What Makes Good Conversation
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Now that we have disposed of the ways not to converse, let's try to find out what we should do if we want to be interesting and popular conversationalists.
In general, the aim of any conversation should be to create a spirit of happy congeniality. In order to enjoy conversation and to contribute something to it, you must be natural and must be genuinely interested in others. Alertness and quickness are essential. You cannot dream or hesitate, but must be ready to talk at the right moment.
Conversation really is a game that everyone can play, and, as in every other game, there are rules to follow. You must have something to say and know how to say it, and you must suit your conversation to the age, position, and mentality of your listeners. Since your chief object is to give enjoyment to others, you must first learn how to find out what they enjoy discussing.
How to Discover What Interests Others
When you meet strangers or acquaintances, you should be ready to start the conversation so that an awkward silence will not generate a chill and make everyone uncomfortable. Usually the circumstances, occasion, or place, or even the old standard subject of the weather will provide you with opening remarks. But don't dwell on any of these topics.
Some remark will let you lead into a discussion of common business interests, mutual friends, recent plays, or a new book everyone is discussing. Never plan in advance what you intend to say, for almost inevitably your carefully planned program will be inappropriate.
If you are with people whom you know well, you are familiar with their interests and you find conversation easy. With new acquaintances, when you are trying to find a subject of common interest, don't ask blunt questions, but lead up to the subject adroitly. Suppose, for example, you are talking with a taciturn man whom you have met for the first time. If you bombard him with questions, the conversation may sound like this:
You: Do you play golf?
You: Do you bowl?
You: Do you enjoy polo?
At this point, both of you become uneasy and you will probably try to escape. Don't blame the other person for the failure of the conversation. You might have made a less abrupt opening by commenting that your host or someone present is an expert golfer, adding, "I'm not an expert, but I enjoy the game, do you?" If the answer is "No," you might ask, "What is your favorite sport?" If the answer is "None," you can then try another subject. The man will have some interest, and you can discover what it is by judicious comment and questioning. If you are alert to his reactions, you will discover what to talk about almost immediately.
If you are in a small group, don't address your remarks to one person; include everyone by looking from one to another.
Of course you won't put up any barriers to conversation even if you are with people who don't appeal to you. Always remember that everyone has something likeable about him and make it a point to discover it.
Whenever you find yourself disinclined to talk with someone because his personality annoys you, try to understand how he became the sort of person he is, and if you can discover the cause you will be more tolerant. For example, the aggressive, self-assertive person usually isn't really sure of him-self and he unconsciously talks loudly and importantly to cover up his timidity or feeling of inferiority. If he sits by in scornful silence, he is cultivating a feeling of superiority that really springs from a sense of inferiority. If he is tactless, it is because he lacks imaination and breeding. Feel sorry for him but don't condemn him.
Even though a person is annoying, he probably has some ideas that are interesting and worth while. Remember, too, that facts are impersonal, and concentrate on learning from everyone, regardless of your feelings.
Try to make everyone comfortable and part of the group. This is done not so much by what you say as the way you say it. Real friendliness and sociability are the best stimuli for pleasant conversation.