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Everyday Conversation

( Originally Published 1922 )

There is nothing so common as talk; yet how uncommon it is to hear people talk well! We cannot quite include conversation as a phase of public speech, yet much of our everyday conversation is public — even though the audience be small. And since in our everyday talk we have to utter words, and utter them in a distinct and orderly way, so that they will be understood and enjoyed, why should we not begin here on this lowly threshold a study of the A. B. C. of effective and winsome discourse? " What anyone does well in daily life, he will do well in public, and have confidence that he can do it well. Well or ill, every-body is making short speeches in business or conversation, and a public speech is but the expansion or multiplication of short speeches. "

Our everyday conversation .is of three kinds — business, classroom, and social; so this chapter will naturally fall into three parts.

I. Business Talk

Few men do business by mere signs or in utter silence. Silence is sometimes golden, and some goods sell themselves, but how often talk turns the trick! It is very desirable that a salesman, an agent, or a promoter should dress neatly, and be agreeable in appearance, but it is equally important that he should have a pleasant voice, a ready tongue, and an instant command of exact and choice language. The successful sales-man must explain the qualities of his article, the good points that make his goods desirable. He must be able to answer questions, and make comparisons, and argue the merits of what he offers, as well as indicate possible demerits in rival goods. More than this, he must create a desire in the minds of people for what he has to sell; and then he must turn this aroused desire into decision. Now, if a business man is able to do all of this, he has been covering the same ground that a good public speaker covers. He has been practicing the chief principles involved in rhetoric; that is, he has succeeded in explaining something clearly (exposition); he has given reasons why his article should be purchased (argumentation) ; and he has created such a desire in the mind of the customer that a decision to buy is reached (persuasion).

The secret of successful salesmanship does not of necessity lie in much talk, or in a mere "flow of language," to phrase it as many raw and uneducated men do. There must be just enough said. It is not sufficient to have "a flow of language;" the language must be directed into right channels, and regulated as carefully as a rancher directs and controls the flow of water in his irrigation ditches. Ignorant salesmen who do not know how to talk skilfully, yet think that they must forever be saying something, often sell their goods, and then, for lack of sense and silence, unsell them.

It is surprising how eager mature and energetic but uneducated promoters and traveling men are to catch the secret of successful talk. They often have an intense desire to increase their store of words, and to learn the art of easy, ready, smooth conversation. The writer very often meets such men in his travels. Since he has been a teacher of English for more than twenty years, and since he is almost constantly speaking in public, business men on trains, and in hotel lobbies and dining-rooms will broach the subject of language — stressing in particular their wish to secure an enriched vocabulary, and to gain ease and skill in arranging their words and phrases so that they can present their ideas more fluently and attractively. Usually these men, because of deficient education, lay too much stress upon separate words and phrases. They admire words just as words, and are struck by phrases just because of their sound or showiness. They are inclined to show off in their conversation, and to admire language that is what they call "flowery." Of course they approach the matter from the wrong angle. Choice words and telling phrases cannot be picked up and stuck on like bright feathers or pretty flowers. The splendor of a peacock's tail is a natural splendor. A parrot is gaudy and has a right to be gaudy because that is the way God made it. Old-fashioned as well as new-fashioned flower gardens, with their wealth and beauty of color and form, cannot be turned out of a factory by machinery. It takes soil, and sunshine, and moisture to bring them to perfection — and it takes time.

So ambitious business men who wish to improve their language, and to gain greater ease and skill in talking with their customers, should not ask the English professor how they can master language by some short cut, and paint up and deck out their speech. They should buy two or three of the best high school and college textbooks on composition and rhetoric, and on public speaking. They should read and re-read these books, and reflect upon them, and con over the selections and exercises. Then they should read the best English classics whenever they can find leisure — Milton, and Addison, and Lamb, and Hazlitt, and Goldsmith, and Matthew Arnold, and Hawthorne, and Stevenson, and George Eliot, and Mark Twain, and Booth Tarkington, and Owen Wister. Then they should go to hear cultivated public speakers whenever they get a chance and should talk as much as they can with simple, sincere, educated people. They should read high-grade drama, too, and should hear the best actors in the best plays. Even a middle-aged man, denied the advantages of a high school education, would in five or ten years, if he should carry out these suggestions, find that his language would be greatly improved and his conversational powers immeasurably heightened. And the result would not be hard to explain: an educational process would have been going on during these years that refined and expanded the whole man. His taste would have been cultivated unconsciously. He would no longer desire to pluck the flowers of rhetoric and stick them in his buttonhole, but, without his being aware of it, "the scent of the roses would hang round him still." The flavor of good books and good company is tenacious.

As for high school pupils, it is their daily task (let us hope their pleasure, too) to do what has been suggested for the business man in the previous paragraph. Every day they are growing more fit to meet and talk to men and women in the busy practical world they are soon to enter. They have the guidance of the best textbooks in English; they are studying the choicest authors; they often have the privilege of hearing good public speakers; they converse constantly with educated teachers and companions; they both read excellent drama and now and then present it on the stage themselves. Nothing but experience, of course, can give them full and assured contact with the business world. To make up for the lack of experience, it may be well for them to read the biographies of business men. There is an abundance of such books, from the days of Benjamin Franklin to those of Andrew Carnegie. It may be well, too, for them to study with more than ordinary care the dialogues in The Merchant of Venice and in other dramas that treat of trade and commerce. They will find plenty of business sense and shrewdness, moreover, in David Harum, and The Turmoil, and A Certain Rich Man, and numerous other high-class popular novels.

II. Social Conversation

In one of Ruth McEnery Stuart's charming stories, the mother of Rose Ann, speaking of her daughter's gifts and defects, says, "Rose Ann always could talk a-plenty, but she never could converse." Is conversation, then, at its best, a fine art? Is esthetic pleasure its chief end? Is culture its aim and are grace and charm its prerequisites? It cannot be denied that most of us "talk a-plenty," and that we do in the diligent exercise of our tongues "show a plentiful lack of wit." We do often indulge in much matter with little art, and sometimes in very little matter with much art, after the manner of Polonius, of Shakespearean fame. Too often we regale ourselves and our friends with stale news, say a great many things that would better have been left unsaid, and in various ways expose the scantiness of our mental furnishings to the embarrassment of our friends and neighbors. Do not misunderstand; it is not out of place for young people, as well as old, to make frequent and solemn avowals to each other concerning the state of the weather. There are times when a poet, an archbishop, a senator must have recourse to the weather as a topic of conversation. The weather, like the poor, we have always with us. Besides, mist and dew and moonlight and flying clouds and wind-tossed surf, and pallid dawns and sunsets are of near kin to the weather. And is it not from such materials that music and poetry weave some of their daintiest and most durable fabrics? The weather is a topic that may easily transport us into poetry and tragedy — yes, into the religious mood, even.

Refined conversation is not so much a question of matter as of mood and manner. "Wise, cultivated, genial conversation," says Emerson, "is the last flower of civilization, and the best result which life has to offer us—a cup for the gods, which has no repentance." Surely such conversation rises to the dignity of a fine art. "Nobody speaks in earnest; there is no serious conversation," said bluff old Doctor Samuel Johnson on one occasion. And an early New England writer laments in a like vein in words so terse and attractive as to fix themselves in the memory: "When gentlemen occasionally meet together why should not their conversation correspond with their superior station? Methinks they should deem it beneath persons of their quality to employ the conversation on trifling impertinences, or in such a way that, if it were secretly taken in shorthand, they would blush to hear it repeated. Nothing but jesting and laughing, and words scattered by the wind. Sirs, it becomes a gentleman to entertain his company with the finest thoughts on the finest themes."

Conversation, then, represents the human species in one of its highest functions — ideas, language, enchanting manners, the fascination of ingenuously imparted personality, all enter as ingredients into this noble art. Conversation is the friction of mind with mind. As the talk goes round we both give and take. We are surprised to find that our companions elicit from us better things than we could have originated alone, and that to a certain degree vital conversation is the bringing to birth of new truths that could not otherwise have come to life.

III. Classroom Discussion

There is no better place for practice in good talking than the high school classroom. The time and the place and the live subject, plus interested pupils and alert teachers — what more could be desired as a groundwork for successful conversation? The class has met for the sole purpose of conversing, and of conversing about something worth while. The teacher is there to listen to what the pupils have to say about topics that are familiar to all. She is there, also, to ask questions when the conversation lags, or when some fact or item that ought to be brought out into the clear sunshine lurks in the shadow. She is there, also, to answer questions, and to direct, restrain, and speed up the discussion as occasion may demand. Above all. this, she is there as a welcome and agreeable member of the party, to talk and be talked to freely and naturally.

The truth is, though, that a good many teachers make the mistake of doing most of the talking themselves. The high school teacher should not lecture to a class. Even in college the custom of set lectures by the instructor is too much in vogue. The university classroom is the place for formal lectures. Ordinarily, in high school classes, the recitation period is not set aside for the purpose of imparting knowledge. Primarily it is a time to draw out knowledge from the student, to test his ability to narrate incidents of history, to explain principles of science, to report upon things he has seen, and to voice appreciation of beauty in art. There will, , of course, be times when the teacher will have to add information, correct imperfect statements, explain what the pupil finds that he is not quite able to explain, take issue in matters of taste or literary appreciation, and stoutly argue against ill-formed opinions. She is there to aid in just such ways. But the student is the person who is being tested. The educative exercise is carried on in his interest. It is the pupil who needs practice in oral utterance, in orderly arrangement of facts, in ease and poise of manner, not the teacher. Indeed, is it not as much an object of high school training to develop skill on the part of the pupil to tell effectively what he knows as it is to make sure that sound information is imparted to him?

If it be true that boys and girls are as surely educated through the process of giving out clearly and accurately such knowledge as they have, as they are in the process of acquiring that knowledge, then does it not go without saying that the recitation hour is the crowning hour? To the real teacher and the eager student the recitation hour is a golden as well as a crowning hour. It is a time for easy, natural interchange of ideas about things that all are prepared to talk about — things, too, that have interested all men in all times. So let the talk begin and let it go on. The teacher will, of course, direct the conversation and keep it within limits. But let it be free and let it be natural. Let the student tell what he knows or thinks, and let him take a pride in telling it well. Why should the pupil not ask questions as well as the teacher? And why should not a question be directed to a fellow pupil as well as to the teacher? There should be give and take both among the boys and girls them-selves, and between teacher and pupil — always courteous of course and good-natured. And a hearty laugh will hurt no one when it springs up naturally and sweeps over the room. Sometimes such a laugh clears up a point that was hard to dispose of just as agreeably as a cool breeze creeping into the window on a hot day drives away the dust and foul air and invites everyone to draw a long deep breath. At times, too, seriousness and intense conviction should have right of way. Nothing educates more deeply, more truly, more rapidly, than strong sincere emotion. Boys and girls ought to feel profoundly, even passionately about many things that come up for discussion in the classroom, and they ought not to be ashamed to express their feelings (always with tolerance and with due respect to others) no matter how different their convictions may be from the convictions of others. The boy or girl who has no intense feeling about anything, or, having it, is ashamed to express it and stand up for it, will never cut much of a figure in the world.

In the paragraphs just written the author has been trying to lead up to the chief point he wants to make in this section of the chapter: Classroom discussion is a form of public speaking. It is a form of public speaking that is so natural, so much a part of the day's work, with all the conditions surrounding the speakers so favorable and familiar that it gives the student the best kind of opportunity for practice as a speaker. The student should make the most of this opportunity and the teacher should aid him in doing this. To this end, the pupil should try every day to improve his voice and his articulation. Try to secure a strong, clear, firm voice. Distinctness, not loudness, should be aimed at. Be sure that you are heard by all and heard with ease, but do not shout, or bellow, or scream.

The writer visits scores of high school classrooms. Often he has great difficulty in making out what the pupils say. Some mumble, or pronounce their words in such a thick and slovenly way that a listener is never more than half sure that he has seized the sense of what was said. Other people talk in such a thin, "teeny, tiny," gasping, fluttering voice that, strain the ear as one may, one is sure of nothing. When the writer was a graduate student at the university and would sometimes enroll in an undergraduate class made up of women as well as men, he would often see frightened "co-eds" rise to recite, but would be unable to make out anything except a faint, filmy thread of sound that died away completely some-where in the middle of the room. Some of the rough and realistic men of the sophomore class who wanted to hear what the girls said, but could not, spoke of these fairy-like voices that lost themselves in thin air as "mosquito voices." It is true, as the poet says, that a low voice in woman is a thing to be desired; but it should not be so low that it cannot be heard. "The object of public speech is persuasion. It ought to be the object of private speech also. To persuade by public speech requires a voice articulate and audible. That is the beginning of practical influence in elocution." Students will utter the first part of 'a sentence distinctly enough, but will taper off at the end to utterance impossible to hear. But of all classroom defects in recitation perhaps the most frequent and serious is that of scrappiness. A great many students present what they have to say in scraps and fragments. .In reply to a question, which if properly answered would require from five to twenty clear-cut, orderly, well-connected sentences, the student will utter a single word, or will satisfy himself with one jerky, disjointed statement that hits the topic at some point, to be sure, and indicates that he has touched the idea, at least, in his study, but which, so far as thought value is concerned, is a mere rag-tag — a patch fluttering in the breeze, rather than a starry ensign of truth and enlightenment. A student ought to take delight in giving out what he knows; and he will take delight in it and will give delight to others if he will take the pains to utter it with cameo-like exactness, distinctness, and completeness. To do this his thought must be clear and orderly, and each word that he voices must be distinct and firm.


1. For a good while we made it a practice at our most leisurely meal — the evening dinner hour — to state in turn, in brief and exact form, one new item of knowledge each person had gained that day. All took part, grammar school girl, high school scout, mother, and father.

Conversation is nothing if not free and spontaneous. The best training in conversation is that which one can get at home in the company of cultivated parents and brothers and sisters — at the breakfast table and in the living-room. Good conversation is not like a dress suit, to be put on for state occasion; it must be a part of one's everyday life.

Half of good conversation is to listen well. Train yourself to listen with attention and respect while the other fellow talks.

2. Plan on a six-months' program to improve yourself in conversational ability. At home make your breakfast and dinner talks, your parlor chats, as Iively and timely as possible. In company study to have something alive and refreshing to say. You will be surprised at the results.

3. Re-read Holmes' Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.

4. For the association with sparkling minds and to increase your vocabulary read the letters of Keats, and Stevenson, and Lowell.

5. Let each member of the class come prepared to tell a bright story or to repeat a bit of rare witticism. When one has led off with a story let others match it with another of like nature, as in social talk at home. Many a parlor hour is brightened by a lively "story fest."

6. Try a day of personal anecdote. Nothing helps to make a fascinating talker like the knack of telling one's own experiences well.

7. Make a list of the topics on which you believe you are able to talk well. In class, compare notes, and find a companion with a topic matching one of yours.

How often do you find that you know too little to carry on your end of a talk on one of these topics? ,

8. If the topic before the class is so exciting that every one wants to talk, drop the reins and let each one freely have his say.

9. Practice introducing people to each other. Speak the names clearly. If introducing a woman and a man, address the woman as, "Mrs. Douglas, I should like you to meet Dr. Simpson;" if introducing an elderly man and a younger, address the older man. Add anything possible that would be of interest to both that will start conversation, as, "Dr. Simpson, I understand, is from your old home city, Des Moines, Mrs. Douglas." Join in the talk that follows as you find you can help in putting the new acquaintanceship on a pleasant basis.

10. Can you talk on any of these topics with a fair knowledge and some individuality of idea?

a. The latest inventions.

b. Newspapers — what makes a good newspaper? Your favorite.

c. The music and composers you care most for; favorite musical instruments.

d. Plays and actors you like. The best plays for this high school.

e. England and India; England and Egypt.

f. The Irish Question. De Valera; Sinn Fein; Home Rule.

g. The present labor problems. Immigration; open shop; collective bargaining.

h. Church questions: The Federation movement; the tercentenary campaign, etc.

i. Art and architecture. What paintings do you really like? What style of homes and public buildings seem most suitable for this locality?

j. Spiritualism; Sir Oliver Lodge; the ouija board.

k. Magazines; those for information, for stories; the all-round magazine.

I. Interesting places you have seen; places you hope to see.

11. Over the telephone. Try these — Social talks: invitations to dinner, dances, parties; arrangements for rides, picnics, afternoon calls.

12. Business talks. Arrange for interviews; make and answer complaints; order groceries; reserve sleeping berths.

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