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Conversation In Society


IN order to be an agreeable person in society, it is by no means necessary to be a burning and a shining light there in. On the contrary, the average man and woman (under one or other of which heads most of us belong) are a thousand times more agreeable if they don't try to shine. The art of effacing one's self, as the French say, — that is, of being quiet, of not asserting one's own importance, -- is an art for whose cultivation (in others) people are always profoundly thankful. Beware, then, of talking too much; do not talk to show how clever you are or how much you know, but rather to amuse and entertain the person with whom your lot is cast for the moment; or, better still, carry on your conversation with him in such a way that you may be mutually benefited and instructed, remembering always that your topic should not be too serious for the occasion. A sermon would be out of place in a ballroom.

In one of Balzac's stories a lady advises the hero not to be too brilliant, and never to amuse the company too palpably. " Que votre supériorité soit léonine," she says.

A good listener is better appreciated by nine people out of ten, in this world of ours, than the most brilliant talker.

But in order to be a good listener, one must listen. Alas, how hard that is sometimes when one is detained in the clutches of those Ancient Mariners of society, the long-winded bores! For the bore is usually long-winded, although the existence of silent bores, especially among the very young, cannot be denied. The silent bore is but half a bore, however; he is a sort of albino of the species, and the world calmly treads on his corns and his prejudices, ignores him, and usually tolerates and forgives him.

Some people acquire the art of appearing to pay strict attention to what is said to them, when their thoughts are in reality a long way off; but this is a very dangerous game to play. Your interlocutor is always likely to put some sudden question, your answer to which will be pretty sure to betray that your mind has wandered to other pastures. A gentleman who was a great favorite in society said lately that when he wanted to have his mind free to hear what the couple next to him were saying, he would observe to the lady with whom he was conversing, "What did you do to-day? " Her naturally prolix answer gave him the needed time to hear what his next-door neighbors were saying. Such a ruse is only safe, however, for an accomplished habitué of society.

If you wish to be agreeable, avoid personal anecdotes about yourself, your family and friends, unless in talking to those with whom you are really intimate. Remember that to most people a story about yourself may be interesting, if it is interesting per se; otherwise it will not be.

" Mortify your own vanity if you don't want other people to mortify it for you," would be an excellent social maxim. Avoid vain repetitions in conversation as well as in more serious matters. If you are in the habit of repeating the same stories and relating the same experiences, you will run great danger of repeating them to the persons to whom you have told them once before, — nay, perhaps twice or even three times before. I have known people who were in other respects conscientious and reputable members of society, but whose guilt on this dreadful question of repeating themselves was too black to be in any way palliated or denied. When Jones tells me for the fifteenth time how he rescued his uncle from a watery grave in the Public Garden pond by means of the head gardener's hay-rake, what are my feelings? They are too tumultuous to be put on paper, or rather they were. From the third to the tenth time that he related this fearsome tale, I used actually to wish his uncle had drowned then and there. What are the lives of a whole generation of Jones's uncles compared with my peace of mind? But now I have become quite hardened; I even help him out with the story sometimes when he forgets a detail. Would I could forget one single item of that wretched anecdote

All this misery which vain repetition insures to weary listeners might be avoided, however, — certainly a great deal of it, if the story-teller or the relater of his personal experiences (the last-named is usually the most difficult to cure of his bad habit) would observe a few simple rules. First, confine your reminiscences to accounts of events that have recently occurred; in this way you will not be apt to forget to whom you have or have not told them, although when in doubt it is always a good plan to say, " Did I tell you about so and so? " A young man said not long ago that he thought he should shoot the next person who asked him if he had seen a certain well-known collection of pictures; that young man had my profound sympathy. The rule spoken of above was suggested to me by the conversation of a very brilliant woman, but a woman who liked better to be agreeable than to talk about herself. As she saw a great deal of people and things, she naturally spoke of what she had seen and heard, of interesting and quaint individuals whom she had met. But the events thus related were almost invariably of recent occurrence, or else they were stores about people whose names had already occurred in the conversation, and stories that were not generally known, — perhaps about those old times that are so old as to be new to the present generation.

Howells, in his " Indian Summer," makes his hero so economical of topics that one would be spread out so as to cover a number of different conversations in the course of the day or evening. This is safe enough to do if you only obey the second rule; and that is, after airing your topic or your story, or whatever it is, well and thoroughly, put it in the bottom of a barrel, like the minister's sermons. After five years, or certainly after ten years, you can safely bring it out again. Even the newspapers tell us the same things every ten years. They calculate that it takes about that length of time for a new generation to grow up, and a new generation needs to be told the old truths and the old stories. Strict originality, of course, we cannot expect. Emerson says that no thought is entirely original, but can be traced back through generations of thinkers, ending with the archangels perhaps.

We all know to our cost that jokes are immortal, or at least that most of them date back to those champion wits and thinkers, the ancient Greeks. But every now and then society rises in its might and says it will have no more of a certain joke, so it is temporarily buried, - not cremated. A joke cannot, in the nature of things, be cremated, since its resurrection is only a matter of time.

It is of course a very nice question just how much or how little to talk, and just what to say, on social occasions of various sorts and sizes; but it is a question in which a regard for the feelings of others, a desire not only to enjoy one's self but to have others enjoy them-selves also, will be of the greatest assistance. It is said by thorough horsemen that no matter how skilful one may be in the saddle or on the box, a man should never cease to watch his horse. No one can tell at what moment the animal may play him a trick, — become suddenly frightened, or in some way call for the instant tightening of the reins, with words of reassurance or command, as the case may be. Now that unruly member the tongue needs to be held under just such close surveillance. Conversation has been aptly likened to fencing. But in a society that is truly polite, the guard which keeps the foil from making any deadly thrust is never removed, even though the combatants, if at all wary, are sure to be protected by fencing-masks. In the face of the accomplished man of the world it is not easy to read his thoughts. He does not wear his heart upon his sleeve, for daws to peck at."

Having spoken of the cruelty of those who tell always the same tale, like the hand-organ, a word should be added as to how their hearers should bear themselves under the torture. This can best be done by citing the behavior under such circumstances of a lady who is, and justly, a general favorite wherever she goes. She listens quietly to the same old story, betraying neither by word nor deed that she has ever heard it before. Above all, she does not interrupt the story-teller, and set him right if he makes some mistake in telling his beloved anecdote. There is sometimes a great temptation to interrupt a speaker where he makes a mistake; but it is never polite to do so. If he is making a statement of fact that is calculated to do injustice to somebody, or that will be prejudicial to the truth, one may say politely, after the other speaker has finished what he has to say, that one differs from him, or that one has heard the story otherwise; but where no question of principle is involved, what does it matter whether Jones plays his tune straight or with variations?

Remember that it is never polite, in general conversation, to talk long upon a subject about which some of those p sent know nothing. This is just as true whether your subject be an elevated one, or merely society mall-talk and gossip. Young people who belong t the same set and have a great deal in common to talk About, will sometimes do this thing thoughtlessly when one or two strangers are present. They forget that, interesting as it may be to themselves to hear about Tom's new motor-car, or who danced the gel.-man, and with whom, at the Snifkins' the night before, such details cannot have the same charm to a young lady from another city who has never seen Tom, and possibly never even heard of the Snifkins! It is better even to talk about the weather (blessed topic!) than to leave some one present permanently out of the circle of conversation. What people do to eke out dreadful gaps in conversation in California, where the weather changes only two or three times a year, no one has yet told us. It is to be presumed that they fall back upon the game of Brag, and praise their ever-smiling skies.

It goes without saying, that people should " sink the shop " — that is, not talk of their business or profession — in public. Yet any careful observer must have noticed that as it is with morals so it is with manners. We may know perfectly well that to do such and such a thing is a breach of the social code; but if we wish to very much, we are very apt to do it. A young surgeon, not long since, very much disgusted some ladies of his acquaintance by his bloodthirsty (as it seemed to them) encomiums upon surgery. " The knife, the knife is the only thing! " he vehemently exclaimed. And yet this young fellow belonged in what is technically termed Good Society, — belonged to a good old family, had had a college education, and was in general extremely polite !

It is well to avoid riding one's favorite hobby too much in general society, though that would be a cruel rule which denied all hobbies an entrance into the drawing-room. If it were put at the foot of invitations, " No hobby-horses allowed," probably many more refusals would be sent in for dinners than are now. If you cannot be happy without your hobby, bring it with you, but keep it concealed as much as possible, remembering that that a poor mind which can entertain only one subject.

Although it is often interesting and agreeable to hear people talk about the books they have read, one should never cram for any particular occasion, unless bien-entendu that one is going to make a speech. A person who crams for a dinner, or for a visit in the country, is pretty sure to be found out. For in order to introduce the subject he wishes into conversation, he has either to " drag it in by the head and ears," or else to adopt some circuitous route, some leading-up to the subject which will be apt to betray the purpose of its bringing-in.

Curiously enough, this habit of cramming is some-times indulged in by those who least need its aid, — by men of literary attainment and good conversational powers. They seem to forget that this special preparation destroys all the sparkle, all the spontaneity of conversation which should bubble up from the meeting of active minds just as the contact with the air makes the champagne foam. Society always finds this trait hard to forgive. Not only are the rest of the company taken at an unfair advantage, but the little game itself is a sort of deceit, and shows an undue desire to shine on the part of the person who makes use of it. Another habit to which society strongly objects is that of punning. Of course an occasional pun can be forgiven; but constant punning, in these days, is frowned upon by general consent. It is true that the custom is a very ancient one, as old as the times of the Greeks. It is true also that the great Shakspeare indulged very lavishly in plays upon words, according to the fashion of his day. I believe it was Foote who said that no one objected to a pun but the man who couldn't make one. was naturally biassed in his views, however, from the fact of his being personally an incorrigible punster.

The great objections to punning are that it breaks up the thread of conversation and wearies the mind by turning this constantly into some new and unexpected channel. It is necessarily an interruption; and even agreeable interruptions become tedious if repeated too often.

A few additional hints as to what should be avoided in conversation will not perhaps be out of place here.

Beware of making jokes in general society. To the man of literal mind a joke is entirely incomprehensible. An elderly lady, who was completely destitute of all sense of the ludicrous, remarked recently, apropos of Frank Stockton and his delightful nonsense, " He will be sorry, when he grows older, that he spent his time in writing such stuff ! "

Never make personal remarks or jokes. The latter are very liable to be misunderstood, even when made with perfect good-nature. Especially is this the case with personal jokes made in letters, where voice and gesture are lacking to convey adequately the intention of jesting. One must never ask a person's age, nor call attention to his dress and personal belongings.

Avoid heated discussion in a mixed company, and, consequently, avoid those subjects on which people are apt to feel most strongly, and differ most widely, namely, politics and religion. The anecdote of the Englishman who discussed politics with a stranger in a stage, and who became so excited that he knocked the head of his antagonist through the stage window, is only a slight exaggeration of the scenes of excitement which most of us have witnessed when politics were under discussion.

A truly well-bred person will endeavor to change the theme of conversation when he perceives that those with whom he is conversing are becoming unduly excited.

An essential part of the art of conversation consists in the ability to draw out others, and to make them talk on the topics with which they themselves are well acquainted, and in which they are interested. This was a rule with Emerson, as well as with other truly wise men and women. The wise man is continually searching for more light; and he knows that from comparatively humble people, even from the mechanic or artisan, there is much that he can learn. Therefore while he is quite willing to give light to others if they desire it, and to impart information, he despises, as unworthy of a great mind, that sort of conversation which is indulged in merely to show off what a man knows, in order that he may excite the admiration of those about him.

It is surprising, therefore, to see the fatal mistake which many persons of superficial accomplishments make, in endeavoring to display their little learning, when talking to a man or a woman of superior intelligence and solid acquirements. They cannot resist the temptation to show what they know, and are so blinded by their own vanity that they do not see what folly they are guilty of, nor do they perceive that " out of their own mouths they are judged," their loquacity betraying the narrow limits and the superficial character of their attainments.

If such people would be content to talk about some subject with which they were thoroughly conversant, — even if it were a shop subject, —they would find in the learned man an interested listener. For though one should not as a rule talk shop, it is permissible to do so to a person who is evidently interested in the subject.

The pygmy who rashly tries his strength against the giant, is guilty of a more noble fault, however, than the giant who, without provocation, crushes the pygmy. The man who takes pains constantly to make a display of what he knows to other persons of decidedly inferior education and accomplishments, is sadly wanting in magnanimity.

It is not in accordance with the spirit of our age to pay empty and unmeaning compliments. In our self-assertive day men do not often praise their neighbors, and the old-fashioned elaborate and flowery language of compliment has fallen into disuse. This is scarcely to be regretted, for sincerity is always good, even the sincerity of selfishness. Besides, the moment that selfishness ceases to masquerade under the garb of hypocrisy, its true character is at once made known, and being made known, will ere long be corrected.

That young men still say pretty things to young and charming women is not to be denied; but our belles will not tolerate compliments unless they are well turned, and, in appearance at least, sincere; nor will they allow a fond youth to repeat the same pretty speech to half a dozen girls. In the delightful moments of confidence and retrospection with which young women indulge themselves after a ball, the youth who has said the same thing to all of them is severely condemned by the fair conclave, amid peals of silvery laughter.

It is not polite to express doubts of a story, even if many large fishes are introduced into the tale; neither is it polite to criticise or find fault with pictures, bric-a-brac, etc., which are displayed for your admiration.

I wish," said a clever woman, " that I could borrow that sweet smile of 's. He never praises what he does not admire, but he smiles so benignly, that he satisfies people just as well as if he broke out into the most extravagant encomiums."

The man or woman who can say sharp and witty things is usually unpopular; the world fears more than it likes such a person. Where a man possesses the delightful faculty of being witty and amusing, and of saying bright things that are neither unkind nor satirical, he is, of course, the prince of good fellows, as he deserves to be.

Of gossip and slander it is, let us hope, needless to speak. It is as ill-bred as it is unchristian to indulge in them; and the present renaissance of learning (I refer to the epidemic of study-classes, literary clubs, etc., now so prevalent in our cities, towns and villages), if it accomplishes no other good, at least vastly diminishes the tendency to gossip about one's neighbors.

( Originally Published 1911 )

Social Customs:
Conversation In Society

On Voice, Language And Accent

Gestures And Carriage


Letters Of Introduction

On Dress

Dress And Customs Appropriate To Mourning

Host And Guest

Country Manners And Hospitality

In The Street And In Public Places

Read More Articles About: Social Customs

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