Don't Be A Wallflower
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The person who never contributes a word to a conversation either suffers from an inferiority complex which fills him with fear that he will make mistakes and display his ignorance, or he has such a superiority complex that he feels it to be a waste of his time and talent to talk to his associates.
The shy, fearful person will gain assurance if he knows that he makes a good appearance, if he is familiar with the subjects under discussion, and if he can express his ideas in correct, effective language. Because improving one's appearance and acquiring a cultural background are so important in establishing self-confidence, this course devotes special attention to these subjects. Equally important from this point of view and even more fundamental to good conversation is a command of language. Certain aspects of speech are covered in this book, but for more comprehensive treatment and for drill in the correct use of English you are urged to study or review Practical English and Effective Speech.
If you habitually answer merely "Yes" or "No" to all the remarks addressed to you, try to be a little less blunt.
Remember that you are playing verbal tennis, and it is your obligation to return the ball. Always give your conversational associates a lead that will enable them to continue the conversation. Sometimes a look or a gesture is sufficient; an upward inflection of the voice may give the necessary impetus, but usually a question is more certain to bring results. For example, if, in response to a statement, you say with a downward inflection, "That will never happen," the chances are that the conversation will be killed on the spot. But if you are a little less dogmatic and say, "I don't believe that will ever happen, do you?" you have left the door open for discussion.
If you feel yourself superior to everyone else, you need to analyze yourself carefully. In the first place, such an attitude is stupid, for no one knows everything. In all probability there are many persons who know more than you do about every subject upon which you have information. In addition, there are countless persons who know a great deal about subjects with which you are unfamiliar. In material possessions there are many who surpass you. As to personality, you have no claim to an attractive, likeable personality so long as you are smug and superior in your attitude. Probably you tell yourself that you don't want friends be-cause you cannot find anyone worthy of your friendship. The truth is that you cannot have friends until you are friendly and understanding, with the desire to share your ideas and help others who are not so fortunate as you.
If you want to be different, start looking for the interesting things in the personalities and conversations of others. When someone tells a story or advances an idea, respond with enthusiasm. If someone has difficulty in developing a point, encourage him to go on. This will tax your "superior" qualities and develop them in the right direction. Force yourself, if necessary, to become interested in people; other-wise you will be left more and more to yourself and will ultimately be a lonely, embittered old man or woman.
Don't Be a False Humorist
Humor that entertains and stimulates but that leaves no unpleasant impression is a delightful contribution to conversation. Many persons mistakenly think they are being humorous when they talk nonsense and laugh heartily or giggle constantly. Then there are those who think it humorous to ridicule others, to make sarcastic comments and sharp retorts. Sarcasm and cynicism are not appropriate in conversation, for a bitter personality destroys the friendliness that should characterize all social intercourse.
A wise old lady used to admonish her children, "Never twit on facts." No joke, however clever, is enjoyed by the object of your humor. Other listeners who have good taste also take offense; only the unthinking and crude will enjoy such doubtful cleverness.
Don't be the kind of person that thinks the highest use of conversation is to create constant laughter. Among the worst types of bore is the one who collects and memorizes the puns and jokes of the street, the newspaper, the office, and the theater, and who, the moment he sees you, pours out these witticisms in an unrelated stream. No matter whether the subject of conversation is light or serious, he will try to drag in a funny story. Because some laugh at his jokes, he fails to notice that the more intelligent listeners are bored or disgusted.
Above all, refrain from telling risque stories. Even if they have an amusing point, as few do, you run the risk of giving offense to someone. There is enough clean humor to make smutty or off-color jokes unnecessary, and if you tell them you will be branded ill-bred and common by the most discriminating people.
Don't Be a Flatterer
Don't be misled into thinking that if you flatter people, you will make them like you. The only type of friend gained through flattery is the foolish one who isn't worth having; the friendship of a discerning, intelligent person can never be won in this way. Praise is enjoyed by everyone and should be given when deserved, but either the giving or the acceptance of flattery indicates weakness.
Don't Be a Brawler
The brawler dominates a conversation by proclaiming his ideas in a loud voice. He mistakes the startled looks turned in his direction for admiration, and continues to shout until everyone within hearing is annoyed and disgusted.
Always speak loudly enough to be heard, but if you wish to be considered well-bred, avoid speaking so loudly that you attract attention from those outside your group.
Don't Be a Gossip
Few persons are deliberate troublemakers, but curiosity, which is common to both sexes, leads many into dangerous gossip. Do not discuss the intimate affairs of others, for to do so usually brings discomfort or annoyance to someone. Whenever you hear anyone begin a remark with "They say," you can be certain you are in the company of a gossip. No one can ever identify the mysterious "They" who start scandals and ruin lives with no fear of being found out.
There are many per-sons in the world who seem eager to be the first to spread bad news. They are of several types. One says in a pitying voice that also betrays satisfaction, "Isn't it a shame that every-one is saying such mean things about Helen? Why, I heard—" and she proceeds to tell all she has heard and sometimes more.
Then there is the "I told you so" type who says with satisfaction, "Well, Tom got fired yesterday. I told you he couldn't hold a job. I'm surprised that he held this one as long as he did. Confidentially, he got himself into a scrape with his boss—" and the gossip proceeds to ruin whatever good impression the listeners may have had of Tom.
There is also the insinuating gossip who says little, but by a shrug of the shoulders, a lifting of the eyebrows, or a meaningful glance implies the worst.
The confidential gossip is perhaps the most disliked of all. He always has information that no one else knows and he wouldn't think of telling anyone except you. Although he has found it impossible to keep the confidence, he does not hesitate to impose upon you the burden of keeping it secret. He goes about collecting private stories seasoned with enough scandal to make them "interesting." Secret court-ships, elopements, difficulties of business partners or of husbands and wives, rumors about a new neighbor—these he peddles "confidentially." He is a troublemaker and wise people avoid him.
The disparager is another mischief-making gossip. He starts out by saying, "Oh, Joe's all right, but—" and proceeds to prove that Joe is anything but all right.
Then we have the gossip who enjoys reporting circumstances that appear suspicious to him and giving them the worst possible interpretation. "He says he has to work nearly every night at his office. Well, I saw his secretary and she's a beautiful blonde. It wouldn't surprise me—" and so on.
Revealing confidential information or speculating about the private affairs of others or repeating private conversations is in poor taste and has no proper place in conversation.
Don't Be an Exaggerator
We all exaggerate at times, and most of us are guilty, at least occasionally, of making such exaggerated remarks as "I'm simply dead," "I nearly died laughing," "The boss took my head off." Such expressions lack dignity and distinction, but they are so common as to be scarcely noticed. Exaggeration, however, can become an insidious habit which will ruin your reputation as a conversationalist. Usually the habit has its roots in the desire to make your experiences appear superior to those of others. Instead of making you the envy of everyone, exaggeration causes distrust of your statements and arouses resentment in the minds of the persons whose stories you have eclipsed.
Exaggeration deliberately employed for humorous effect is, of course, a different matter; it will be discussed later.
Don't Be a Pryer
A certain amount of curiosity about others is normal, but unrestrained and childlike inquisitiveness betrays an uncultured or immature personality.
Over-inquisitive people pry into other people's affairs, and are actually unhappy until they find out comparatively minor facts about someone's business affairs or personal relationships or experiences. They ask impertinent questions about the size of one's income, what rent one pays, etc., and then they try to extract from each person confidential in-formation concerning someone else. Strangely enough, the pryer usually resents being questioned about his own affairs.
Usually the pryer is disliked and shunned, but he may wonder why, as few will take the trouble to show him how obnoxious he is.
If you wish to avoid being a pryer, observe the following "Don't's:"
1. Don't ask about things that do not concern you.
2. Do not speak at all about anything which someone else wishes to pass unnoticed.
3. Never pry into another's affairs unless you have a right to do so and necessity demands your doing so.
4. Do not press a question or a discussion if your associate shows any disposition to be reserved about the matter.
5. Do not ask personal questions in public places.
6. Never ask questions that will embarrass either the person questioned or those listening.
7. Never read letters or papers belonging to others.
To overcome a tendency to pry you must first regulate your thinking. Don't permit yourself to be too curious about things that are none of your business, for "out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh."
Don't Be a Pedant
Pedantry has been defined as "an absurd ostentation of learning, and stiffness of phraseology, proceeding from a misguided knowledge of books, and a total ignorance of men."
The person who tries to impress others by an ostentatious display of his knowledge is found in every layer of society. He usually betrays more ignorance than wisdom. You can-not tell this type of person anything he doesn't profess to know all about. He uses large words, quotes at length, and monopolizes the conversation.
Don't Be an Egotist
A man dropped into the seat beside an irritable old man on a train and proceeded to talk about himself. Every re-mark started, "I," "I am," "I was," "I have," or "I shall be."
Finally the elderly man remarked sarcastically, "You evidently have serious `I' trouble. You ought to do some-thing about it."
"Oh, my eyes are all right," was the reply.
"It's the pronoun `I' that's your trouble," was the retort. And from then on silence reigned.
The methods of the egotists are varied. Some repeat jokes as if they were original; others praise their own ability; still others talk about their possessions and the marvelous ad-vantages they have enjoyed, or try to impress by talking about prominent people whom they know. According to an egotist, everything everyone else says or does is insignificant, but everyone and everything associated with himself is worthy of attention.
Perhaps the most objectionable type of egotist is the person who is always disparaging himself, his belongings and accomplishments, in the hope that by this means he will elicit praise from his listeners. The woman who apologizes for her appearance when she knows she looks charming, the hostess who bemoans her poor cooking when she knows it is delicious, the man who criticizes the speech he has made when he knows it was effective and well received, the golfer who laments his poor score when it is the best he has ever made—all are employing the cheapest form of conversation—selfdisparagement given in an effort to win praise.
Then there is the harmless but boring person who runs on for hours about himself and his affairs because he doesn't know anything else. He is more to be pitied than disliked, but a bore he certainly is.
You can never become an egotist if you will constantly think about others and strive to bring out their ideas, contributing only enough to the conversation to keep it moving or to add something of value. Avoid the too frequent use of the pronoun "I" and don't relate everything to yourself. Remember that egotism gives to the personality pompousness instead of dignity, vanity instead of self-respect, and obscures any really good qualities one may possess.
Don't Be a Grumbler
The grumbler is not a conversationalist, but he often thinks he is. He should be an object of pity, but most people dislike him and hold him in contempt. His so-called conversation consists of complaints—his children are ungrateful; his wife is extravagant; the schools don't teach anything useful; the officers of the city are all grafters; no restaurant serves decent food; the whole world is "going to the dogs." He complains that he slaves his life away, and no one appreciates him. Even if something pleasant happens, he is sure it won't last and the worst is yet to come. The grumbler is apt to be jealous of others' good fortune, which he always at-tributes to good luck. Of course he himself always has bad luck. Grumbling is a habit that grows; there is no cure for it except to stop looking for faults and make a determined effort to find something good in everything.
Don't Discuss Religion and Politics
If there is any subject about which you feel violently, don't discuss it, for you will probably become argumentative. Politics and religion are dangerous subjects for general conversation. It is difficult to discuss them without stirring deep-seated prejudices and emotions; therefore, unless you are very sure that you will not offend the persons with whom you are talking, avoid these subjects entirely.
Don't Discuss Unpleasant Subjects
In observing the rule that conversation should never be unpleasant, we necessarily avoid all subjects that might cause pain or arouse resentment. Divorces, death, diseases, accidents, and physical handicaps are among the subjects to be avoided.
Don't Be a "Yes Man"
Some persons seem to think that in order to be pleasant they must agree with everything you say. A person of this type usually replies, "Yes, yes, indeed," "Yes, truly, just so," or, less elegantly, "Sure," and, "You said it." You don't place any confidence in him because you feel sure he agrees with everyone else, too.
"I don't like to talk much with people who always agree with me," said Carlyle. "It is amusing to coquette with an echo for a little while, but one soon tires of it."
The agreer is not a good conversationalist because he makes discussion impossible. He should learn that it is possible to differ graciously and thereby add sparkle to a conversation.
Don't Be a Bromide
We Americans are quick to adopt catch phrases which may be apt and forceful for a time but which soon lose their force because they sweep the country and are used by every-one without discrimination.
A bromide induces sleep; hence Gelett Burgess very aptly applied the word to one who bores others by using hackneyed and commonplace phrases. Bromides are the people to whom "the world is a small place after all," who find that "it never rains but it pours," who slyly observe to the man whose wife is out of town, "While the cat's away the mice will play"—who, in short, have a "nice" trite saying to fit every situation. If you don't want to be a bromide, try to keep stale expressions such as these out of your conversation.
A young man said recently that he was growing tired of a very beautiful girl because her conversation was limited to "You're telling me" and "I'll tell the world"; "Nothing doing," "And how," and "I'll say." Perhaps you have some favorite expression such as "marvelous," "but definitely," or some other phrase which, although not slang, is quite as objectionable when used to excess.
Watch your conversation, and if you find one word or phrase dominating it, drop that expression until you can use it appropriately.
Even a person with only one idea could keep it interesting by expressing it in various ways. There is just as surely monotony of vocabulary as there is monotony of voice. When one person is guilty of both, he is the most tiresome person imaginable.
Don't Use Meaningless Gestures
At times a single gesture is more effective than words. A graceful shrug of the shoulders, a movement of the head, or of the hand, may convey an idea by suggestion so quickly and accurately that conversation is stimulated.
Obviously, too many gestures, meaningless gestures, and labored gestures all detract from conversation. To be effective, gestures must be spontaneous and natural. They must supplement the ideas you are presenting or they will detract from them.
If gestures are abrupt or extreme, they call attention to themselves and take your listener's mind off what you are saying. Keep your gestures unobtrusive and graceful. Some gestures might well be discussed in connection with either appearance or etiquette, but as they usually accompany conversation, it may be helpful to consider them here.
Pointing has always been considered bad manners, and yet some people seem to think they are making their remarks more emphatic when they level a finger at the person to whom they are talking and emphasize every remark with an emphatic jab in his direction. Some men, especially, try to drive home their remarks by pounding on the table or any convenient surface. This may relieve their feelings, but it is likely to drown their voices and to annoy the listener.
At the other extreme is the man who keeps his hands in his pockets or clasped behind his back because he doesn't know what to do with them. Worse still, he hooks his thumbs in the armholes of his vest or coat, or over his belt, or snaps his suspenders as he talks. All these meaningless gestures and mannerisms are annoying and make it impossible to employ expressive gestures that would enhance conversation.