Humans like to think language makes us an evolved species, but when it comes to communicating, we often speak, and act, in code.
Sometimes, it works, as in the family that sets up cue words to defuse certain situations or to extricate its members from sticky conversations. In fact, these family members create stronger bonds by looking out for one another.
But sometimes, it doesn't work, which happens when one person uses a code and another either doesn't know code, or ignores it. That sets up a couple, or family, for frustration and disappointment.
The key to belonging to the first group rather than the second, experts say, is straightforward, noncoded communication during which the family, or partners, agree in advance on how to handle certain situations.
“It's a sign of a good family, honoring each other's needs,” says Randy Rolfe, president of the Institute for Creative Solutions in West Chester, Pa., and author of The Seven Secrets of Successful Parents (McGraw-Hill, $19.95). “Developing [code] phrases allows each other to save face.”
Failing to do so can lead to conversations like this: A newlywed couple invited another couple over to dinner. The host took the conversation in a direction the hostess knew the guests wouldn't like. Trying to signal him to change the subject, she did as her mother had done at dinner parties and kicked her husband under the table. He turned to her and said, "Why'd you kick me?"
"That's not infrequent, especially in a new relationship," says Ms. Rolfe. "It's one of those things it's useful for a couple to chat about before there's any issue. Not everyone knows that kicking under the table isn't universal."
But using signs and codes one thinks others know is common.
"Communication shorthand occurs without people realizing it," says Ruth Ann Roehrig, a Toledo psychologist. "Oftentimes, people can bring communication codes from their family of origin and expect that their spouse or partner will understand it.
"Communication shorthand can make you feel like you're part of something, but more often than not, it sets people up to be misunderstood."
Take the kicking couple. The wife may have felt she was engaging in some private communciation by silently signaling her husband to change paths. His asking her about it in front of their friends would have embarrassed her, Ms. Rolfe says.
"Asking 'Why'd you kick me?' is taking something intimate and taking it public," she says.
Meanwhile, he may have felt she was picking on him. Result? Hurt feelings - or possibly a desire for revenge.
"Sometimes it's deliberate. One partner is trying to embarrass the partner who's trying to be intimate," Ms. Rolfe says, recalling another couple who had dinner with business associates and landed in similar straits. "If the wife is trying to hint that he shouldn't go there, and he feels oppressed, he uses the public comment to get back at the spouse."
How to avoid this fine mess?
"The key is recognizing there's a problem and setting down potential solutions, then agreement and follow-through," says Dr. Roehrig. "The major thing is two people talking about a problem and coming up with a resolution are going to build a relationship that will last through tough times."
"All of that has to be agreed upon in advance," says Karen Ack- erman-Spain, a Perrysburg psychologist. "It's too late once you're there. You can't get out then."
Benefits accrue when the same philosophy is extended to children, Ms. Rolfe says.
"Kids, particularly teens, don't want to offend or look dependent or silly or scared. But there are moments they do want help," she says. By respecting that and arranging for code words or phrases, parents can help strengthen the familial bonds. "That's a really important thing a parent can do - give the kid permission to use a little white lie to extricate themselves from uncomfortable situations."
All of this means couples and families have to take the time to talk it out - not easy for stoic Midwesterners. But experts say it's worth it.
"Many of these subtle little things cause subterranean resentments. They can build up," Ms. Rolfe says. "If they figure out some kind of code, then they can lower the stress level. They've come to a positive outcome rather than letting negative things fester."