GENERAL RULES FOR CONVERSATION.
As order or method are of very little consequence in treating of this subject, I will conclude by giving a series of rules upon the art of conversation, couched in a few words, from which the reader may furnish himself with a competent knowledge of what is to be studied, and what to be avoided. There are few of the following sentences that will not furnish a good deal of thought, or that are to be understood to their full extent without some consideration.
Whatever passes in parties at your own or another’s house is never repeated by well-bred people. Things of no moment, and which are meant only as harmless jokes, are liable to produce unpleasant consequences if repeated. To repeat, therefore, any conversation which passes on such occasions, is understood to be a breach of confidence, which should banish the offender from the pale of good society.
Men of all sorts of occupations meet in society. As they go there to unbend their minds and escape from the fetters of business, you should never, in an evening, speak to a man about his profession. Do not talk of politics to a journalist, of fevers to a physician, of stocks to a broker,—nor, unless you wish to enrage him to the utmost, of education to a collegian. The error which is here condemned is often committed from mere good nature and a desire to be affable. But it betrays to a gentleman, ignorance of the world,—to a philosopher, ignorance of human nature.
A gentleman will, by all means, avoid showing his learning and accomplishments in the presence of ignorant and vulgar people, who can, by no possibility, understand or appreciate them. It is a pretty sure sign of bad breeding to set people to staring and feeling uncomfortable.
In England, it is regarded a breach of etiquette to repeat the name of any person with whom you are conversing. But the same rule does not hold in America. Here it is deemed no breach, if you are conversing with a lady by the name of Sherwood, to say, “Well, Mrs. Sherwood, do you not think,” etc.
In a mixed company, never speak to your friend of a matter which the rest do not understand, unless it is something which you can explain to them, and which may be made interesting to the whole party.
If you wish to inquire about anything, do not do it by asking a question; but introduce the subject, and give the person an opportunity of saying as much as he finds it agreeable to impart. Do not even say, “How is your brother to-day?” but “I hope your brother is quite well.”
Never ask a lady a question about anything whatever.
By all means, avoid the use of slang terms and phrases in polite company. No greater insult can be offered to polite society than to repeat the slang dictums of bar-rooms and other low places. If you are willing to have it known that you are familiar with such company yourself, you have no right to treat a party of ladies and gentlemen as though they were, too.
Avoid the habit of employing French words in English conversation; it is extremely bad taste to be always using such expressions as ci-devant, soi-disant, en masse, couleur de rose, etc. Do not salute your acquaintances with bon jour, nor reply to every proposition, volontiers. In society, avoid having those peculiar preferences for some subjects which are vulgarly denominated “hobby-horses.” They make your company a bore to all your friends; and some kind-hearted creature will take advantage of them and trot you, for the amusement of the company. Every attempt to obtrude on a company subjects either to which they are indifferent, or of which they are ignorant, is in bad taste.
“Man should be taught as though you taught him not,
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.”
A man is quite sure to show his good or bad breeding the instant he opens his mouth to talk in company. If he is a gentlemanhe starts no subject of conversation that can possibly be displeasing to any person present. The ground is common to all, and no one has a right to monopolize any part of it for his own particular opinions, in politics or religion. No one is there to make proselytes, but every one has been invited, to be agreeable and to please.
He who knows the world, will not be too bashful. He who knows himself, will not be impudent.
Do not endeavor to shine in all companies. Leave room for your hearers to imagine something within you beyond all you have said. And remember, the more you are praised, the more you will be envied.
There is no surer sign of vulgarity than the perpetual boasting of the fine things you have at home. If you speak of your silver, of your jewels, of your costly apparel, it will be taken for a sign that you are either lying, or that you were, not long ago, somebody’s washerwoman, and cannot forget to be reminding everybody that you are not so now.
You need not tell all the truth, unless to those who have a right to know it all. But let all you tell be truth.
Insult not another for his want of a talent you possess; he may have others, which you want. Praise your friends and let your friends praise you.
If you treat your inferiors with familiarity, expect the same from them. If you give a jest, take one. Let all your jokes be truly jokes. Jesting sometimes ends in sad earnest.
If a favor is asked of you, grant it, if you can. If not, refuse it in such a manner, as that one denial may be sufficient.
If you are in company with a distinguished gentleman—as a governor, or senator—you will not be perpetually trying to trot out his titles, as it would make you appear like a lackey or parasite, who, conscious of no merits of your own, are trying to lift yourself by the company of others. In introducing such a gentleman, you will merely call him “governor,” or “senator,” and afterwards avoid all allusion to his rank.
If you would render yourself pleasing in social parties, never speak to gratify any particular vanity or passion of your own, but always aim to interest or amuse others by themes which you know are in accordance with their tastes and understandings. Even a well-bred minister will avoid introducing his professional habits and themes at such places. He knows that the guests were not invited there to listen to a sermon, and there may be some who differ with him in opinions, who would have good reason to feel themselves insulted by being thus forced to listen to him.
Reproof is a medicine like mercury or opium; if it be improperly administered, with report either to the adviser or the advised, it will do harm instead of good.
Nothing is more unmannerly than to reflect on any man’s profession, sect, or natural infirmity. He who stirs up against himself another’s self-love, provokes the strongest passions in human nature.
Be careful of your word, even in keeping the most trifling appointment. But do not blame another for a failure of that kind, till you have heard his excuse.
Never offer advice, but where there is some probability of its being followed.
If you find yourself in a company which violently abuses an absent friend of yours, you need not feel that you are called upon to take up the club for him. You will do better by saying mildly that they must have been misinformed—that you are proud to call him your friend, which you could not do if you did not know him to be incapable of such things as they had heard. After this, if they are gentlemen, they will stop—indeed, if they had been gentlemen, they would hardly have assailed an absent one in a mixed party; and if you feel constrained to quit their company, it will be no sacrifice to your own self-respect or honor.
Fools pretend to foretell what will be the issue of things, and are laughed at for their awkward conjectures. Wise men, being aware of the uncertainty of human affairs, and having observed how small a matter often produces a great change, are modest in their conjectures.
He who talks too fast, outruns his hearer’s thoughts. He who speaks too slow, gives his hearer pain by hindering his thoughts, as a rider who frets his horse by reining him in too much.
Never think to entertain people with what lies out of their way, be it ever so curious in its kind. Who would think of regaling a circle of ladies with the beauties of Homer’s Greek, or a mixed company with Sir Isaac Newton’s discoveries?
Do well, but do not boast of it. For that will lessen the commendation you might otherwise have deserved.
Never ask a question under any circumstances. In the first place, it is too proud; in the second place, it may be very inconvenient or very awkward to give a reply. A lady inquired of what branch of medical practice a certain gentleman was professor. He held the chair of midwifery!
To offer advice to an angry man, is like blowing against a tempest.
Too much preciseness and solemnity in pronouncing what one says in common conversation, as if one was preaching, is generally taken for an indication of self-conceit and arrogance.
Make your company a rarity, and people will value it. Men despise what they can easily have.
Value truth, however you come by it. Who would not pick up a jewel that lay on a dung-hill?
The beauty of behavior consists in the manner, not the matter of your discourse.
It is not in good taste for a lady to say “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” to a gentleman, or frequently to introduce the word “Sir,” at the end of her sentence, unless she desire to be exceedingly reserved toward the person with whom she is conversing.
If your superior treats you with familiarity, it will not therefore become you to treat him in the same manner.
A good way to avoid impertinent and pumping inquiries, is by answering with another question. An evasion may also serve the purpose. But a lie is inexcusable on any occasion, especially when used to conceal the truth from one who has no authority to demand it.
To reprove with success, the following circumstances are necessary, viz.: mildness, secrecy, intimacy, and the esteem of the person you would reprove.
If you be nettled with severe raillery, take care never to show that you are stung, unless you choose to provoke more. The way to avoid being made a butt, is not to set up for an archer.
To set up for a critic is bullying mankind.
Reflect upon the different appearances things make to you from what they did some years ago, and don’t imagine that your opinion will never alter, because you are extremely positive at present. Let the remembrance of your past changes of sentiment make you more flexible.
If ever you were in a passion, did you not find reason afterwards to be sorry for it, and will you again allow your self to be guilty of a weakness, which will certainly be in the same manner followed by repentance, besides being attended with pain?
Never argue with any but men of sense and temper.
It is ill-manners to trouble people with talking too much either of yourself, or your affairs. If you are full of yourself, consider that you, and your affairs, are not so interesting to other people as to you.
Keep silence sometimes, upon subjects which you are known to be a judge of. So your silence, where you are ignorant, will not discover you.
To use phrases which admit of a double meaning is ungentlemanly, and, if addressed to a lady, they become positively insulting.
There is a vulgar custom, too prevalent, of calling almost everybody “colonel” in this country, of which it is sufficient to say, that this false use of titles prevails most among the lower ranks of society—a fact which sufficiently stamps upon it its real character, and renders it, to say the least, a doubtful compliment to him who has no right to the title.
Think like the wise; but talk like ordinary people. Never go out of the common road, but for somewhat.
Don’t dispute against facts well established, merely because there is somewhat unaccountable in them. That the world should be created of nothing is to us inconceivable but not therefore to be doubted.
As you are going to a party of mirth, think of the hazard you run of misbehaving. While you are engaged, do not wholly forget yourself. And after all is over, reflect how you have behaved. If well, be thankful; it is more than you could have promised. If otherwise, be more careful for the future.
It will never do to be ignorant of the names and approximate ages of great composers, especially in large cities, where music is so highly appreciated and so common a theme. It will be decidedly condemnatory if you talk of the new opera “Don Giovanni,” or Rossini’s “Trovatore,” or are ignorant who composed “Fidelio,” and in what opera occur such common pieces as “Ciascun lo dice,” or “Il Segreto.” I do not say that these trifles are indispensable, and when a man has better knowledge to offer, especially with genius or “cleverness” to back it, he will not only be pardoned for an ignorance of them, but can even take a high tone, and profess indifference or contempt of them. But, at the same time, such ignorance stamps an ordinary man, and hinders conversation.
Don’t talk of “the opera” in the presence of those who are not frequenters of it. They will imagine that you are showing off, or that you are lying, and that you have never been to the opera twice in your life. For the same reason, avoid too frequently speaking of your acquaintance with celebrated men, unless you are a public man yourself, who would be supposed to have such acquaintance.
Do not sit dumb in company. That looks either like pride, cunning, or stupidity. Give your opinion modestly, but freely; hear that of others with candor; and ever endeavor to find out, and to communicate truth.
In mixed company, be readier to hear than to speak, and put people upon talking of what is in their own way. For then you will both oblige them, and be most likely to improve by their conversation.
Humanity will direct to be particularly cautious of treating with the least appearance of neglect those who have lately met with misfortunes, and are sunk in life. Such persons are apt to think themselves slighted, when no such thing is intended. Their minds being already sore, feel the least rub very severely. And who would be so cruel as to add affliction to the afflicted?
To smother the generosity of those who have obliged you, is imprudent, as well as ungrateful. The mention of kindnesses received may excite those who hear it to deserve your good word, by imitating the example which they see does others so much honor.
Learning is like bank-notes. Prudence and good behavior are like silver, useful upon all occasions.
If you have been once in company with an idle person, it is enough. You need never go again. You have heard all he knows. And he has had no opportunity of learning anything new. For idle people make no improvements.
Deep learning will make you acceptable to the learned; but it is only an easy and obliging behavior, and entertaining conversation, that will make you agreeable in all companies.
Men repent speaking ten times for once that they repent keeping silence.
It is an advantage to have concealed one’s opinion. For by that means you may change your judgment of things (which every wise man finds reason to do) and not be accused of fickleness.
There is hardly any bodily blemish, which a winning behavior will not conceal, or make tolerable; and there is no external grace, which ill-nature or affectation will not deform.
If you mean to make your side of the argument appear plausible, do not prejudice people against what you think truth by your passionate manner of defending it.
There is an affected humility more insufferable than downright pride, as hypocrisy is more abominable than libertinism. Take care that your virtues be genuine and unsophisticated.
Never ask any one who is conversing with you to repeat his words. Nothing is ruder than to say, “Pardon me, will you repeat that sentence? I did not hear you at first,” and thus imply that your attention was wandering when he first spoke.
When we speak of ourselves and another person, whether he is absent or present, propriety requires us to mention ourselves last. Thus we should say, he and I, you and I.
If a man is telling that which is as old as the hills, or which you believe to be false, the better way is to let him go on. Why should you refuse a man the pleasure of believing that he is telling you something which you never heard before? Besides, by refusing to believe him, or by telling him that his story is old, you not only mortify him, but the whole company is made uneasy, and, by sympathy, share his mortification.
Never notice it if others make mistakes in language. To notice by word or look such errors in those around you, is excessively ill-bred.
Avoid raillery and sarcasm in social parties. They are weapons which few can use; and because you happen to have a razor in your possession, that is no reason why you should be allowed to cut the throats of the rest who are unarmed. Malicious jests at the expense of those who are present or absent, show that he who uses them is devoid both of the instincts and habits of agentleman. Where two individuals or the whole company agree to banter each other with good-natured sallies of wit, it is very pleasant, but the least taint of ill-nature spoils all.
If upon the entrance of a visitor you continue a conversation begun before, you should always explain the subject to the new-comer.
If there is any one in the company whom you do not know, be careful how you let off any epigrams or pleasant little sarcasms. You might be very witty upon halters to a man whose father had been hanged. The first requisite for successful conversation is to know your company well.
Carefully avoid subjects which may be construed into personalities, and keep a strict reserve upon family matters. Avoid, if you can, seeing the skeleton in your friend’s closet, but if it is paraded for your special benefit, regard it as a sacred confidence, and never betray your knowledge to a third party.
Listen attentively and patiently to what is said. It is a great and difficult talent to be a good listener, but it is one which the well-bred man has to acquire, at whatever pains. Do not anticipate the point of a story which another person is reciting, or take it from his lips to finish it in your own language. To do this is a great breach of etiquette.
Dr. Johnson, whose reputation as a talker was hardly less than that which he acquired as a writer, prided himself on the appositeness of his quotations, the choice of his words, and the correctness of his expressions. Had he lived in this “age of progress,” he would have discovered that his lexicon was not only incomplete, but required numerous emendations. We can fancy the irritable moralist endeavoring to comprehend the idea which a young lady wishes to convey when she expresses the opinion that a bonnet is “awful,” or that of a young gentleman, when he asserts that his coat is “played out!”
Avoid the use of proverbs in conversation, and all sorts of cant phrases. This error is, I believe, censured by Lord Chesterfield, and is one of the most offensively vulgar which a person can commit.
It is bad manners to satirize lawyers in the presence of lawyers, or doctors in the presence of one of that calling, and so of all the professions. Nor should you rail against bribery and corruption in the presence of politicians, (especially of a New York politician,) or members of Congress, as they will have good reason to suppose that you are hinting at them. It is the aim of politeness to leave the arena of social intercourse untainted with any severity of language, or bitterness of feeling. There are places and occasions where wrong must be exposed and reproved, but it is an unpardonable piece of rudeness to attempt such things at your own or another’s social party, where everything is carefully to be avoided that can in the least disturb the happiness of any one. For this reason all kinds of controversies are, as a general rule, to be avoided at such times.
Any conversation (that is not interdicted by decency and propriety) which can be pleasing to the whole company, is desirable. Amusement, more than instruction even, is to be sought for in social parties. People are not supposed to come together on such occasions because they are ignorant and need teaching, but to seek amusement and relaxation from professional and daily cares. All the English books on etiquette tell you that “punning is scrupulously to be avoided as a species of ale-house wit,” and a savage remark of Dr. Johnson is usually quoted on the subject. But punning is no more to be avoided than any other kind of wit; and if all wit is to be banished from the social circle, it will be left a stupid affair indeed. All kinds of wit, puns by no means excepted, give a delightful relish to social parties when they spring up naturally and spontaneously out of the themes of conversation. But for a man to be constantly straining himself to make jokes is to make himself ridiculous, and to annoy the whole company, and is, therefore, what no gentleman will be guilty of.
Talk as little of yourself as possible, or of any science or business in which you have acquired fame. There is a banker in New York who is always certain to occupy the time of every party he gets into, by talking of his per cents, and boasting that he began life without a cent—which every one readily believes; and if he were to add that he began life in a pig-pen, they would believe that too.
If you put on a proud carriage, people will want to know what there is in you to be proud of. And it is ten to one whether they value your accomplishments at the same rate as you. And the higher you aspire, they will be the more desirous to mortify you.
Nothing is more nauseous than apparent self-sufficiency. For it shows the company two things, which are extremely disagreeable: that you have a high opinion of yourself, and that you have comparatively a mean opinion of them.
It is the concussion of passions that produces a storm. Let an angry man alone, and he will cool off himself.
It is but seldom that very remarkable occurrences fall out in life. The evenness of your temper will be in most danger of being troubled by trifles which take you by surprise.
It is as obliging in company, especially of superiors, to listen attentively, as to talk entertainingly.
Don’t think of knocking out another person’s brains, because he differs in opinion from you. It will be as rational to knock yourself on the head, because you differ from yourself ten years ago.
If you want to gain any man’s good opinion, take particular care how you behave, the first time you are in company with him. The light you appear in at first, to one who is neither inclined to think well or ill of you, will strongly prejudice him either for or against you.
Good humor is the only shield to keep off the darts of the satirical railer. If you have a quiver well stored, and are sure of hitting him between the joints of the harness, do not spare him. But you had better not bend your bow than miss your aim.
The modest man is seldom the object of envy.
In the company of ladies, do not labor to establish learned points by long-winded arguments. They do not care to take too much pains to find out truth.
You will forbear to interrupt a person who is telling a story, even though he is making historical mistakes in dates and facts. If he makes mistakes it is his own fault, and it is not your business to mortify him by attempting to correct his blunders in presence of those with whom he is ambitious to stand well.
In a dispute, if you cannot reconcile the parties, withdraw from them. You will surely make one enemy, perhaps two, by taking either side in an argument when the speakers have lost their temper.
Do not dispute in a party of ladies and gentlemen. If a gentleman advances an opinion which is different from ideas you are known to entertain, either appear not to have heard it, or differ with him as gently as possible. You will not say, “Sir, you are mistaken!” “Sir, you are wrong!” or that you “happen to know better;” but you will rather use some such phrase as, “Pardon me—if I am not mistaken,” etc. This will give him a chance to say some such civil thing as that he regrets to disagree with you; and if he has not the good manners to do it, you have, at any rate, established your own manners as those of a gentleman in the eyes of the company. And when you have done that, you need not trouble yourself about any opinions he may advance contrary to your own.
If you talk sentences, do not at the same time give yourself a magisterial air in doing it. An easy conversation is the only agreeable one, especially in mixed company.
Be sure of the fact, before you lose time in searching for a cause.
If you have a friend that will reprove your faults and foibles, consider you enjoy a blessing, which the king upon the throne cannot have.
In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.
What may be very entertaining in company with ignorant people, may be tiresome to those who know more of the matter than yourself.
There is a sort of accidental and altogether equivocal type of city women, who never get into the country, but they employ their time in trying to astonish the country people with narrations of the fine things they left behind them in the city. If they have a dirty little closet, with ten valueless books in it, they will call it their library. If they have some small room, that is used as kitchen, parlor, and dining-room, they will magnify it into a drawing-room. And a hundred other little signs of their great vulgarity they will constantly insist on exhibiting to their country auditors.
Put yourself on the same level as the person to whom you speak, and under penalty of being considered a pedantic idiot, refrain from explaining any expression or word that you may use.
If you are really a wit, remember that in conversation its true office consists more in finding it in others, than showing off a great deal of it yourself. He who goes out of your company pleased with himself is sure to be pleased with you. Even as great a man as Dr. Johnson once retired from a party where everybody had spent the evening in listening to him, and remarked, as he went out, “We have had a pleasant evening, and much excellent conversation.”
If you happen to fall into company where the talk runs into party, obscenity, scandal, folly, or vice of any kind, you had better pass for morose or unsocial, among people whose good opinion is not worth having, than shock your own conscience by joining in conversation which you must disapprove of.
If you would have a right account of things from illiterate people, let them tell their story in their own way. If you put them upon talking according to logical rules, you will quite confound them.
I was much pleased with the saying of a gentleman, who was engaged in a friendly argument with another upon a point in morals. “You and I [says he to his antagonist] seem, as far as I hitherto understand, to differ considerably in our opinions. Let us, if you please, try wherein we can agree.” The scheme in most disputes is to try who shall conquer, or confound the other. It is therefore no wonder that so little light is struck out in conversation, where a candid inquiry after truth is the least thing thought of.
By all means, shun the vulgar habit of joking at the expense of women. All such tricks as refusing a lady a piece of tongue, because “women already have tongue enough,” are as vulgar as they are old and stale. The man who does not respect woman, exposes himself to the suspicion of associating generally with the fallen portion of the sex. And besides, he has no right to make a respectable parlor or drawing-room the theater of such vulgar jokes and railing against the sex as go down in low society.
If a man complains to you of his wife, a woman of her husband, a parent of a child, or a child of a parent, be very cautious how you meddle between such near relations, to blame the behavior of one to the other. You will only have the hatred of both parties, and do no good with either. But this does not hinder your giving both parties, or either, your best advice in a prudent manner.
Be prudently secret. But don’t affect to make a secret of what all the world may know, nor give yourself airs of being as close as a conspirator. You will better disappoint idle curiosity by seeming to have nothing to conceal.
Never blame a friend without joining some commendation to make reproof go down.
It is by giving free rein to folly, in conversation and action, that people expose themselves to contempt and ridicule. The modest man may deprive himself of some part of the applause of some sort of people in conversation, by not shining altogether so much as he might have done. Or he may deprive himself of some lesser advantages in life by his reluctancy in putting himself forward. But it is only the rash and impetuous talker, or actor, that effectually exposes himself in company, or ruins himself in life. It is therefore easy to determine which is the safest side to err on.
It is a base temper in mankind, that they will not take the smallest slight at the hand of those who have done them the greatest kindness.
If you fall into the greatest company, in a natural and unforced way, look upon yourself as one of them; and do not sneak, nor suffer any one to treat you unworthily, without just showing that you know behavior. But if you see them disposed to be rude, overbearing, or purse-proud, it will be more decent and less troublesome to retire, than to wrangle with them.
There cannot be any practice more offensive than that of taking a person aside to whisper in a room with company; yet this rudeness is of frequent occurrence—and that with those who know it to be improper.
If at any time you chance, in conversation, to get on a side of an argument which you find not to be tenable, or any other way over-shoot yourself, turn off the subject in as easy and good humored a way as you can. If you proceed still, and endeavor, right or wrong, to make your first point good, you will only entangle yourself the more, and in the end expose yourself.
Never over-praise any absent person, especially ladies, in company of ladies. It is the way to bring envy and hatred upon those whom you wish well to.
To try whether your conversation is likely to be acceptable to people of sense, imagine what you say written down, or printed, and consider how it would read; whether it would appear natural, improving and entertaining; or affected, unmeaning, or mischievous.
It is better, in conversation with positive men, to turn off the subject in dispute with some merry conceit, than keep up the contention to the disturbance of the company.
Don’t give your advice upon any extraordinary emergency, nor your opinion upon any difficult point, especially in company of eminent persons, without first taking time to deliberate. If you say nothing, it may not be known whether your silence was owing to the ignorance of the subject, or to modesty. If you give a rash and crude opinion, you are effectually and irrecoverably exposed.
If you fill your fancy, while you are in company, with suspicions of their thinking meanly of you; if you puff yourself up with imaginations of appearing to them a very witty, or profound person; if you discompose yourself with fears of misbehaving before them, or in any way put yourself out of yourself, you will not appear in your natural color, but in that of an affected, personated character, which is always disagreeable.
It may be useful to study, at leisure, a variety of proper phrases for such occasions as are most frequent in life, as civilities to superiors, expressions of kindness to inferiors; congratulations, condolence, expressions of gratitude, acknowledgment of faults, asking or denying of favors, etc. I prescribe no particular phrases, because, our language continually fluctuating, they must soon become stiff and unfashionable. The best method of acquiring the accomplishment of graceful and easy manner of expression for the common occasions of life, is attention and imitation of well-bred people. Nothing makes a man appear more contemptible than barrenness, pedantry, or impropriety of expression.
Avoid flattery. A delicate compliment is permissible in conversation, but flattery is broad, coarse, and to sensible people, disgusting. If you flatter your superiors, they will distrust you, thinking you have some selfish end; if you flatter ladies, they will despise you, thinking you have no other conversation.
If you meet an ill-bred fellow in company, whose voice and manners are offensive to you, you cannot resent it at the time, because by so doing you compel the whole company to be spectators of your quarrel, and the pleasure of the party would be spoiled.
If you must speak upon a difficult point, be the last speaker if you can.
You will not be agreeable to company, if you strive to bring in or keep up a subject unsuitable to their capacities, or humor.
You will never convince a man of ordinary sense by overbearing his understanding. If you dispute with him in such a manner as to show a due deference for his judgment, your complaisance may win him, though your saucy arguments could not.
Avoid appearing dogmatical and too positive in any assertions you make, which can possibly be subject to any contradiction. He that is peremptory in his own story, may meet with another as positive as himself to contradict him, and then the two Sir Positives will be sure to have a skirmish.
The frequent use of the name of God, or the Devil; allusions to passages of Scripture; mocking at anything serious and devout, oaths, vulgar by-words, cant phrases, affected hard words, when familiar terms will do as well; scraps of Latin, Greek orFrench; quotations from plays spoke in a theatrical manner—all these, much used in conversation, render a person very contemptible to grave and wise men.
If you send people away from your company well-pleased with themselves, you need not fear but they will be well enough pleased with you, whether they have received any instruction from you or not. Most people had rather be pleased than instructed.
If you can express yourself to be perfectly understood in ten words, never use a dozen. Go not about to prove, by a long series of reasoning, what all the world is ready to own.
If any one takes the trouble of finding fault with you, you ought in reason to suppose he has some regard for you, else he would not run the hazard of disobliging you, and drawing upon himself your hatred.
Do not ruffle or provoke any man; why should any one be the worse for coming into company with you? Be not yourself provoked. Why should you give any man the advantage over you?
To say that one has opinions very different from those commonly received, is saying that he either loves singularity, or that he thinks for himself. Which of the two is the case, can only be found by examining the grounds of his opinions.
Don’t appear to the public too sure, or too eager upon any project. If it should miscarry, which it is a chance but it does, you will be laughed at. The surest way to prevent which, is not to tell your designs or prospects in life.
If you give yourself a loose tongue in company, you may almost depend on being pulled to pieces as soon as your back is turned, however they may seem entertained with your conversation.
For common conversation, men of ordinary abilities will upon occasion do well enough. And you may always pick something out of any man’s discourse, by which you may profit. For an intimate friend to improve by, you must search half a country over, and be glad if you can find him at last.
Don’t give your time to every superficial acquaintance: it is bestowing what is to you of inestimable worth, upon one who is not likely to be the better for it.
If a person has behaved to you in an unaccountable manner, don’t at once conclude him a bad man, unless you find his character given up by all who know him, nor then, unless the facts alleged against him be undoubtedly proved, and wholly inexcusable. But this is not advising you to trust a person whose character you have any reason to suspect. Nothing can be more absurd than the common way of fixing people’s characters. Such a one has disobliged me, therefore he is a villain. Such another has done me a kindness, therefore he is a saint.
Superficial people are more agreeable the first time you are in their company, than ever afterwards. Men of judgment improve every succeeding conversation; beware therefore of judging by one interview.
You will not anger a man so much by showing him that you hate him, as by expressing a contempt of him.
Most women had rather have any of their good qualities slighted, than their beauty. Yet that is the most inconsiderable accomplishment of a woman of real merit.
You will be always reckoned by the world nearly of the same character with those whose company you keep.
You will please so much the less, if you go into company determined to shine. Let your conversation appear to rise out of thoughts suggested by the occasion, not strained or premeditated: nature always pleases: affectation is always odious.