From time to time here I have discussed certain conversational devices that are used mostly by long-married couples, and that may seem to be impediments to communication, but in fact facilitate it.
For example, the Interrogative Put-Down: "What are you doing?" The essence of the Interrogative Put-Down is that it sounds quite innocent, but in fact it is loaded with sarcastic disapproval.
Also the Declarative Question. This is more likely to be used by tradesmen, or by people we have met only once or twice, than by spouses: "Hello. This is Jim Jones? The TV repairman? I fixed your Zenith last year?"
What he means, of course, is "Hello. This is Jim Jones. You probably don't remember me. I'm the TV repairman."
Bill Wilkinson, president of Eleemosynary Enterprises, Calabasas, nominates what he calls "mobilingua" as a device commonly employed by him and his wife, and, he suspects, many other couples.
\o7 Eleemosynary\f7 , by the way, is defined by Webster's as "1. of or for charity or alms; charitable; 2. supported by or dependent on charity." So it isn't clear whether Wilkinson is engaged in dispensing charity or receiving it.
Mobilingua, he says, is that conversational phenomenon that occurs when one person is speaking "and the other suddenly thinks the teakettle is boiling . . . and bolts from the den to the kitchen, leaving the speaker in mid-sentence."
We are all familiar with that. What is galling to the speaker, of course, is that he (or she) suspects that all the time he was speaking his spouse was not listening to him, but listening for the teakettle to boil. The instant it boiled, she was released from the conversation.
"Often mobilingua occurs mentally," Wilkinson observes. "I'll be recounting the difficulty of removing the thermostat from my vintage Bentley and she'll become transfixed on a spot three feet above and two feet to the left, so I'll whirl, assuming the Martians are coming. But no, she just suddenly noted a spider web and blotted my significant remarks with her thoughts of ostrich feather duster."
As I suggested earlier, the person escaping into mobilingua need not be the wife. In Wilkinson's case, however, I can readily see that his wife, subjected to such tedious automotive dissertations, is obliged to take some such self-preserving action.
What surprised me is that she would need some tangible excuse, such as a spider web, to disengage. It has been my experience that when I am explaining some abstruse concept to my wife--such as the infield fly rule in baseball--she merely allows her eyes to glaze over, waits until she thinks I have finished, and then says, "Umhmm. When are you going to change the light bulb?"
She insists, of course, that I am more adept at mobilingua than she is. There is some evidence for that. She is always saying, "Aren't you going to get ready?" I say, "Get ready for what?" She says, "I told you. We're going to the opera tonight. Weren't you listening?"
It is true that, after many years, one develops an ear for clues to the import of what one's mate is saying. If it is a subject in which one has no interest, one is likely to tune out. The danger in this, of course, is that something of importance may be said, something requiring action on one's part, and one simply does not hear it.
I suspect, however, that one's spouse may take this game a step beyond its superficial appearance and use it to her (or his) advantage. I suspect, for example, that my wife always \o7 knows \f7 when I am not listening, and uses these lapses on my part to advise me of some undertaking or engagement that she knows I would be unlikely to agree to, were I listening.
Thus, a day or two later: "Aren't you going to get ready?"
On the other hand, without having any statistics at hand, I would guess that husbands and wives exchange billions of words over a long marriage, and that the effort involved in actually \o7 listening \f7 to every word one's spouse utters would tend to dull one's senses and possibly damage one's brain.
Indeed, mobilingua may be, along with exercise, sex, a low-cholesterol diet, moderate amounts of alcohol, and light mental tasks, one of the essentials of a long, healthy, sane and happy life.