"If you REALLY loved me, sweetie," says the husband, "you wouldn't waste MONEY the way you do."
"What do you mean?" asks the wife. "I don't waste money!"
"Oh yeah? What about the time last week when you bought that expensive dress?"
"I needed that dress! I had to wear it to one of your business dinners!"
Later, much later, after the fight is over, the husband turns to the wife and asks, "Why isn't it possible to have an adult conversation with you, dear?"
Forget the old cliche', says psycholinguist Suzette Haden Elgin. Words can hurt you. And the above dialogue is a classic example of the verbal attacks she has become an expert in defusing.
Most verbal abusers are men and most of their victims are women, but this isn't just a sexist or domestic matter. At home, the attacker can be your spouse, parents or child; at work, it could be your coworkers or your boss; and in the professional world, it could be anyone from a doctor or lawyer to a government worker or teacher -- anyone who outranks you in knowledge or status. From the health care worker's "You're not the ONLY patient I have" to the salesman's "If you REALLY cared about your family, you wouldn't buy a cheap car," verbal abuse is nearly everywhere.
The husband above "wants a slugfest, where he has a chance to find out your mistakes," says Elgin, a science fiction novelist and former professor of linguistics who has made the plight of the verbally abused her own. "That's what he wants, but he shouldn't get it. If you won't play the game, it'll be no fun for the abuser, and he'll quit."
The abuse in the first sentence from the husband comes in two parts, Elgin says: the presupposition and the bait. In teaching victims how to neutralize the attacks, she tells them to reverse their usual practice of disregarding the former and seizing on the latter. It's the usually ignored presupposition that is actually at the heart of the attack.
For example, when someone says, "if you REALLY loved me, you'd lose weight," what that actually implies is, "you don't really love me," says Elgin. "But the victim responds to the wrong part of the sentence -- the second part, the bait -- and the result is a big row, which is what the abuser wanted. It's a sucker punch."
Her recommendation: Ignore the bait and respond to the presupposition with something neutral, such as: "When did you start thinking I didn't really love you?"
"That's like in judo letting the person who swings at you hit his head against the wall," says Elgin. "It short-circuits the loop where you feed the abuser's habit."
Elgin's books -- including The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense (Dorset Press/Marboro Books) and the forthcoming The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense (Prentice Hall Press) -- expand the concept of verbal abuse to include syntonics, the science of language harmony. They present 12 attack patterns, how to defend yourself if you're being attacked, how to recognize if you're an abuser and how to become so good at communication that verbal attacks don't happen around you.
"English is a language in which at least 65 percent of the meaning is carried by things other than the words -- by the melodic patterns, the stresses," says Elgin. "The most basic example of this is a sentence like, 'What are we having for dinner, mother?' as opposed to, 'What are we having for dinner -- MOTHER?' I think I've managed to identify a set of melodic patterns that are always attacks."
Among these attacks, with the stresses indicated by capitalization:
* "Don't you even CARE about . . . (your children, your grades, world hunger, our marriage, etc.)?"
The presupposition here is that you don't care, and that therefore you are despicable. You are expected to argue, to say "of COURSE I care," and jump into a fight. Elgin's advice is to say "no," which in her analysis would lead to a dialogue like this:
"Don't you even CARE ABOUT NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT?"
"NO! I don't believe you SAID that! Only a CREEP would say a thing like that!"
"I'm sorry -- are we talking about disarmament or are we talking about creeps?"
* "EVen a WOMan should be able to understand THAT book!"
The presupposition here, of course, is not only that women are inferior, but that the book doesn't require much brainpower to understand. The attacker expects the victim to take this as a personal attack and be forced to defend herself.
The better response, Elgin says: "When did you start thinking women are inferior?" This removes the argument from the personal level and puts the attacker on the spot.
* "YOU'RE only DOing that to get atTENtion, you know!"
This sentence is designed to pick a fight. If the victim responds to the bait with, "I am not pretending! I really am sick!," the attacker has the chance to say you aren't sick and to wrangle over your symptoms.
"The only reason anyone says this with these stresses is to cause a row," says Elgin. Her approach: "Say in a neutral voice and without sarcasm, 'It's so kind of you to be so understanding.' You're accepting that it refers to you but you're denying it's an insult."
Dennis Becker, president of The Speech Improvement Co., a Boston communications consulting firm, generally gives Elgin's methods a favorable rating.
"She can oversimplify what needs to be done, and in some cases doesn't go far enough, but on balance, her approach does help," he says. "Any time we can get people to be more self-critical or self-evaluative, we're doing them a service."
Women in Emergency Medicine, a national society of emergency room physicians based in Palo Alto, Calif., is giving Elgin its 1986 Leadership Award. She taught the doctors linguistic techniques for dealing with frightened patients who say, "If you REALLY cared whether I was in pain, you'd give me something FOR it."
"Patients don't want an explanation of why they can't have a pill," says Elgin. "They want reassurance." She counseled the doctors to respond with an acknowledgement of the patient's suffering: "Of course I care you're in pain."
"What a linguist is trained to do is to examine language as data, just the way a mathematician does with numbers or a chemist does with chemicals," says Elgin, 49. "When I went to San Diego State as a professor in 1972, I was appalled that everyone around me seemed to be verbal victims and completely helpless -- staff, students, administrators, clerks."
It was a different environment from the Ozarks she grew up in, where there was a much stronger oral tradition and people were more alert to linguistic attacks. Yet she points out that those who are good with words in the professional sense can also be some of the worst abusers, including psychiatrists, lawyers and politicians.
"l learned what verbal abuse was very early," says Elgin, who grew up in a family of lawyers. "I was surrounded by verbal sparring, and I could see it was nothing personal. But when there's an intent to hurt, it stops being a game."
The majority of abusers are men, a result of cultural conditioning. Most males are able to dish it out, she says: "They learn it from one another, informally."
Elgin, who lives in an underground house near Forum, Ark., has published nine linguistically-oriented science fiction novels over the last 16 years. Both her fiction and her nonfiction stem from the same impulse.
"The reason I write science fiction is to do something about the public's awful ignorance of linguistics," she says. "When you have a linguistically illiterate public, they're going to be open to verbal abuse." A group of Elgin's readers recently formed the nonprofit American Syntonics Association in Tulsa, Okla. The organization, which is still in its infancy, has several dozen very small, very informal chapters working to help abusers quit and victims defend themselves.
The difference between physical and verbal abuse is equivalent to that between an immediate illness and working in a building set on a toxic waste dump, Elgin says.
"Damage from the second may not show up for a very long time, but it's just as dangerous as the first, and will make you just as sick."
For more information: American Syntonics Association, P.O. Box 9182, Tulsa, Okla. 74157.