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Jack Smith

Nice Duologue: Both Speak; No One Listens

December 22, 1987|Jack Smith

Tom Gilsenan's invention of the word duologue for a conversation in which neither party is responsive to the other has been well received by others who have always wondered what to call this common phenomenon.

In a duologue, each person answers the other with a non sequitur, so that the conversation takes up time and seems to be fulfilling a purpose, but in fact gets nowhere.

Perhaps the most common example of a duologue is one that may be heard in almost any home when the husband comes home from work to find his wife in a state of frenzied frustration and exhaustion.

She says, "What a day! You can't believe the things that have happened to me!"

He says, "What's for dinner?"

That is a duologue in its briefest form. It may go on from there:

She: "Don't you ever hear anything I say?"

He: "Monday Night Football tonight."

But it sometimes ends with the first exchange, and with her realization that she is married to an insensitive lout and ought to divorce him.

Ronald Dethlefson, professor of communications at Bakersfield College, notes that the duologue was defined some time ago in the Quarterly Journal of Speech as a "communication denial."

"If a person is regularly a victim of communication denial," he points out, "then he or she will likely develop a low self-esteem." So we are not talking here about something inconsequential.

Prof. Dethlefson observes that teen-agers are often victims of the duologue, or communications denial, as in this conversation:

Son: "Dad, may I use the car tonight?"

Father: "Go help mother with the dishes."

Of course that may be reversed, and we get:

"Son, go help mother with the dishes."

"Dad, I need the car tonight."

I am delighted to hear from Rachel Pearson of Pasadena that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sometimes used the duologue in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. She recalls that the device was employed by Sir Arthur "to give Holmes a verbal advantage over the villain, Dr. Grimesby Roylott, in 'The Speckled Band,' " as follows:

" 'My stepdaughter has been here. . . . What has she been saying to you?'

" 'It is a little cold for the time of the year,' said Holmes.

" 'What has she been saying to you?' screamed the old man furiously.

" 'But I have heard that the crocuses promise well,' continued my companion imperturbably. "

"It would seem then," concludes Pearson, "that the key to managing a proper 'duologue' is to do it, as Holmes did, imperturbably."

John Trayne points out that the duologue is a device commonly employed by playwrights to depict monologues spoken at the same time. "It is customary to designate this mode by dividing the speeches with a horizontal line from beginning to end."

Trayne suggests that if the speakers' lines are simultaneous but on different subjects, it should be called an antilogue .

I'm sure we are all familiar with plays or movies in which two or more characters are talking simultaneously at cross purposes. The phenomenon Gilsenan describes, though, is a dialogue in which two people talk alternately, as in a true conversation, but their separate lines are not related.

Sara Bell Drescher suggests that, from her own marital experience, the duologue might possibly serve a therapeutic purpose in marriage.

"My former husband and I," she says, "spent a couple of years in 'conjoint' therapy and discovered that our communication was dysfunctional. Well, anything dysfunctional must be repaired or discarded, right? We couldn't repair it.

"Now I find that we could have continued this duologue forever and saved ourselves a lot of money and misery."

Drescher seems to be suggesting that a prolonged duologue between her and her husband might have circumvented their conjoint dysfunction and saved their marriage.

Perhaps she is right. Perhaps continuous duologues do not end as often in divorce as in a kind of disconnected harmony. Perhaps there is something safe in an oblique conversation, instead of the usual blunt confrontation:

"What's for dinner?"

"Get your own dinner."

That could lead to incompatibility and unhappiness.

We had a duologue at our house only this morning.

My wife said, "Did you get the paper?"

And I said, "Have you made the coffee?"

Of course I said it imperturbably.

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