Conversation. My Dear Nephew
( Originally Published 1832 )
I TAKE it for granted, that upon first going from school to Oxford, and entering into society different, in many respects, from any that you have hitherto been accustomed to, you feel some of that shyness which belongs to the character of most Englishmen.
I should be sorry if you did not. You probably feel diffident, too, of your ability to bear your part in general conversation, and an apprehension of being, on that account, set down as a stupid fellow. But don't be uneasy.
More young men, I am persuaded, hurt themselves by talking too much, than by talking too little. When a freshman, at first starting, is quite at his ease, and talks readily upon any subject that happens to be uppermost, some of his companions may be amused at his coolness, but most of them will be disgusted. If, by your look and manner, you show that you are alive to what is said by others, and now and then throw in a remark, not destitute of meaning, you will be more generally popular than one of those random talkers. Men of a certain standing, qualified by their liveliness or by their information to bear a leading part in conversation, do not like to see an undue share of it engrossed by others, especially by a mere youngster. They greatly prefer a good listener to a ready talker.
Young practitioners in Doctors' Commons have, I believe, to pass through their year of silence, before they are allowed to speak. During the period of silence, they quietly observe, and become acquainted with the usages and practice of the court.
Something similar to this period of quiet observation, might not be inexpedient for a noviciate in society. At all events, never talk for talking's sake ; never speak unless you have something to say worth attending to.
You will, I am sure, my dear nephew, take it in good part, if I point out a few of the conversational faults, of which young men are apt to be guilty. It is natural that we should talk most of that in which we are most interested. Now, of all things in the world, a young man feels most interested in himself. But if, in consequence of such feeling, he ventures to talk much of himself, of his own habits, his own pursuits, his own feelings, his own achievements, he will very soon be set down as a bore and a conceited coxcomb. A young man naturally feels a strong interest, an interest increased by separation, in his own immediate family. This feeling, with some young men, is so deep, that they shun the mention of any thing closely connected with their home as a sort of profanation, a desecration of things sacred. With others, this feeling takes the opposite direction, and leads them—celebrare domestica facta-to introduce the concerns of their own nearest relations into the conversation of a mixed party. Take care that you never are guilty of such a violation of good taste and correct judgment. Interesting as your home and its inmates are to you, nothing can well be less interesting to those, who are unacquainted with them. It will be a stretch of courtesy and good-nature, if they tolerate the mention of them without some expression either of ridicule or of distaste. If you speak of your home-concerns at all, let it be only to one or two intimate friends, who, from the regard which they feel for you, may be supposed to take an interest in all belonging to you.
Be on your guard against getting into the habit of telling long stories: they generally are tiresome. Many circumstances, in addition to the feeling that you have them to tell, may give them a consequence in your eyes, which they do not in reality possess. Lively anecdotes, or short narratives, told with spirit, are among the most amusing ingredients in conversation ; but even with them, if you often meet the same company, there is considerable danger of falling into repetition.
Never be guilty of falling into the too common practice of indulging in scandal, the practice of talking of men disparagingly, of running down their character behind their backs. I by no means wish you to flatter any man, whether present or absent, or to speak favourably of character or of conduct which does not deserve it.
But beware of detraction. Nothing is more unamiable in any man, especially in a young man ; and, what is of infinitely more consequence, nothing is more opposite to the spirit and the precepts of religion, which repeatedly enjoins us to speak evil of no man. Bear in mind the advice of one of the most sagacious and penetrating observers of human nature : Whether it be to a friend or foe, talk not of other men's lives ; and if thou canst, without offence, reveal them not. If thou canst without offence ; circumstances may require that the truth should be revealed,—that the real truth should be spoken and made known, even though it should be injurious,—though it should be absolutely fatal to another man's character. But do not take pleasure in telling any thing to another's prejudice ; do not make the tearing of a character in pieces a matter of amusement. By such conduct you would not only be guilty of a gross violation of Christian charity, but will probably bring yourself into many scrapes in a worldly point of view. In a mixed company, there may chance to be some friend or connexion of him, whom you are running down; or, at all events, what you say will be repeated,—a bird of the air will carry the matter,—till it comes to the ears of the injured person. And what will be the consequence? A feeling of aversion and dislike, a spirit of hostility to you, will, not unnaturally, be engendered, both in him and in such of his friends and connections as are acquainted with
One of the most unwarrantable kinds or forms of detraction, is the attributing of any man's conduct to corrupt or unworthy motives. A man's real motives are known only to God and to himself; indeed, very often to God alone, as from the deceitfulness and intricacy of the human heart, a man himself is sometimes ignorant as to what his real motives actually are. Certainly it is rash and presumptuous for any other man to pretend to decide upon them, and most uncharitable and unjust to pronounce them to be corrupt, when they are capable of a favourable interpretation. Express your disapprobation of unworthy actions as strongly as you please ; but beware of rash and uncharitable censure, and especially beware of the presumption of imputing to any corrupt and evil motives.
As I have cautioned you against violating Christian charity in conversation, so I must warn you against infringing on Christian purity. You have arrived at a period of life, when your utmost care and vigilance will be requisite, to keep your natural passions and appetites within proper bounds. Indeed, -all your care will be ineffectual unless assisted by Divine grace. Do not take part in conversation which is calculated to add to their importunity or to their strength. Thoughtless young men, under the influence of these feelings, sometimes indulge in foolish talking and jesting of most pernicious tendency, and most inconsistent with the Christian character. Avoid and discourage conversation of this nature, so far as you possibly can. Do not add fuel to a flame which already burns but too fiercely. Fools make a mock at; and none but fools should be capable of making a joke of temptations and vices, which in themselves are awfully serious, which lead on to eternal ruin.
I hope you will never be so unfortunate, as to fall much into the company of men, who make a jest of religion, or of any thing connected with religion. Those who are bent upon following the guidance of their own appetites, and their own wills, naturally dislike that which would check and restrain them. They are consequently apt to become scoffers, and to attempt to turn religion and its sanctions into ridicule. Avoid the society and conversation of such men, as you would avoid the plague, If unhappily thrown among them, discountenance them to the utmost.
Do not indulge yourself in a habit of raillery or banter. Raillery is a difficult thing to manage well, and very apt both to give pain to him who is the object of it, and to reflect discredit on him who attempts it. Sometimes you see one or two young men, of more liveliness than sense, picking out some quiet person in company as a butt, at which they may point their wit, and carrying on an attack of banter and ridicule. This is, probably, not only annoying to him, but tiresome and painful to all the right feeling men who chance to be present.
I am glad to join in, or to witness, a honest hearty laugh, when any thing really calls for it. Beware, however, of the practice of laughing when there is nothing to laugh at. Some people fall into a way of giving the accompaniment of a laugh to almost every thing that they utter, especially if they have any direct intention to be jocular. This habit is disagreeable to most of those who witness it. It proceeds, I believe, generally from a sort of shyness and awkwardness contracted in early youth, and is, as I know from experience, difficult to get rid of. It certainly is inconsistent with the manners and habits of good society.
Be always the last to laugh at your own jokes, or your own good stories.
If they are really worth laughing at, the company will find it out, and by premature or excessive laughter you will mar their effect.
As you get on in society, you will probably often fall into discussion and argument. When this is the case, take care not to be too positive or peremptory in your manner. Be solicitous to allow their full weight to the arguments of your antagonist.
Do not suffer the impression of the force and correctness of your own reasoning, to render you blind to. what is urged against you. Above all, keep your temper. If you lose your temper, victory will be deprived of its credit, and defeat will be more disgraceful. At the same time you will run a double chance of being defeated, without having the wit to see, or the manliness to own it. Believe me, my dear nephew, (to adopt the very words of one of the most sagacious and distinguished of modern statesmen) "that the arms with which the ill dispositions of the world are to be combated, and the qualities by which it is to be reconciled to us, and we reconciled to it, are moderation, gentleness, a little indulgence to others, and a great deal of distrust of ourselves ; which are not qualities of a mean spirit, as some may possibly think them, but virtues of a great and noble kind, and such as dignify our nature as much as they contribute to our repose and fortune ; for nothing can be so unworthy of a well-composed soul, as to pass away life in bickerings and litigations, in snarling and scuffling with every one about us. Again and again, my dear,—we must be at peace with our species ; if not for their sakes, yet very much for our own."
But my letter grows long, and I must hasten to conclude it. Read repeatedly Cowper's lively poem on conversation, which seems to me to have much of the spirit and accurate moral taste of Horace, with the elevation derived from Christianity. Read, too, if you can lay your hand on it, Bishop Horne's paper on conversation, in the Olla Podrida. In these two essays you will find many of the sentiments which I have expressed, only given in a much more engaging manner. In the 78th and 83d Numbers of the Idler, many common faults in conversation are exposed with a degree of humour, in which our great moralist did not very frequently indulge.
My dear Nephew,
Your affectionate Uncle.