, pwn!"

Teen No. 2: "Dude!"

Teen No. 3: "Dude, you suck!"

Teen No. 2: "No, you suck!"

Teen No 4, 5, 6 and 7 (exchanging hand slaps and shoving one another): "Dudes, you both suck. BWAHAHAHAHA!"

Teen No. 2: "Dudes!"

Goodall: "As you can see, a gathering of humanus vulgaris is a curious thing. While clearly comrades, it's typical of young males to systematically insult and mock one another, up to and even beyond the point that you or I might take offense and leave. And yet, for them, this kind of mockery, rather than an aggressive act of exclusion, seems to be part of an intricate bonding ritual of inclusion. Thus, the phrase 'you suck' while seemingly a pejorative that would seek to put its receiver outside the good graces of the group - is in fact an expression of affection, indicating inclusion in and acceptance by the group. Incredible but true.

"What you'll also notice is that this ritualistic mockery is often followed by a brief period of aggression between males. One will slug another on the meat of the arm, who will then slug back, and before you know it the entire gathering of males is rolling around on the floor wrestling, as if clearly intending to do one another great bodily harm. And yet, judging from the laughter, it is clearly tomfoolery rather than true aggression.

"We used to believe that this chaotic ritual was almost exclusively about bonding, but in recent years we've come to believe that it serves the twin purpose of stimulating the appetite in humanus vulgaris, coming as it so often does shortly before the arrival of food. Let's listen in once again.

Ding, dong!

Dad: "Pizza's here!"

Teen No. 1-7: "DUDE!"

Goodall: "See how they circle around the pizza boxes, waiting for them to open? You are about to witness one of the most awesome spectacles in nature. Watch what happens as the dad opens the boxes."

Dad: "Here you go, guys. Dig i- aaaaaah!"

Goodall: "Oh, the humanity. He should have known better than to stand between a pack of humanus vulgaris and pizza. With luck, doctors will be able to reattach that arm."


EDITOR'S NOTE - Andy Heller, an award-winning columnist for The Flint Journal, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979. For more of his work, visit his blog at You can e-mail him at



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