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Character Building - Conversation

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THERE is no doubt," remarks an observer, "that the common conversation of the fireside, the table-talk of the family circle, influences to a great degree the joy or sorrow, the excellence or the inferiority, of home life. For, however silent we may be in other places . . . . we have not much hesitation in speaking exactly how and what we wish at home." If this be true it is plain that while there cannot be too much of a feeling of perfect freedom, there is also need of care in the leaders of the family, who have power to control the familiar daily chat, keep it within bounds, and lead it in right directions. For home talk is sure to make a lasting impression upon the younger members of the household. They will un-thinkingly take from it not only their manner of speech, but their opinions and their standard of morals, so that their characters will, to a great extent, be formed by it.

Good conversation is an art that all young persons are anxious to acquire, but they will never excel in it unless they are accustomed to well-expressed and high-toned talk at home. It is useless to expect children to speak grammatically and with proper phraseology, however carefully instructed at school, unless the rules and niceties of language are habitually observed in their own houses. We speak of one's language as his mother tongue, meaning that the child uses the speech of his mother. He will use it rightly or wrongly, with coarseness or refinement (at any rate in his younger years) as he hears and imitates it daily from her lips. Family intercourse, then, should be more, on the whole, than mere gossip. Children should be led to talk about things and events rather than of acquaintances and their trivial doings-least of all about them-selves. This does not shut out an abundance of neighborhood news and personal interests, yet prevents idle chatter or something worse. Home talk should be courteous: bickering is vulgar, and criticism of each other by parents in the presence of the young folks is impossible in a well-regulated family. No matter how frank and positive your assertions keep your voice gentle and your language polite. Rudeness is worse to your friends than it would be to strangers. Avoid slang-at any rate new and silly slang. It is bad enough to use it on the playground : do not bring it into the house any more than you do the mud on your shoes, which it may be hard not to pick up, but which is not worth keeping. You can be just as jolly without it, and won't be in danger of forming a habit that will plague you when you go among people of refinement.

Conversation is not a school, but a means of mental entertainment and relaxation. It is like a game in which each catches and tosses a ball as it comes near, others waiting attentively until the ball suddenly bounds their way, when it must be promptly returned for the general benefit. Attention and a readiness to do your part at the right moment, is the life of the game. To be a good talker, socially, you must be a good listener, and courteously considerate. "Take, rather than give, the tone of the company you are in," was Lord Chesterfield's admonition to his son.

Let your reminiscences and stories generally illustrate what the company has been discussing; and make them brief and sharply pointed, trimming off unnecessary details. The art of telling a story crisply and dramatically is one of the highest accomplishments of those who are really social lights; and it is an accomplishment worthy of some study and private practice. Popularity, as well as courtesy, requires you to listen well to any jest or anecdote thrown out. Absent-mindedness acts on conversation as water does on fire. A considerate person will avoid introducing any topic likely to be unpleasant. "Do not speak of ropes in the house of one who has been hanged," is a worthy old proverb. Likewise avoid subjects likely to arouse harsh differences of opinion.

A useful hint to beginners in the social path is this: When you know that you are to meet a stranger, or a company, prepare for it. Try to learn something of the characters and tastes of the persons in view, and think what would be appropriate and pleasant to say to each of them, and what you would most like to hear from them. With such preparation you will hardly be caught with empty mouth, because your mind will not be empty of ideas; and after all a full mind is the best equipment for easy and delightful conversation.

A poem, " The Chatterbox," in Volume I, is an excellent little lesson in itself; also " Jack and His Master," a humorous story in that volume, demonstrates the value of carefully chosen words. "Harisarman" and "Why the Fish Laughed" in Volume II show the use of happy phrases. In Volume III both "Trial" and "The Sore Tongue" are to the point. Most of these will appeal to the youngest readers. Older boys and girls will find profit in studying the wonderfully chosen words of "The Declaration of Independence" and Lincoln's "Second Inaugural" in Volume VII, and in Volume IX they are advised to read the biographies of Daniel Webster, Henry Ward Beecher, and Margaret Fuller Ossoli. Among "Lord Chesterfield's Maxims" and in "Table-Talk," Volume X, will be found good counsel about conversation. The playlets in the same volume, if committed to memory, ought to prove helpful.

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