And the AEIOU (Vowel) Award goes to…

Aeiou_award_2008 I am finally in a position to award the AEIOU (aka vowel) award to the winners of the contest announced in December of last year.   (I am deeply sorry this took so long.  The winter has been hectic.)

AEIOU stands for the Account Planner, Anthropologist, Ethnographer, Insight and Observation Award. 

We were drawing inspiration from Jacob Rubin’s wonderful experiment in Union Square.   Rubin approached strangers and asked a favor.  The object of the exercise: to see how forthcoming New Yorkers would be. 

One of the questions Rubin asked is:

"Would you watch my dog while I run into the health food store and buy yogurt?"

One New Yorker fell to bended knee, and exclaimed,

"Look at you, Mr. Doggy!  Aren’t you a doggy-woggy?"

The idea of the Vowel award was to see if we could make anthropological sense of this found data. 
The essay question was this:

A man approaches a woman in Union Square and asks, "Would you watch my dog while I run into the health food store and buy yogurt?"

She falls to her knees and says to the dog in question, "Look at you, Mr. Doggy!  Aren’t you a doggy-woggy?" 

Please unpack.

There are three winners:  Juri Saar, Brent Shelkey and Reiko Waisglass.  They will split the $100.00 prize.

Many thanks to everyone who participated.


The original essay contest post.  /2007/12/holiday-essay-q.html

Rubin, Jakob.  2007.  Because we’re not actually that rude.  New York Magazine.  December 24-31, 2007, p. 66.

Winning entries

Winner 1: Juri Saar

The Location.

In the case of Union Square were are dealing with a location that is an important intersection drawing thousands upon thousands of people each day into a relatively small area. This leads us to two assumptions:

  1. since we’re essentially dealing with an intersection of various streets we cannot assume Union Square to be an end-destination in itself, but rather a place where people pass through,   perhaps only to slow down for a few moments before moving on to their final destination.
  2. finding a familiar      person who can be trusted to look after a pet for a few minutes is next to      impossible in a city of millions, especially at one of its more notable intersections, therefore a stranger will probably need to be approached which will require a question different from that presented to someone familiar.

The Question.

Once the man has determined that he will need to approach a stranger he needs to formulate a question that will signal his intent as well his requirements of the person he’ll be asking the question. There are at least four assumptions in the question:

  1. when the man talks about watching his dog he does not mean passively stare at the dog while he visits the store, but rather actively monitor the dog – essentially take care of it for a few minutes. This probably includes preventing anyone from harming the dog as well as not allowing the dog to just wander of.
  2. when the man says that he will run into the store, he is indicating that he will visit the store quickly and respects the other person’s priorities while trying to minimize the inconvenience of his request. The least he can do is make the visit a quick one.
  3. when the man says that he’ll be visiting a health food store he is using the specialty of the store – health – to indicate that his request is not a trivial one (cigarettes, coffee, milk etc.), but possibly has an impact on his health. The fact that he wanted to buy yogurt, which does have direct health benefits, seems to indicate that additional details act as additional trust cues.
  4. being specific about the health food store also signals that this not just any store that might turn a blind eye to people who enter the store with their dogs, but a store that places more emphasis on hygiene than usual and therefore dogs are definitely not allowed – there      is no other option, but to leave the dog outside.

The Answer.

The question was answered in a way that is much more likely to come from a woman than a man. There are at least five assumptions in the answer:

  1. when the woman falls to her knees and starts talking to the dog she is essentially giving the animal human characteristics not for the benefit of the animal or herself but the owner who is able to deduce her attitude to dogs by seeing how she relates to the animal.
  2. falling to her knees closes the distance with the dog and allows the woman to indicate that the dog has her full attention, as if to start a conversation, which of course she promptly does.
  3. when she uses the “doggy” the woman is using babytalk which is often also used with animals that have features that are uniquely child-like such as big eyes, disproportionally big head and small eyes i.e. cute.  Doggy is commonly used in baby talk instead of dog. By adopting baby talk while talking with the dog instead of the man, the woman is indicating that she will care for the animal as if for a human child.
  4. when she addresses the dog with “Mr. doggy”, she is also asserting that she takes the responsibility of looking after the dog seriously, almost formally as the "mister" is an honorific title indicating respect. 
  5. Her use of “doggy-woggy” is meant to emphasis playfulness and affection that lets the owner of the dog know that the animal can safely be left under the supervision of a caring woman, who will not neglect the animal and has no problem spending a few moments with the dog.


It seems that it all comes down to trust cues – how do you approach strangers inherently suspicious, and how do you signal your honest and sincere intentions to strangers, essentially respond to their trust cues.

Winner 2: Reiko Waisglass

The woman in Rubin’s article is very familiar to me. She’s the young woman in the Upper West side who owns a Chihuahua named Princess. She’s the 40 year old woman in the West Village whose eggs are slowly drying up, along with her ability to form viable relationships with available men. She owns a Pomeranian that she pushes down Bleeker   Street in a doggy pram. She’s the 60 year old woman on the Upper East Side who longs for grandkids if only she’d made time to have children. She owns a bird, but only because her doorman building doesn’t allow dogs. 

In other words, in New York City, dogs are children, grandchildren, lovers and expensive accessories.

If one is to perceive of dogs as supplemental children, somehow the baby-talk documented in Union Square starts to make sense. This woman, like many women in New York, reacts to small dogs as she likely does to babies. After recently becoming a dog "aunty" I have discovered the appalling cost of doggy sweaters, the amount of doggy toys and accessories deemed acceptable in the eyes of dog owners, and the increasingly common practice of cooking and preparing one’s own doggy food.

If one is to perceive of dogs as supplemental lovers or life partners, then one must also question the other significant ties between animals and human companions. While the woman in Union Square sets an example of how people personify small-scale pets as adorable, miniature human beings, reversely people are driven to express their affections for human companions with fluffy, diminishing animal references, aptly called “Pet Names” (such as “Honey Bunny” or “Love Monkey”…)– akin to the baby-talk or Union Square “doggy-talk” as it were. The next level question, for which I have no answer, is: What is the thing that connects babies, pets and lovers that elicit this type of behavior/lexicon of stupidity?

Further to the above point, (if one is to perceive of dogs as supplemental lovers or companions) one must also consider the ironic double-use of using dogs to facilitate human interaction in the hopes of leading to real human companionship. Dogs are the ultimate pick-up tools. They also open doors to communities people would otherwise be excluded from (such as dog runs and dog walk “drive-bys” if you can figure out what I mean by that). The mere presence of a dog alludes to a safeness and gentility of an otherwise forbidding stranger on the streets of New York. The Union   Square interaction would not have taken place without the aide of the dog as a prop.

This also makes me wonder about the significance of Rubin’s scenario being between a man and woman and whether there is a romantic ritual taking place here as well.

Winner 3: Brent Shelkey

*Cultural assumptions:*

Dogs are a subservient pet in American culture, but Americans have
relationships with them that may belie or play with the idea/ranking of this
social status. .  We have a phrase/maxim that relates that the dog is "a
man’s best friend."  Dogs were probably domesticated here many years ago to
assist in hunting, transportation, and protection but have since evolved in
serving more of an emotional attachment for humans.  This in all senses is
what the American notion of a pet is, which is an animal to be cared for by
a human for purposes that do not assist with survival but rather with
fulfilling more social or emotional needs. Dogs provide companionship,
entertainment, and a simulated parent/child relationship between owners and
pets.  This relationship allows owners to fulfill some kind of mothering or
parental instinct for caring and nurturing without the full extent of
parental duties that human babies require.

Americans often use this parent/child relationship among pets to project
human attributes onto the animal.  Often times, the dog is considered to
always exist in a baby or infant state of development even when fully grown.
In fact, this may be a key attraction to having them as a pet as they remain
perpetual babies, whereas human children grow up and become adults.

In this sentence, the woman uses several words and phrases that mimic the
relationship and way of talking that American adults may use with babies or
small toddlers.

"Look at you, Mr. Doggy!"  Here the use of Mr. is meant to be kind of funny
and ironic, as the dog fulfills a subservient role but is referred to with a
title of Mr. that normally conveys a sense of importance and formality when
used in conversation. In this case, it creates a kind of mock-formality by
pairing both with the addressing of a dog in this manner and by the name of
Doggy.  Doggy is diminutive form of dog that is used affectionately, and
also mimics the style of speech favored by mothers towards babies that add
vowel sounds on the end of common words to accentuate a softer, more
pleasant and playful sound.

So in this sense, Mr. Doggy is a kind of oxymoron pairing of opposites, the
dignified title of Mr. with the silly, infantile term of Doggy.

The following phrase, "Aren’t you a doggy-woggy?"  adds to this style of
baby-talk by rhyming and morphing the term of doggy with woggy, a
non-sensical term whose only purpose is to rhyme with the preceding term and
pose a playful tone with the dog.  Americans will often use this style of
speech when talking with infants, such as "Who’s my little cutsie-tootsy?
Are we feeling grumpy-wumpy?"

This response to the man’s question almost assuredly means that she will
watch the dog and is glad to do so.  She has moved from the more polite,
reserved, and formal tone of the asker and switched the mode into playful
baby-talk with the dog.

3 thoughts on “And the AEIOU (Vowel) Award goes to…

  1. Jared

    “She is essentially giving the animal human characteristics not for the benefit of the animal or herself but the owner who is able to deduce her attitude to dogs by seeing how she relates to the animal.”

    That’s quite an extraordinary claim with nothing, as far as I can see, to back it up.

  2. Jüri Saar

    Jared: Perhaps my wording was not as clear as it could have been, but allow me to clarify.

    Simply by talking to the dog in this rather particular manner seemed to me like a case of anthropomorphism. I also got the impression that had there been no person there but simply a dog tied to a post with no one else around she would have just (best case) petted the dog and said nothing.

    I agree that the last part (for the benefit of the animal or herself but the owner who is able to deduce…) is a bit of a strech, especially as the wording indicates it to be a concious thought. However, what I tried to convey is how automatic (subconcious?) the communication is and how initila perception might influence attitudes that shape further communication by providing seemingly superfluous information.

    There’s also a simpler answer: I over did it 😛

  3. Susan Abbott

    Interesting question and analyses.

    The question this prompts for me, however is…
    Is it all subjective and referential?

    I’m not just trying to ask a tree-falling-in-the-forest question here. I’ve been thinking that the more clients are trusting my analysis, insights and recommendations, the more I wonder if there is any fundamental truth to what I am telling them, and how I might know this.

    What’s the anthropological view of this issues? Is it indeed all subjective — we read the analysis and judge the quality of it based on our own knowledge. (subjective analysis and subjective evaluation).

Comments are closed.