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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

Culture By Conversation

( Originally Published 1913 )



Nothing clarifies our ideas on any subject like subjecting them to the white heat of free discussion; nothing gives us so clear a knowledge of our own powers as measuring them with those of others. And sometimes we find that in endeavoring to receive light we do so by the action of our own minds, and shed more light than we receive. Many a man has acquired clearer intellectual light on his own talents, gained more confidence in himself, by mixing among men and comparing himself with others, than in any other way.

True conversation is always reciprocally beneficial. No matter how much you give, you are sure to receive something; no matter how much you receive, you are sure to give something. The more you give, the more you have to give. Expression of thought makes it grow. As soon as you express one thought, a hundred others may start from it; the avenues of the mind open at once to new views, to new perceptions of things; fresh beams of light flash in on all sides, each beam enabling you to see things you never saw before; so that, by a compensating law in the intellectual as in the moral life, the giver is more blessed than the receiver. And far from impoverishing him, the more he distributes his wealth, the wealthier he becomes; for he may say with Juliet:

"The more I give to thee, The more I have."

A new thought may to the thinker be simply a new thought and nothing more-a dear germ waiting for the contact of another thought to be warmed into life. By dropping it into the mind of another, it suddenly germinates and springs into life; it expands and grows into a new creation...

Thought produces thought, and he who sits down to write a letter sometimes finds himself expanding into an essay or a history. Burke's famous Reflections on the French Revolu tion originated in a letter to a young friend. He had no sooner begun to state his views to his friend than the subject began to expand on all sides, showing its far-reaching influences and effects. His young friend had touched a spring that unlocked a whole mine of golden ore...

Coleridge's most famous poem, the "Ancient Mariner," was suggested by a remark of Wordsworth's in conversation. The two men had been talking of writing a poem in which a supernatural event might be related in such a way as to give it a resemblance of truth; whereupon Coleridge related the dream of a friend in which a skeleton ship was navigated by dead men; then Wordsworth said he had been reading of a ship in the South Seas which, after one of the crew had shot an albatross, was tossed about in storms or spellbound in calms, the killing of the seabird being supposed to arouse the ire of the tutelary spirits of that region.

Thus the "Ancient Mariner" arose from the single remark of a friend in conversation. "The gloss with which it was subsequently accompanied," says Wordsworth, "was not thought of by either of us at the time; at least not a hint of it was given to me; so I have no doubt it was a felicitous afterthought." Of course, the suggestion was all that the poet needed to build upon; for when his fertile mind had got to work, the rest followed easily.

And curiously enough, it was in a similar way that an American poet received the first suggestion for his greatest and most popular work. "Hawthorne dined one day with Longfellow," says Mr. James T. Fields, "and brought a friend with him from Salem. After dinner, the friend said, `I have been trying to persuade Hawthorne to write a story based on a legend of Arcadia, and still current there-the legend of a girl who, in the dispersion of the Arcadians, was separated from her lover, passed her life in waiting and seeking for him, and only found him at last dying in a hospital when both were old.' Longfellow wondered that the legend did not strike the fancy of Hawthorne, and he said to him, `If you have really made up your mind not to use it for a story, will you let me have it for a poem?' To this Hawthorne readily consented, and promised moreover not to treat the subject in prose till Longfellow had seen what he could do with it in verse." Such is the origin of Evangeline...

No talent is more admirable than that of the man who knows how to touch those hidden springs which set quiet and undemonstrative people a-talking-those taciturn people who never speak except when they are spoken to or have something worth telling. There are always subjects about which such people can talk most interestingly if they can only be induced to speak.

He who has the power of drawing people out, who has that confiding, amiable, and pleasing manner which dispels reserve and self-consciousness, which puts people at ease and inspires them with speech and a willingness to talk, has a master talent, which is as rare as it is valuable. In whatever company such a man appears, his presence acts like sunshine on plants; every one finds himself expanding with new life, and ready to exhibit whatever element of beauty or refinement there is in him. Touching their minds in that light, airy, quickening way which stirs thought and recollection, he dispels reserve and inspires confidence; and thus he causes the company to vie with each other in telling things that are amusing or instructive, or that elucidate whatever subject is discussed.

Most men, even those well informed, think little of what they have learned, and much of what they still have to learn; the field of knowledge constantly widens before them, while that which they have gone through seems comparatively limited; but it is by showing what they know that they learn more, and gain distinctness and clearness in the knowledge they have. And sometimes a plain man condenses a whole life experience in a few spoken sentences. -Waters



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