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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

Rules For Conversation

( Originally Published 1913 )



Talk often, but never long; in that case, if you do not please, at least you are sure not to tire your hearers. Pay your own reckoning, but do not treat the whole company-this being one of the very few cases in which people do not care to be treated, every one being fully convinced that he has wherewithal to pay.

Tell stories very seldom, and absolutely never but where they are very apt and very short. Omit every circumstance that is not material, and beware of digressions. To have fre quent recourse to narrative betrays great want of imagination. Never hold anybody by the button or the hand in order to be heard out; for if people are not willing to hear you, you had much better hold your tongue than them.

Most long talkers single out some one unfortunate man in company (commonly him whom they observe to be the most silent, or their next neighbor) to whisper, or at least in a half voice to convey a continuity of words to. This is excessively ill bred, and in some degree a fraud-conversation stock being a joint and common property. But on the other hand, if one of the unmerciful talkers lays hold of you, hear him with patience, and at least seeming attention, if he is worth obligingfor nothing will oblige him more than a patient hearing, as nothing would hurt him more than either to leave him in the midst of his discourse, or to discover your impatience under your affliction.

Take, rather than give, the tone of the company you are in. If you have parts, you will show them more or less upon every subject; and if you have not, you had better talk sillily upon a subject of other people's than of your own choosing.

Avoid as much as you can, in mixed companies, argumentative, polemical conversations-which though they should not, yet certainly do, indispose for a time the contending parties toward each other; and if the controversy grows warm and noisy, endeavor to put an end to it by some genteel levity or joke. I quieted such a conversation-hubbub once by representing to them that though I was persuaded none there present would repeat out of company what passed in it, yet I could not answer for the discretion of the passengers in the street, who must necessarily hear all that was said.

Above all things, and upon all occasions, avoid speaking of yourself, if it be possible. Such is the natural pride and vanity of our hearts that it perpetually breaks out, even in people of the best parts, in all the various modes and figures of the egotism.

Some abruptly speak advantageously of themselves, without either pretense or provocation. They are impudent. Others proceed more artfully as they imagine, and forge accu sations against themselves, complain of calumnies which they never heard, in order to justify themselves by exhibiting a catalogue of their many virtues. They acknowledge it may indeed seem odd that they should talk in that manner of themselves; it is what they do not like, and what they never would have done-no, no tortures should ever have forced it from them, if they had not been thus unjustly and monstrously accused! But in these cases justice is surely due to one's self as well as to others, and when our character is attacked, we may say in our own justification what otherwise we never would have said. This thin veil of modesty drawn before vanity is much too transparent to conceal it even from very moderate discernment.

Others go more modestly and more slyly still (as they think) to work, but in my mind, still more ridiculously. They confess themselves (not without some degree of shame and confusion) into all the cardinal virtues by first degrading them into weaknesses, and then owning their misfortune in being made up of those weaknesses. They cannot see people suffer without sympathizing with and endeavoring to help them. They cannot see people want without relieving them, though truly their own circumstances cannot very well afford it. They cannot help speaking truth, though they know the imprudence of it. In short, they know that with all these weaknesses, they are not fit to live in the world, much less to thrive in it; but they are now too old to change, and must rub on as well as they can. This sounds too ridiculous and outre, almost, for the stage; and yet, take my word for it, you will frequently meet with it upon the common stage of the world. And here I will observe, by the by, that you will often meet with characters in nature, so extravagant, that a discreet poet would not venture to set them upon the stage in their true and high coloring.

This principle of vanity and pride is so strong in human nature chat it descends even to the lowest objects, and one often sees people angling for praise, where, admitting all they say to be true (which, by the way, it seldom is,) no just praise is to be caught. One man affirms that he has rode post an hundred miles in six hours: probably it is a lie; but suppos ing it to be true, what then? Why, he is a very good post-boy, that is all. Another asserts, and probably not without oaths, that he has drunk six or eight bottles of wine at a sitting; out of charity, I will believe him a liar, for if I do not I must think him a beast...

I need not, I believe, advise you to adapt your conversation to the people you are conversing with-for I suppose you would not, without this caution, have talked upon the same subject, and in the same manner, to a minister of state, a bishop, a philosopher, a captain, and a woman. A man of the world must, like the chameleon, be able to take every different hue, which is by no means criminal or abject, but a necessary complaisance; for it relates only to manners and not to morals.

One word only as to swearing, and that, I hope and believe, is more than is necessary. You may sometimes hear some people in good company interlard their discourse with oaths, by way of embellishment, as they think; but you must observe, too, that those who do so are never those who contribute in any degree to give that company the denomination of good company. They are always subalterns, or people of low education; for that practice, besides that it has no one temptation to plead, is as silly and illiberal as it is wicked. -Lord Chesterfield



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