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The Art Of Conversation:
Introduction To Conversation
Principles Of Conversation
If You Can Talk Well
Culture By Conversation
Rules For Conversation
Reflections On Conversation
Happiness Through Conversation
Conversation And Courtesy

The Principles Of Conversation

( Originally Published 1913 )



There can be no doubt that of all the accomplishments prized in modern society that of being agreeable in conversation is the very first. It may be called the social result of western civilization, beginning with the Greeks. Whatever contempt the North American Indian or the Mohammedan Tartar may feel for talking as mere chatter, it is agreed among us that people must meet frequently, both men and women, and that not only is it agreeable to talk, but that it is a matter of common courtesy to say something, even when there is hardly anything to say. Every civilized man and woman feels, or ought to feel, this duty; it is the universal accomplishment which all must practise, and as those who fail signally to attain it are punished by the dislike or neglect of society, so those who succeed beyond the average receive a just reward, not only in the constant pleasure they reap from it, but in the esteem which they gain from their fellows. Many men and many women owe the whole of a great success in life to this and nothing else. An agreeable young woman will always carry away the palm in the long run from the most brilliant player or singer who has nothing to say. And though men are supposed to succeed in life by dead knowledge, or by acquaintance with business, it is often by their social qualities, by their agreeable way of putting things, and not by their more ponderous merits that they prevail. In the high profession of diplomacy, both home and foreign, this is pre-eminently the case.

But quite apart from all these serious profits, and better than them all, is the daily pleasure derived from good conversation by those who can attain to it themselves or enjoy it in others. It is a perpetual intellectual feast, it is an ever-ready recreation, a deep and lasting comfort, costing no outlay but that of time, requiring no appointments but a small company, limited neither to any age nor any sex, the delight of prosperity, the solace of adversity, the eternal and essential expression of that social instinct which is one of the strongest and best features in human nature...

There are no physical conditions absolutely necessary for becoming a good talker. I have known a man with a painful impediment in his speech far more agreeable than all the fluent people in the room. But when a man comes to consider by what conditions conversation can be improved, and turns first of all to his own side to see what he can do for himself in that direction, he will find that certain natural gifts which he may possess, or the absence of which he may regret, are of no small importance in making him more agreeable to those whom he meets in society. It seems desirable to mention these at the outset for completeness' sake, and also that educators may lay their foundations in children for after use in the world.

The old Greeks set it down as an axiom that a loud or harsh voice betokened bad breeding, and any one who hears the lower classes discussing any topic at the corners of the streets may notice not merely their coarseness and rudeness in expression, but also the loudness and harshness of their voices, in support of this observation. The habit of wrangling with people who will not listen without interruption, and who try to shout down their company, nay even the habit of losing one's temper, engenders a noisy and harsh way of speaking, which naturally causes a prejudice against the talker in good society. Even the dogmatic or over-confident temper which asserts opinions loudly, and looks round to command approval or challenge contradiction, chills good conversation by setting people against the speaker, whom they presume to be a social bully and wanting in sympathy.

Contrariwise, nothing attracts more at first hearing than a soft and sweet tone of voice. It generally suggests a deeper well of feeling than the speaker possesses, and certainly preju dices people as much in his favor as a grating or loud utterance repels them. It is to be classed with personal beauty, which disposes every one to favour the speaker, and listen to him or her with sympathy and attention. This sweetness in the tone of the voice is chiefly a natural gift, but it may also be improved, if not acquired, by constant and careful training in early years. It can certainly be marred by constant straining and shouting. It should therefore be carefully cultivated or protected in youth as a valuable vantage ground in social intercourse.

Similarly the presence of a strong local accent, though there are cases where it gives raciness to wit and pungency to satire, is usually a hindrance in conversation, especially at its outset, and among strangers. It marks a man as provincial, and hence is akin to vulgarity and narrowness of mind. It suggests, too, that the speaker has not moved much about the world, or even in the best society of his native country, in which such provincialism is carefully avoided, and set down as an index of mind and manners below the highest level. Hence all careful educators endeavor to eradicate peculiarities of accent or pronunciation in children, and justly, though we have all met great talkers whose Scotch burr or Irish brogue seemed an essential feature of their charm. If this be so, no education can eradicate it. In lesser people, to be provincial is distinctly an obstacle in the way, even though a great mind may turn it into a stepping-stone.

There is yet another almost physical disability or 'damage to conversation, which is akin to provincialism, and which consists in disagreeable tricks in conversation, such as the constant and meaningless repetition of catchwords and phrases, such as the unmeaning oaths of our grandfathers; such as inarticulate sounds of assent; such as contortions of the face, which so annoy the hearer by their very want of meaning and triviality as to excite quite a disproportionate dislike to the speaker, and to require great and sterling qualities to counterbalance it. However apt a man's internal furniture may be for conversation, he may make it useless by being externally disagreeable, and how often when we praise a friend as a good talker do we hear the reply: I should like him well enough if he did not worry me with his don't you know, or his what, or his exactly so, or something else so childishly small, that we shudder to think how easily a man may forfeit his position or popularity among civilized men in their daily intercourse. But modern society, which ought to be of all things in human life the most easy and unconstrained, is growing every day more tyrannical and only to be kept in good humor by careful attention to its unwritten behests, unless, indeed, we have the power to bend it to our will, and force it to follow our lead instead of driving us along like slaves...

The highest and best of all the moral conditions for conversation is what we call tact. I say a condition, for it is very doubtful whether it can be called a single and separate quality; more probably it is a combination of intellectual quickness with lively sympathy. But so clearly is it an intellectual quality, that of all others it can be greatly improved, if not actually acquired, by long experience in society. Like all social excellences it is almost given as a present to some people, while others with all possible labour never acquire it. As in billiardplaying, shooting, cricket, and all these other facilities which are partly mental and partly physical, many never can pass a certain amount of mediocrity; but still, even those who have the talent must practise it, and only become really distinguished after hard work. So it is in art. Music and painting are not to be attained by the crowd. Not even the just criticism of these arts is attainable without certain natural gifts; but a great deal of practise in good galleries and at good concerts, and years spent among artists, will do much to make even moderately endowed people sound judges of excellence.

Tact, which is the sure and quick judgment of what is suitable and agreeable in society, is likewise one of those delicate and subtle qualities or a combination of qualities which is not very easily defined, and therefore not teachable by fixed precepts; but we can easily see that it is based on all the conditions we have already discussed. Some people attain it through sympathy; others through natural intelligence; others through a calm temper; others again by observing closely the mistakes of their neighbours. As its name implies, it is a sensitive touch in social matters, which feels small changes of temperature, and so guesses at changes of temper; which sees the passing cloud on the expression of one face, or the eagerness of another that desires to bring out something personal for others to enjoy. This quality of tact is of course applicable far beyond mere actual conversation. In nothing is it more useful than in preparing the right conditions for a pleasant society, in choosing the people who will be in mutual sympathy, in thinking over pleasant subjects of talk and suggesting them, in seeing that all disturbing conditions are kept out, and that the members who are to converse should be all without those small inconveniences which damage society so vastly out of proportion to their intrinsic importance.

This social skill is generally supposed to be congenital, especially in some women, and no one thinks of laying down rules for it, as its application is so constant, various, and often sudden. Yet it is certain that any one may improve himself by reflection on the matter, and so avoid those shocking mistakes which arise from social stupidity. Thus in the company of a woman who is a man's third wife, most people will instinctively avoid jokes about Bluebeard, or anecdotes of comparison between a man's several wives, of which so many are current in Ireland. But quite apart from instinct, an experienced man who is going to tell a story which may have too much point for some of those present, will look round and consider each member of the party, and if there be a single stranger there whose views are not familiar to him, he will forego the pleasure of telling the story rather than make the social mistake of hurting even one of the guests. On the other hand, this very example shows how a single stranger may spoil a whole conversation by inducing caution in the speakers and imposing upon them such reserve as is inconsistent with a perfectly easy flow of talk.

Another evidence of tact is the perception that a topic has been sufficiently discussed, and that it is on the point of becoming tedious. There is nothing which elderly people should watch more carefully in themselves, for even those once gay and brilliant are almost certain to become prosy with age, and to dwell upon their favorite topics as if this preference were shared by all society. But even the young must be here perpetually upon the watch, and show their tact by refraining from too many questions or too much argument upon any single subject, which becomes a bore to others. Every host and hostess should make it their first duty to watch this human weakness, and should lead away the conversation when it threatens to stay in the same groove. It is better to do this bluntly and confessedly than to refrain from doing it. But the quality of tact, as it quickly perceives the growing mischief, is also quick of resource in devising such interruptions as may seem natural or unavoidable, so as to beguile the company into new paths, and even make the too persistent members lay aside their threadbare discussion without regret...

If wit be the quick flash, the electric spark, the play of summer lightning which warms the colour of conversation, humour is the sustained side of the ridiculous, the comic way of looking at things and people, which may be manifested either in comment upon the statements made by others or in narrating one's own experiences. Of course in receiving and commenting upon what is being said, no preparation is possible. It depends altogether upon a mental attitude, which looks out with a smile upon the world, and exposes the ridiculous side of human life not more by irony of comment than by mock approval of social vices, mock indignation at social virtues, seriousness when false comedy is being produced, raillery when false tragedy is being paraded with insincerity or empty bombast. In these and a hundred other ways humour receives and criticizes what other people say in a company; and if it be coupled with kindliness o f heart and with tact, may be regarded as the very highest of conversational virtues.

Analogous to this is the display of humour, not in receiving but in producing ideas in company. The humorist is the only good and effective story-teller; for if he is to monopolize a conversation, and require others to listen to him, it must be by presenting human life under a fresh and piquant aspectin fact, as a little comedy. Thus the lifelike portrayal of any kind of foible-pomposity, obsequiousness, conceit, hypocrisy, nay even of provincial accent or ungrammatical language-ensures a pleased and therefore agreeable audience, and opens the way for easy and sympathetic intercourse. It is perhaps not too much to say that in any society where conventionality becomes a threatening power, humour is our great safeguard from this kind of vulgarity. Let me point as an illustration of this to the social sketches in Punch, which for years back have been the truest mirror of the vulgarities of English society. The humourous exhibition of these foibles is the most effective way we know of bringing them before the public mind, and of warning people that here is a judge whose censure is really to be feared. We may also learn from the success of this extraordinary paper how much more valuable and more respected prepared humour is than prepared wit. The jokes in the text pass by unheeded, while the sketches of character are thought deserving of a permanent place in our literature.

I need hardly add that the abuse of these great natural gifts is not only possible, but frequent, and in both it arises from the same mental defects-conceit and selfishness. A man who can say a good thing or make a person appear ridiculous may be so proud of his power that he exercises it at the cost of good taste and even of real humanity. The great wit is often cruel, and even glories in wounding to the quick the sensibilities of others. If he can carry some of the company with him he has a wicked enjoyment in making one of the rest a butt or target for his shafts, and so destroying all wholesome conversation. He may leave in the minds of his society an admiration of his talent, but often a serious dislike of his character. With such feelings abroad he will injure conversation far more than he promotes it. People may consent to go into his company to hear him talk, but will avoid talking in his presence.

The excesses of the humourist are perhaps rather those of a complacent selfishness, which does not hesitate to monopolize the company with long stories in which all do not feel an interest. But humour is its own antidote; and if a man has the true vein in him he will also have the tact to feel when he is tedious, and when his fun is out of harmony with his hearers. For these reasons it is not only a higher but a safer gift than wit for the purpose of conversation; the pity of it is that so few possess it, and that there is hardly any use in trying to attain it by education. No doubt the constant society of an elder or superior who looks at things in this way may stimulate it in the young, but with the danger of making them sarcastic and satirical, which are grave faults, and which are the distortion of humour to ill-natured and unsocial purposes, so that even in this view of the matter education in humour may turn out a very mischievous failure.

On the whole we must set ourselves to carry on society and to make good conversation without any large help from these brilliant but dangerous gifts. Occasional flashes will occur to ordinary people, and sometimes the very circumstances themselves will create a situation so humourous that it requires no genius to bring it home to the company. But beyond the necessary cautions above indicated, we cannot bring it into any systematic doctrine of social intercourse...

These last remarks are very applicable to the case next before us, when conversation is among a few-say from four to eight people-a form of society the best and most suitable for talk, but which is now rather the exception, from the common habit of crowding our rooms or our tables, and getting rid of social obligations as if they were commercial debts. Indeed, many of our young people have so seldom heard a general conversation that they grow up in the belief that their only duty in society will be to talk to one man or woman at a time. So serious are the results of the fashion of large dinner parties. For really good society, no dinner table should be too large to exclude general conversation, and no couples should sit together who are likely to lapse into private discourse.

It is generally thought the fault of the host or hostess if such an evening turns out a failure; and, indeed, it is possible to bring one incongruous person into a small company who will so chill or disturb the rest that conversation languishes. But this case is rare, and the fault usually lies with the company, none of whom take the trouble to tide over any difficulty, or seek to draw out from those present what they like or want to say. I am now looking at the thing from the point of view of the man or woman who comes in as a guest, and whose duty it is to make the evening, or the period of time during which the company is assembled, pass in a pleasant way. Perhaps it is the practical course to consider the usual form in modern society, that of the small dinner party, and then apply what is to be said upon it to analogous cases.

In the very forefront there stares us in the face that very awkward period which even the gentle Menander notes as the worst possible for conversation, the short time during which people are assembling and waiting for the announcement of dinner. If the 'witty man were not usually a selfish person, who will not exhibit his talent without the reward of full and leisurely appreciation, this is the real moment to show his powers. A brilliant thing, said at the very start, which sets people laughing, and makes them forget that they are waiting, may alter the whole complexion of the party, may make the silent and distant people feel themselves drawn into the sympathy of common merriment, and thaw the iciness which so often fetters Anglo-Saxon society. But as this faculty is not given to many, so the average man may content himself with having something ready to tell, and this, if possible, in answer to the usual questions expressed or implied: Is there any news this afternoon? There are few days that the daily papers will not afford to the intelligent critic something ridiculous, either in style or matter, which has escaped the ordinary public; some local event, nay, even some local tragedy, may suggest a topic not worth more than a few minutes of attention, which will secure the interest of minds vacant, and perhaps more hungry to be fed than their bodies. Here, then, if anywhere in the whole range of conversation, the man or woman who desires to be agreeable may venture to think beforehand, and bring with them something ready, merely as the first kick or starting point to make the evening run smoothly.

When the company has settled down to dinner, the first care should be to prevent it breaking into couples, and for that purpose some one opposite should be addressed or some ques tion asked which may evoke answers from various people. Above all, however, the particular guest of the night, or the person best known as a wit or story teller, should not be pressed or challenged at the outset-a sort of vulgarity which makes him either shy or angry at being so manifestly exploite by the company, so that he is likely either to turn silent or say some ill-humoured things.

The main advice to be given to women to help them in making such a small company agreeable, is to study politics. A vast number of clever and well-read women exclude them selves from a large part of the serious talk of men by neglecting this engrossing and ever-fruitful topic of conversation. Literature, of course, is a still more various and interesting subject; but here, perhaps, the defect lies with men who are so devoted to practical life that they lose their taste for general reading. Except for politics, the daily papers seldom afford any literary food fit for good conversation.

The topic which ought to be common to both and always interesting, is the discussion of human character and human motives. If the novel be so popular a form of literature, how can the novel in real life fail to interest an intelligent company? People of serious temper and philosophic habit will be able to confine themselves to large ethical views, and the general dealings of men; but to average people, both men and women, and, perhaps most of all, to busy men who desire to find in society relaxation from their toil, that lighter and more personal kind of criticism on human affairs will prevail which is known as gossip.

This may, therefore, be the suitable moment to consider the place of gossip in the theory of conversation; for though gossip is not only possible but usual in the private discourse of two people, and possible, too, in a large society, its real home and natural exercising ground is the society of a few people intimate with the same surroundings.

It is usual for all people, especially those who most indulge in it, to censure gossip as a crime, as a violation of the Ninth Commandment, as a proof of idleness and vain curiosity, as a frivolous waste of the time giver us for mental improvement. Yet the censure is seldom serious. These people cannot but feel obscurely what they are either afraid to speak out or have not duly considered, that the main object of conversation is neither instruction nor moral improvement but recreation. It is of course highly desirable that all our amusements should be both intellectually and morally profitable, and we may look back with special satisfaction upon any conversation which included these important objects. But the main and direct object is recreation, mental relaxation, happy idleness; and from this point of view it is improbable for any sound theory of conversation to ignore or depreciate gossip, which is, perhaps, the main factor in agreeable talk throughout society.

The most harmless form is the repeating of small details about personages great either in position or intellect, which give their empty names a personal colour, and so bring them nearer and more clearly into view. The man who has just come from the society of kings and queens, or great generals, or politicians, or literary men whose names are exceptionally prominent at the time, can generally furnish some personal details by which people imagine they can explain to themselves great and unexpected results. Who has not heard with interest such anecdotes about Mr. Gladstone, or Prince Bis marck, or Victor Emmanuel ? And what book has ever acquired more deserved and lasting reputation than Boswell's Life of Johnson?

The latest development of the literary side of gossip is to be seen in what are called the "society papers," which owe their circulation to their usefulness in furnishing topics for this kind of conversation. All the funny sketches of life and character which have made Punch so admirable a mirror of society for the last fifty years, are of the character of gossip, subtracting the mischievous element of personality; and though most people will think this latter an essential feature in our meaning when we talk of gossip, it is not so; it is the trivial and passing, the unproven and suspected, which is the main thing, for it is quite possible to bring any story under the notion while suppressing the names of the actors.

Next to the retailing of small personal points about great people comes the narrating of deeper interests belonging to small people, especially the affairs of the heart, which we pur sue so assiduously even in feigned characters. But here it is that all the foibles of our neighbours come under survey, and that a great deal of calumny and slander may be launched upon the world by mere shrug and innuendo. The reader will remember with what effect this side of gossip is brought out in Sheridan's School for Scandal.

It is idle to deny that there is no kind of conversation more fascinating than this, but its immorality may easily become such as to shock honest minds, and the man who in dulges in it freely at the expense of others will probably have to pay the cost himself in the long run; for those who hear him will fear him, and will retire into themselves in his presence. On the other hand, nothing is more honourable than to stand forth as the defender or the palliator of the faults imputed to others, and nothing is easier than to expand such a defence into general considerations as to the purity of human motives, which will raise the conversation from its unwholesome ground into the upper air.

If the company be fit for it, no general rule is more valuable than that of turning the conversation away from people and fixing it on things; but, alas! How many there are who only take interest in people, and in the weakest and most trivial aspects of people! Few things are more essential and more neglected in the education of children than to habituate them to talk about things, and not people; yet, what use is there in urging these more special rules, when the very idea of teaching them to converse at all is foreign to the minds of most parents and of all educators? Let me illustrate this by one grotesque fact.

It will be conceded that the one thing absolutely essential to the education of a lady is that she should talk agreeably at meals. It is the natural meeting time, not only of the house hold, but of friends, and conversation is then as essential as food. Yet, what is the habit of many of our schools? They either enforce silence at this period, or they compel the wretched pupils to speak in a foreign language, in which they can only labour out spasmodic commonplaces, without any interchange or play of thought. Consequently many of our girls drift into the habit of regarding meal times as the precise occasion when conversation is impossible. How far this miseducation, during some of the most critical years of their lives, affects them permanently, it is not easy to overestimate. If parents were decently intelligent in this matter they should ascertain clearly the practice of a school, and the schoolmaster or schoolmistress who is obtuse and mischievous enough to practice this crime should at once lose every pupil. -Mahaffy



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