THE ART OF CONVERSATION.
As the object of conversation is pleasure and improvement, those subjects only which are of universal interest can be made legitimate topics of pleasantry or discussion. And it is the gift of expressing thoughts and fancies in a quick, brilliant, and graceful manner on such topics,—of striking out new ideas, eliciting the views and opinions of others, of attaching the interest of all to the subject discussed, giving it, however trifling in itself, weight and importance in the estimation of the hearers, that constitutes the great talent for conversation. But this talent can never, we may safely aver, be displayed except in a good cause, and when conversation is carried on in a spirit of genuine charity and benevolence.
We should meet in society to please and be pleased, and not to display cold and stately dignity, which is as much out of place, as all attempts to shine by a skillful adherence to the fantastic rules of the silver-fork school, are puerile and ludicrous. Such little things are great to little persons, who are proud of having acquired by rote, what the naturally elegant derive, in sufficient measure, from naturally just feeling.
The power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse; and those who cannot preserve it, have really no business to speak. Of course, I do not mean the dull, ignorant, sulky, or supercilious silence, of which we see enough in all conscience; but the graceful, winning and eloquent silence. The silence that, without any deferential air, listens with polite attention, is more flattering than compliments, and more frequently broken for the purpose of encouraging others to speak, than to display the listener’s own powers. This is the really eloquent silence. It requires great genius—more perhaps than speaking—and few are gifted with the talent; but it is of such essential advantage, that I must recommend its study to all who are desirous to take a share in conversation, and beg they will learn to be silent, before they attempt to speak.
Notwithstanding the praise here bestowed on silence, it must still be explained that there are various modes of being silently rude. There is the rude silence of disdain—of not hearing, of not even deeming your words deserving attention or reply. These are minor and mere passive modes of impertinence; the direct and active sort of silent rudeness is to listen with a fixed and attentive stare on the speaker, and without any necessity of raising the eyebrows—for that might be precarious—show your utter amazement, that any one should think of thus addressing a person of your rank, wealth, genius, or greatness. There are of course various styles and degrees in all these modes of impertinence, but they all originate in the same cause: ignorance of the real facility of being rude, and a wish to acquire distinction by the practice. It is idle to assert that every one can be rude if he likes; for, if such were the fact, we should not see hosts of persons belonging to what is termed good society, seeking fame and renown by various shades and degrees of mere impertinence.
Never give short or sharp answers in ordinary conversation, unless you aspire to gain distinction by mere rudeness; for they have in fact no merit, and are only uncivil. “I do not know,” “I cannot tell,” are the most harmless words possible, and may yet be rendered very offensive by the tone and manner in which they are pronounced. Never reply, in answer to a question like the following, “Did Mrs. Spitewell tell you how Miss Rosebud’s marriage was getting on?” “I did not ask.” It is almost like saying, I never ask impertinent questions, though you do; we learn plenty of things in the world without having first inquired about them. If you must say, you did not ask, say, that “you forgot to ask,” “neglected it,” or “did not think of it.” We can always be ordinarily civil, even if we cannot always be absolutely wise.
Except in mere sport and raillery, and where a little extravaganza is the order of the moment, always when you answer, or speak in reply to an observation made, speak to the true and just import of what is said. Leave quibbling of every kind to lawyers pleading at the bar for the life of a culprit; in society and conversation it is invariably out of place, unless when Laughter is going his merry round. At all other times it is a proof of bad breeding.
You must not overstretch a proposition, neither must you overstretch or spin out a jest, that has done its duty; for few can be made to rebound after they have once come to the ground.
Another mode of being rude, is to collect, and have at command, all the set phrases used by uncivil persons, in order to say what they fancy very sharp and severe things. Such a collector, jealous perhaps of the attention with which a pleasant guest is listened to, may break in upon the most harmless discourse with the words, “I think you lie under a mistake.” The term may in itself be harmless, but its application is at all times rude, coarse and decidedly vulgar.
La Bruyère tells us that “rudeness is not a fixed and inherent vice of the mind, but the result of other vices; it springs,” he says, “from vanity, ignorance, laziness, stupidity, jealousy, and inattention. It is the more hateful from being constantly displayed in exterior deportment and from being thus always visible and manifest; and is offensive in character and degree according to the source from which it takes its rise.”
We next come to the loud talker, the man who silences a whole party by his sole power of lungs. All subjects are alike to him; he speaks on every topic with equal fluency, is never at a loss, quotes high authority for every assertion, and allows no one else to utter a word; he silences, without the least ceremony, every attempt at interruption, however cleverly managed;—calls out, “I beg your pardon,” in a tone that shows how ill-used he thinks himself,—or shuts your mouth with—”One minute, if you please, sir!” as much as to say, you are surely a very ill-bred fellow. Great, and especially loud and positive talkers, have been denounced by all writers on manners as shallow and superficial persons. And P. André, the author of a French Essay on the Beautiful, declares distinctly, that “no man of sense was ever a great talker.”
Next to the talker, we have the man who gives an account of his dogs, horses, lands, books, and pictures. Whatever is his, must, he thinks, interest others; and listen they must, however resolutely they may attempt to change the current of his discourse.
Women of this class are sometimes too fond of praising their children. It is no doubt an amiable weakness; but I would still advise them to indulge as little as possible in the practice; for however dear the rosy-cheeked, curly-headed prattlers may be to them, the chances are, that others will vote the darlings to be great bores; you that have children, never speak of them in company. You must not even praise your near relations; for the subject deprives the hearer of all power to dissent, and is therefore clearly objectionable.
In the same line is the clever bore, who takes up every idle speech, to show his wisdom at a cheap rate. If you say, “Hang the weather!” before such a man, he immediately proves, by logical demonstrations, that the weather has no neck by which it can be suspended. The grave expounder of truisms belongs to this class. He cannot allow the simplest conversation to go on, without entering into proofs and details familiar to every child nine years of age; and the tenor of his discourse, however courteous in terms and manner, pays you the very indifferent compliment, of supposing that you have fallen from some other planet, in total and absolute ignorance of the most ordinary and every-day things connected with this little world of ours. All foreigners are particularly great at this style of boring.
Then you have the indifferent and apathetic bore, who hardly condescends to pay the least attention to what you say; and who, if he refrains from the direct and absolute rudeness of yawning in your face, shows, by short and drawling answers, given at fits and starts, and completely at variance with the object of the conversation, that he affects at least a total indifference to the party present, and to the subject of discourse. In society, the absent man is uncivil; he who affects to be so, is rude and vulgar. All persons who speak of their ailings, diseases, or bodily infirmities, are offensive bores. Subjects of this sort should be addressed to doctors, who are paid for listening to them, and to no one else. Bad taste is the failing of these bores. Then we have the ladies and gentlemen who pay long visits, and who, meeting you at the door prepared to sally forth, keep you talking near the fire till the beauty of the day is passed; and then take their leave, “hoping they have not detained you.” Bad feeling or want of tact here predominates.
“Hobby-riders,” who constantly speak on the same eternal subject,—who bore you at all times and at all hours,—whether you are in health or in sickness, in spirits or in sorrow, with the same endless topic, must not be overlooked in our list; though it is sufficient to denounce them. Their failing is occasioned by a total want of judgment.
The Malaprops are also a numerous and unhappy family, for they are constantly addressing the most unsuitable speeches to individuals or parties. To the blind they will speak of fine pictures and scenery; and will entertain a person in deep mourning with the anticipated pleasures of to-morrow’s ball. A total want of ordinary thought and observation, is the general cause of theMalaprop failing.
Let us add to this very imperfect list the picture of a bore described by Swift. “Nothing,” he says, “is more generally exploded than the folly of talking too much; yet I rarely remember to have seen five people together, where some one among them hath not been predominant in that kind, to the great constraint and disgust of all the rest. But among such as deal in multitudes of words, none are comparable to the sober, deliberate talker, who proceedeth with much thought and caution, maketh his preface, brancheth out into several digressions, findeth a hint that putteth him in mind of another story, which he promises to tell you when this is done, cometh back regularly to his subject, cannot readily call to mind some person’s name, holdeth his head, complaineth of his memory; the whole company all this while in suspense; at last says, it is no matter, and so goes on. And to crown the business, it perhaps proveth at last a story the company has heard fifty times before, or at best some insipid adventure of the relater.”
To this we may add, that your cool, steady talkers, who speak with the care and attention of professors demonstrating mathematical problems,—who weigh, measure and balance every word they utter,—are all decided objectionables in society. It is needless to say, that such persons never blunder, and never “stumble over a potato;” a matter of little recommendation. In conversation there must be, as in love and in war, some hazarding, some rattling on; nor need twenty falls affect you, so long as you take cheerfulness and good humor for your guides; but the careful and measured conversation just described is always, though perfectly correct, extremely dull and tedious—a vast blunder from first to last.
There are also many persons who commence speaking before they know what they are going to say. The ill-natured world, who never miss an opportunity of being severe, declare them to be foolish and destitute of brains. I shall not go so far; but hardly know what we should think of a sportsman who would attempt to bring down a bird before he had loaded his gun.
I have purposely reserved the egotistical bore for the last on this short and imperfect list. It is truly revolting, indeed, to approach the very Boa-constrictor of good society; the snake who comes upon us, not in the natural form of a huge, coarse, slow reptile, but Proteus-like, in a thousand different forms; though all displaying at the first sight the boa-bore, ready to slime over every subject of discourse with the vile saliva of selfish vanity. Pah! it is repulsive even to speak of the species, numerous, too, as the sands along the shore.
Some of the class make no ceremony of immediately intruding themselves and their affairs on the attention of a whole party; of silencing every other subject started, however interesting to the company, merely that they may occupy the prominent and most conspicuous position. Others again are more dexterous, and with great art will lie on the watch to hook in their own praise. They will call a witness to remember they always foretold what would happen in such a case, but none would believe them; they advised such a man from the beginning, and told him the consequences just as they happened; but he would have his own way. Others make a vanity of telling their own faults; they are the strangest men in the world; they cannot dissemble; they own it is a folly; they have lost abundance of advantages by it; but if you would give them the world, they cannot help it; there is something in their nature that abhors insincerity and constraint, with many other insufferable topics of the same altitude. Thus, though bores find their account in speaking ill or well of themselves, it is the characteristic of a gentleman that he never speaks of himself at all.
La Bruyère says, “The great charm of conversation consists less in the display of one’s own wit and intelligence, than in the power to draw forth the resources of others; he who leaves you after a long conversation, pleased with himself and the part he has taken in the discourse, will be your warmest admirer. Men do not care to admire you, they wish you to be pleased with them; they do not seek for instruction or even amusement from your discourse, but they do wish you to be made acquainted with their talents and powers of conversation; and the true man of genius will delicately make all who come in contact with him feel the exquisite satisfaction of knowing that they have appeared to advantage.”
I have no desire to condemn my readers to eternal silence; but must inform them that it is not so easy to shine in conversation as many suppose. Fluency of tongue and a little modest assurance, though very well for imposing on the unwary, go but a short way when you have to deal with those who are really worth pleasing.
How can a person shine by conversation in elegant and educated society, whose thoughts have never ranged beyond the gratification of foolish vanity and mean selfishness; who has never reflected on life, men and manners; whose mind has not turned to the contemplation of the works and wonders of nature; and who, in the events of his own time, has not seen the results of the many deeds of sorrow, shame, greatness, and glory, that crowd the pages of the world’s variegated annals? Whoever wouldshine in polite discourse must at least be well versed in the philosophy of life, and possess a fair acquaintance with general and natural history, and the outlines of science. And though he need be neither a poet nor an artist, he must be well read in poetry and acquainted with fine arts; because it is only by their study that taste can be cultivated and fancy guided. A familiarity with the fine arts is necessary, in fact, to give him a just perception of the sublime and beautiful, the very foundation whence our emotions of delight must arise. Any one attempting to shine in conversation, without possessing the trifling acquirements here mentioned,—for I have said nothing of learning and science,—will most assuredly make an indifferent figure, and had better therefore content himself with simply pleasing by unaffected cheerfulness and good humor, which is within reach of all.
As to subjects for conversation, what difficulty can there be about them? Will not books, balls, bonnets and metaphysics furnish pleasant topics of discourse? Can you not speak of the
“Philosophy and science, and the springs
Of wonder, and the wisdom of the world?”—
Are flirtations, traveling, love and speech-making at an end; or is the great globe itself and the weather on its surface so perfectly stationary that you can find nothing to say about them? No, no, let us not deceive ourselves; we never want subjects of conversation; but we often want the knowledge how to treat them; above all, how to bring them forward in a graceful and pleasing manner. We often want observation and a just estimate of character, and do not know how, in the present defective state of society, any passing remark intended to open a conversation may be received.
Cheerfulness, unaffected cheerfulness, a sincere desire to please and be pleased, unchecked by any efforts to shine, are the qualities you must bring with you into society, if you wish to succeed in conversation. Under the influence of their recommendation, you may safely give the rein to fancy and hilarity, certain that, in a well-assorted party, you will make at least a favorable impression, if not a brilliant one. I do not of course mean by cheerfulness any outbreaking of loud and silly mirth, nor what the world sometimes calls a “high flow of spirits,” but a light and airy equanimity of temper,—that spirit which never rises to boisterousness, and never sinks to immovable dullness; that moves gracefully from “grave to gay, from serious to serene,” and by mere manner gives proof of a feeling heart and generous mind.
Franklin says, that you must never contradict in conversation, nor correct facts if wrongly stated. This is going much too far; you must never contradict in a short, direct, or positive tone; but with politeness, you may easily, when necessary, express a difference of opinion in a graceful and even complimentary manner. And I would almost say, that the art of conversation consists in knowinghow to contradict, and when to be silent; for, as to constantly acting a fawning and meanly deferential part in society, it is offensive to all persons of good sense and good feeling. In regard to facts wrongly stated, no well-bred man ever thinks of correcting them, merely to show his wisdom in trifles; but with politeness, it is perfectly easy to rectify an error, when the nature of the conversation demands the explanation.
Whenever the lady or gentleman with whom you are discussing a point, whether of love, war, science or politics, begins to sophisticate, drop the subject instantly. Your adversary either wants the ability to maintain his opinion,—and then it would be uncivil to press it—or he wants the still more useful ability to yield the point with unaffected grace and good-humor; or what is also possible, his vanity is in some way engaged in defending views on which he may probably have acted, so that to demolish his opinions is perhaps to reprove his conduct, and no well-bred man goes into society for the purpose of sermonizing.
All local wits, all those whose jests are understood only within the range of their own circle or coterie, are decided objectionables in general society. It is the height of ill-breeding, in fact, to converse, or jest, on subjects that are not perfectly understood by the party at large; it is a species of rude mystification, as uncivil as whispering, or as speaking in language that may not be familiar to some of the party. But you must not make a fool of yourself, even if others show themselves deficient in good manners; and must not, like inflated simpletons, fancy yourself the object of every idle jest you do not understand, or of every laugh that chance may have called forth. Ladies and gentlemen feel that they are neither laughed at nor ridiculed.
In society, the object of conversation is of course entertainment and improvement, and it must, therefore, be adapted to the circle in which it is carried on, and must be neither too high nor too deep for the party at large, so that every one may contribute his share, just at his pleasure, and to the best of his ability. Let no two or three old Indians, old school-fellows, or old brother campaigners, seize upon the conversation to themselves, discuss their former adventures, and keep the rest of a party listening silently to an animated conversation about exploded stories, of which they know nothing and care as little.
Lord Chesterfield advises his son “to speak often, but not to speak much at a time; so that if he does not please, he will not at least displease to any great extent.” A good observer should easily, I think, be able to discover whether he pleases or not.
Rousseau tells us, that “persons who know little talk a great deal, while those who know a great deal say very little.”
If the discourse is of a grave or serious nature, and interesting to the party, or to any number of the party, never break in upon it with any display of idle wit or levity; for nothing shows so great a want of good manners; nor must you ever ridicule or doubt the existence of any noble enthusiasm that may have called forth expressions of admiration; for there is no want of high worth, patriotism, honor and disinterestedness on earth. Your incredulity might therefore be unjust, and it is at all times a proof of bad taste to ridicule what others admire.
If you join in the graver conversation, intended to move the deeper feelings of the heart, do so without affectation, without overstretching sentiments, or bringing in far-fetched ideas for the sake of producing effect, otherwise you will be sure to fail. Avoid, above all, when on such topics, any stringing together of unmeaning words; for bad as the practice of substituting sound for sense is at all times, it is doubly so when conversation takes the direction of which we are speaking, as it then shows the jingler to want feelings as well as ideas. Speak from the heart, when you speak to the heart; only making judgment prune the expressions of deep feeling, without checking the noble sentiments that may have called them forth.
The reason which renders this pruning system advisable is, that society swarms with worthy, respectable persons, possessing an ordinary share of superficial good-nature, but so destitute of actual feeling, as not even to understand its language; and who, without being scoffers, will be inclined to laugh at expressions that convey no ideas to their minds.
The same reason should serve as a warning to all gentlemen against writing love-letters; for if a gentle swain is really and truly in love, he will write under excited feelings; and a letter written with a palpitating heart, threatening to break a rib at every throb, can hardly fail to appear a little ridiculous in the eyes of all who may not chance to be exactly in the same frame of mind, or possessed of the same degree of feeling with the writer.
There is a giggling and laughing tone, in which ladies and gentlemen sometimes endeavor to speak,—an attempt to continue a series of jests from the first to last, which is not only foolish, but actually offensive. Conversation can never be kept up to the laughing point during a whole evening,—not even during a morning visit; and efforts to excite laughter by overstrained jests are as repulsive as overstrained efforts to groan and grimace it. The natural flow of discourse must be calm and serene; if wit, whim, fun and fire are present, they will not fail to flash brightly along its surface; but they can never constitute the main body of the stream itself.
Different parties, different tones no doubt, and an assembly of grave doctors and professors, meeting to discuss some learned subject, may treat it in their own way; here we can only speak of general society. It is said, that the guests at a pleasant dinner party should never exceed the number of the Muses, nor fall below that of the Graces. And this may be true; but a party of three or four is already very different in character,—independent of the difference occasioned by the characters of the guests,—from what a party of eight or nine will be. In small parties of this kind, numbers alone exercise great influence. But large or small, always recollect that you can have no right to complain of the dullness of the conversation, unless you have contributed your best efforts to render it cheerful.
Nor is it always right to condemn a person for being silent in company, as this often results from the nature of the party, which may be ill-assorted, though composed of deserving people. No one can maintain a conversation by himself; the very best speaker must still be aided by others, who must lend assistance in the proper spirit, befitting the nature of the discourse; for a rude and forward person, wishing to shine, can easily crush the efforts of the most perfect gentleman, and give an unfavorable tone and turn to a pleasant conversation.
In ordinary conversation, the modulation and proper management of the voice is a point to which I would particularly call the attention of young ladies; for a fine and melodious voice, “sweet as music on the waters,” makes the heart-strings vibrate to their very core. This can only be done by a certain degree of confidence, and by a total absence of affectation; for uncertainty, agitation and striving for effect are always ruinous to the voice of the speaker, which is constantly running against breakers, or getting upon flats. I am certain that temper and disposition are far more generally, and more perfectly marked by the voice and manner of speaking, than we are at all willing to allow.
The thin, small voice is the most difficult to manage, as it is liable to degenerate into shrillness; and ladies who have this kind of voice must keep strict guard over their temper, when within hearing of any one on whom they may wish to make a favorable impression; for the very idea of a shrill-voiced scold makes us place our hands to our ears. But with a sweet temper, a pretty, little, harmonious voice is pleasing enough. Always recollect, however, that affectation, constraint, or striving for effect, is the certain ruin of the prettiest voice in the world.
The very deep-toned voice, though extremely effective when well controlled, has great difficulties; for unless backed by kind, cheerful and airy feeling, by “that bright spirit which is always gladness,” it is liable to fall into a coarse, rude and vulgar tone, and should never be heard except at times of brilliant sunshine. The owners of such voices should never think of getting angry, nor even indulge in saying what they may fancy sharp or severe things, as the chances are that they will prove only rude ones.
Stories, however good—and they are often to be recommended—suffer under one of the disadvantages to which anecdotes are liable,—they do not bear repetition; and no one can be expected to possess a stock that shall furnish new and acceptable wares on every occasion. They form in conversation the resource of those who want imagination, and must be received with indulgence; but to deserve this favor, they must be short, well told, well pointed, and judiciously adapted to the feelings and composition of the party. We have all of us at times known a good story or anecdote introduced under such inappropriate circumstances, as to make a whole party look grave and feel uncomfortable.
The honor of demolishing the weavers of long tales shall be left to Cowper.
“But sedentary weavers of long tales
Give me the fidgets, and my patience fails.
‘Tis the most asinine employ on earth,
To hear them tell of parentage and birth;
And echo conversations dull and dry,
Embellished with he said and so said I.
At every interview their route the same,
The repetition makes attention lame;
We bristle up with unsuccessful speed,
And in the saddest part, cry—Droll, indeed.”
Let the reader only get these verses by heart, and repeat a line occasionally to show that he recollects them, and we shall soon find society relieved from these spinners of dull yarns.
Some gentlemen have a talent for placing things in a grotesque, exaggerated and ludicrous light; and of extemporizing burlesque anecdotes in a whimsical and amusing manner. It is a happy gift, of which excellent use can be made in society; but tact and taste must, as usual, keep a firm rein, for nothing that is seriously treated by others must ever be burlesqued and turned into ridicule. The grotesque style is only applicable when the ground is fairly open, or when jesting, bantering and exaggeration are the order of the minute; and then it may be rendered charming.
Let no one suppose that mimicry is to be sanctioned under this head; far from it, indeed. A little graceful imitation of actors and public speakers may be allowed. National manners, and the peculiarities of entire classes, are fair game. French dandies, Yankee bargainers, and English exquisites, may be ridiculed at pleasure; you may even bring forward Irish porters, cab-drivers and bog-trotters,—provided you can imitate their wit and humor; but I do not think I ever saw any mimicry of private individuals well received by well-bred persons. Nor is this to be wondered at, since mimicry borders so closely on buffoonery, as generally to end in absolute vulgarity. Ladies, however, may be permitted to mimic their friends a little, provided they rarely indulge in the practice, and never transgress the bounds of good taste and elegance.
We meet occasionally in society with persons belonging to a class, not numerous indeed, but deserving notice, as they are mostly ladies, and often worth reclaiming; for want of a better term I shall call them Icicles, because they only shine and cannot warm. The Icicles may be kind, clever, of cultivated mind, and in every respect well disposed to become agreeable,—but cannot speak or converse on any one subject. They are constantly witty and ingenious, place every proposition or general question asked, in some amusing, novel or extravagant light, but never answer or speak up to the point; so that you may converse with them for hours, and be acquainted with them for years, without knowing their opinion upon any one subject; without knowing even whether they have an opinion on any one subject. Nor does this always result from affectation, or from efforts to shine; it springs as often from a faulty tone, and the fear of not being sufficiently clever, when attempting to be rational, as from any other source. I have seen persons lose a great deal by this absurd system, and fall far short of what they might have been had they merely followed the beaten track; and as a maxim would have you recollect, that few good things are ever said by those who are constantly striving to say extraordinary ones.