Recently I rode the office elevator down to the first floor at the end of a work day. As the doors opened, I saw one of the janitorial staffers polishing a table a few feet away.
“Hello,” I said, aloud, because politeness dictates acknowledging the presence of another human being under such circumstances, and she mouthed something — probably “hello” — in response.
Eh? What was up with the mouthing? There was no one else around, and no apparent reason why the staffer wouldn’t speak. The mouthing created a kind of weird imbalance in our communication, and I shuffled off into the wintry evening feeling vaguely shortchanged.
I can understand mouthing in certain, extremely limited circumstances. If you were late to a speech, say, and sat down at a table while the speaker was talking, it would be perfectly acceptable for a table mate to mouth “hello” at your arrival. If you were sitting in a meeting, clearly getting ready to interrupt the boss, one of your concerned co-workers could reasonably mouth “don’t” to try to prevent your blunder, or if you were at dinner with a group of friends your wife could properly mouth “No!” to try to discourage you from launching into an embarrassing story that she knows will otherwise be forthcoming.
But, really, that about covers the spectrum of appropriate mouthing scenarios. In virtually any other setting, mouthing is not an efficient form of communication. It presumes lip-reading skills, and almost always provokes a double-take from the recipient. Why not just speak up, instead? And yet, mouthing seems to be gaining in popularity for unexplained reasons, like some stupid internet meme. What, are people now too cool to talk? I’ve encountered it elsewhere, and I don’t know why. All I know is . . . it bugs me.
I’m not blaming the janitorial staffer in this instance, I guess, because there may be reasons for the mouthing that I don’t suspect. Perhaps her English is not good, or maybe a supervisor told her not to talk to the lawyers. Who knows? But from now on, if I am subjected to mouthing in a situation that doesn’t call for it, I’m going to say, aloud: “Hey! What’s up with the mouthing?”