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Opinion: What Cows Can Teach Us About Zoom Calls

Phil Carrick
Fairfax Media via Getty Images

In the torrent of news this week, one line especially pierced me: "Interactions may be less positive when they become artificial."

It comes from researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna and the Johannes Kepler University of Linz, Austria, who compared the vital signs of 28 cows as they were petted while listening to a live human voice, and those same cows being petted while they heard merely a recording. They published their findings in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

"Our study suggests that live talking is more relaxing for our animals than a recording of a human voice," said Annika Lange, an author on the study. "Heart rate variability was higher when cattle were spoken to directly, indicating they were enjoying themselves..."

And as other studies have confirmed, happy cows produce better milk.

The researchers explain that when cows are in a cheery mood, they stretch out their necks, as if being groomed, and their ears hang low.

I just tried it myself. It is pretty relaxing.

The authors of the study hope that understanding how simple human interaction makes cows happier can improve the way they are treated at the hands of human beings. We should certainly be careful about inferring too much about the value of human interactions on humans from a study of dairy cows in Austria.

But we're living through times in which much of what we do and experience may seem remote, estranged, and impersonal. How many of us who are fortunate even to have jobs now begin our work days asking, "Hello? Hello? Am I muted? Can you hear me?"

We're answering emails at all hours, watching videos of strangers dancing for mental refreshment, and getting robo-calls from exuberant recorded voices. "Congratulations! We have a car insurance deal just for you!" We issue commands, confide whims, and ask so-called smart-speakers critical questions like, "Uh, how many calories in a whole bag of tortilla chips? What if they're unsalted?" "Can you let out sweatpants?" and, "How long will all this last?"

People get the job done, in new and ingenious ways. But many of us may feel that the joy is missing. That joy is in human touch and interaction. Smiles, jokes, and asides. Instead, many of us may feel reduced to small faces in tiny windows on the screen of a Zoom conference, waiting to be recognized and unmuted. "Interactions may be less positive when they become artificial."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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