"No, dear, it was a Tuesday, not a Sunday. I remember that, because there was snow predicted, and I left work early. And it wasn't just three men we saw; there was a woman there, too.
"You didn't actually say 'I bet this is a crime about to happen.' When you saw they'd left their car practically on the sidewalk and were having a huddled conversation, you said, 'There's something strange about those guys.'
"We didn't see it on television that night. You were in the bathroom and I heard something on the radio about a holdup at the mall, but by the time we put on the news, they were talking to witnesses and we couldn't be sure it was the same group we saw. Only we think so."
Conversational Helper, as Miss Manners calls it, is one reason that it is a bad idea to seat couples within earshot of each other at dinner parties. Some would say it is a reason why it is a bad idea to get married.
Miss Manners emphatically endorses the former premise and disputes the latter. It is no fun to be corrected, and that vivid detail about being in the bathroom deserves a special mention award. But that is a habit that can be, ah, corrected.
Knowing each other's stories -- background, shared experiences and other conversational material -- is otherwise one of the great benefits of marriage. It makes people feel loved for themselves, as opposed to for whatever counterfactual impressions they might be able to create. They can indulge in reminiscences without having to supply the background. They have a double repertory for use when the other person is not around. And as they grow older, they can use each other as reference resources about their own lives.
But they have to learn the difference between being a prompter and being a fact checker.
Correcting one's spouse in public is not a charming thing to do. And Conversational Helper not only interrupts and embarrasses the speaking spouse; it annoys the listeners. They couldn't care less whether it was Sunday or Tuesday, as long as they don't have to listen to that being made into a dispute.
Besides, embroidery is what makes factual reporting into conversation. Experience must be given form and colorful details, and bits of exactitude may get lost along the way.
Improving the dialogue is considered fair, because it makes the story more interesting. Being able to add a bit of drama to the narrative, instead of making it sound like directions being read from a can, is counted a plus.
This is not to say that spouses cannot be of social assistance to each other. They can prompt delicately when the speaker's own version of the story has been botched, supplying an essential factor that was omitted or a forgotten punch line.
And they can look charmed when hearing a slightly mangled story told yet once again.
Dear Miss Manners:
My neighbor claims it is correct etiquette to personally pay for travel expenses of family to attend a memorial service for her deceased husband. Can this possibly be true?
No, it is not. You have a neighbor who is either exceptionally generous or exceptionally gullible.
If she has offered to pay travel expenses so that relatives who could not otherwise afford it can attend her husband's memorial service, it is the former, although she should not generalize to expect others to do the same. If the relatives have led her to believe that they expect her to pick up their bills as a reward for attending, Miss Manners is afraid that it is the latter.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2004, Judith Martin