Kathleen began to suspect something was wrong when her stuffed animals started criticizing her. It wasn’t unusual for her boyfriend at the time to role-play as the toys, speaking for them in cartoon voices, but a habit that had started as cute and affectionate gradually took a turn. A stuffed turtle, the couple’s favorite of the toys, had had a childlike, innocent personality toward the beginning of their relationship, but it “started to get more judgy,” she told me. Once, the turtle even called her a bitch.
“I eventually became afraid of the turtle,” Kathleen said. (Kathleen, now a 38-year-old web developer in the Bay Area, asked to be identified by only her first name because she’s still friends with her ex, whom she dated in college.) “It was only after the toys started getting more and more irritated that I started putting it together with his own behavior, and I realized there was a correlation. He was getting more and more unhappy with the relationship, and it was coming out in the toys.”
“I remember feeling like it was a revelation,” she went on. “Oh my God, this isn’t the toy—this is him.” Not long after, the couple broke up.
This is an extreme case of what, actually, is a pretty normal habit, though it sounds kind of strange when written down: People regularly speak as their pets, babies, or even, yes, stuffed animals, in order to communicate with people around them.
For an example that might be a bit more relatable, take Geoffrey Nevin-Giannini, a 31-year-old vocational trainer who lives in Seymour, Connecticut, and his dog, Maverick. When he and his girlfriend get home and the dog is super excited to see them, “I’ll greet her from Maverick’s perspective,” he told me. “Like, ‘Hey, Mommy!’ And she’ll reciprocate.”
“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,” Nevin-Giannini went on. “His most common phrase is ‘You son of a bitch,’” which might be muttered when, say, Nevin-Giannini throws out uneaten pizza without feeding any to Maverick.
Research dollars are not pouring into this phenomenon, but Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, did a small study on what she calls “talking the dog” in 2004. She had family members record everything they said to one another for a week, and found that when they ventriloquated (a technical term) for their dogs, they seemed to do so for one or more of several reasons: “effecting a frame shift to a humorous key, buffering criticism, delivering praise, teaching values, resolving potential conflict, and creating a family identity that includes the dogs as family members.”
“People make use of whatever’s in the environment to communicate with each other,” Tannen told me. “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.” (Or, perhaps, the stuffed animal is criticizing you.)
To Nevin-Giannini, speaking as the dog is a way of adding humor when he’s being self-critical. “We know our dog has separation anxiety, so when we leave we’ll be like, ‘Oh, these sons of bitches are leaving me!’” he said. “Not to over-psychoanalyze myself, but it’s probably my way of making light of the fact that I feel bad leaving him.”
Kathleen, looking back, thinks things got out of hand with the stuffed animals because she and her college boyfriend “were young, so our communication skills were crap and our self-understanding was crap.” It could be that it felt less daunting for her boyfriend to let out negative feelings using the buffer of a stuffed turtle.
But while speaking as a pet can be a way of introducing distance into communication, it can also, as Tannen noted, be a way of creating closeness in a family. Almost all American pet owners see their pets as family members, and giving a pet a voice is a way of making it seem like an active participant in the household. This helps explain why Tori Kerr, a 27-year-old radio producer who lives in Washington, D.C., came up with a voice for her dog, Nala. “She’s a bit of an anxious dog—very wiggly, very nervous—so her voice is this high-pitched, nervous, really shaky, not self-assured kind of voice,” she told me, in the voice. (For reference, she points to the character Missy from the animated Netflix show Big Mouth, whose voice indeed sounds similar, though Kerr insists that Nala’s voice predates the show.)
Kerr doesn’t really speak for her dog as a way of communicating indirectly with other people; she sees it more as translating Nala’s thoughts, and bringing the dog into whatever activity the humans are doing. For instance, when Kerr and her fiancé are eating popcorn on the couch while watching a movie, “and she is, like, vibrating because she wants the popcorn so badly, one of us will break into the voice,” Kerr said. “Uh, hey guys, you could share that popcorn with me? Maybe? Just like one piece?”
Ventriloquating is also something people do with babies. Speaking for a baby likely serves the same functions as speaking for a pet—humor, indirect criticism, and so on—though Tannen suspects “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.” Less projecting, more translating, perhaps.
When Rosemary Counter, a 36-year-old writer who lives in Toronto, was staying home with her infant daughter, she found herself developing a voice for the baby. Her husband was at work during the day, and “you’re talking to somebody who doesn’t talk back at all,” she told me. “It’s a way to inject adult humor into the silly baby ways that you have to talk to kids. You have to say ‘What color is this? Yellow!’ 500 times.” So she invented a voice for her baby—a deep, “smoker’s voice”—and “she would call you on how stupid the question was: ‘It’s obviously yellow, Mom, maybe you’re developmentally delayed.’”
Modeling both sides of a conversation for babies could also be a way of teaching them how conversation works. “Across the world’s communities, caregivers ventriloquate for babies, but they do so in different ways,” Elinor Ochs, a linguistic anthropologist at UCLA, told me in an email. “In some households, caregivers try to interpret the individual intentions of the infant … In other households, caregivers produce an utterance for infants [that] they should be saying in a particular situation … In both cases, infants come to understand how to think, feel, and act through caregivers’ ventriloquations. Ventriloquating is one path to culture.”
For many people who spend time around animals and babies, this is so baked into their everyday communication that they may not even realize they’re doing it. “Probably people do it or have heard it done even if they don’t think they have,” Alexandra Horowitz, the head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, told me. “It’s so ubiquitous, and I found this is [also] the case with talking to dogs. People might be participating or hearing it and don’t even notice because they’re so accustomed to it.”
“Most other dog people do the same thing,” Nevin-Giannini said. “I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been out hiking, come across someone else who’s hiking with their dog, and we’ve had a conversation between our dogs.”