Have you ever entered a quiet room, started talking, looked around, and felt like you wanted to crawl into a hole and hide? Have you ever had someone else walk into a room and miss all of the clues about what is going on? Have you ever walked into a room, sensed a situation, and slowly backed out because you could tell that it was not the right time for someone new to come in? All of those situations are about reading the room – or not.
Humans are a mixed group that ranges from sensitive to the faintest social clues all the way to unaware of any social clues up to and including being bopped on the head with a soaking wet eraser. It’s tricky business, especially when one has not been in the room when something serious or surreal or unusual or…well…anything has happened prior to one’s arrival in the room.
With so many cats and people onsite at Tabby’s Place, reading the room is a necessary skill. Barring that, paying attention to subtle and absolutely not-so-subtle clues, hints, comments, or instructions is really, really, really, really quite very important. For example, there may have been a recent incident where a certain individual (Yes, that would be me.) was intending to enter the Community Room.
On that day, the charismatic staff member Carolyn was in the room and waved me away before the door opened more than a hair’s breadth. Closing the door quietly, off I went to visit the cats in Jon’s office. Later, it was explained that one of the CR cats was upset for secret reasons. In this case, the silent instructions had been very clear, and the reasoning was shared later. It had been essential, though, that Carolyn had made it easy to read the room. It is not and cannot always be so.
But, at Tabby’s Place, reading the room is of daily significance. Every day, the signs from every room are read and reread by staff and volunteers. Good behavior and less preferred behavior are all reported, especially noting any changes, to help ensure that each cat is healthy and situated in the best possible space available. It’s not easy. Is a cat that hisses at another simply adjusting to a change and alerting other cats to the need for more space? Or, are those hisses communicating aggression or fear or pain?
It is important to remember that hisses, as much as purrs, growls, meows, and body language are all tools that cats use to communicate with each other and with us. It is essential to be attentive to subtle differences in each form of communication, including timing. A cat that has just been handled for medical reasons might ward away an innocent party with a hiss or a swat.
A cat that was just petted just exactly as just much as that cat prefers to be petted just exactly right in that spot there might do exactly the same. The very same cat in the same room on a different day, or even at a different moment, might have a completely different response, and it may not be possible for someone just entering the room to understand why.
To help the cats and each other, staff and volunteers rely on each others’ alerts. These alerts might help decision-makers know when it is time to move a cat into a more heavily trafficked area to ensure better socialization opportunities. These alerts might let medical staff know when to reassess medications or evaluate a cat for a change in health, no matter how fleeting (Sometimes sneezies is just sneezies, sometimes a cold, or sometimes it’s just Juel spraying love in his very special way, right in your face).
The cats, of course, don’t need any of our help in reading the room. They are far more intuitive than we humans (Lost might be an exception, but we can attribute her deafness to situations to her actual deafness. It’s actually sort of cute, a little funny, and every so slightly sad when she misses clues because her back is turned so that she can’t see Xena’s air-swat at her or hear the accompanying hiss). As to cats not reading the room, well, we’ve all seen that happen. It would be a mistake to mistake that willfulness for a lack of ability. Cats are notorious for ignoring what they find distasteful or disinteresting. Happily, this does not apply to the Paws to Read program. When five- to fifteen-year-old children read books to cats, even the most oblivious among us can read any room, anywhere well enough to recognize that this is where the magic happens.