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Title: Conversation - What to Say and How to Say it
Author: Conklin, Mary Greer
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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_What to Say and How to Say It_


_What to Say and How to Say It_








All rights reserved for all countries

[_Printed in the United States of America_]

Published November, 1912

                  IN LOVING MEMORY


                      A. E. C.









"The best book that was ever written upon good breeding," said Dr.
Johnson to Boswell, "the best book, I tell you, _Il Cortegiano_ by
Castiglione, grew up at the little court of Urbino, and you should read
it." _Il Cortegiano_ was first published by the Aldine Press at Venice,
in 1528. Before the close of the century more than one hundred editions
saw the light; French, Spanish, English, and German versions followed
each other in rapid succession, and the _Cortegiano_ was universally
acclaimed as the most popular prose work of the Italian Renaissance.
"Have you read Castiglione's _Cortegiano_?" asks the courtier
Malpiglio, in Tasso's dialog. "The beauty of the book is such that it
deserves to be read in all ages; as long as courts endure, as long as
princes reign and knights and ladies meet, as long as valor and courtesy
hold a place in our hearts, the name of Castiglione will be held in

In his _Book of the Courtier_, Castiglione said very little about
perfection of speech; he discust only the standard of literary language
and the prescribed limits of the "vulgar tongue," or the Italian in
which Petrarch and Boccaccio had written. What he says about grace,
however, applies also to conversation: "I say that in everything it is
so hard to know the true perfection as to be well-nigh impossible; and
this because of the variety of opinions. Thus there are many who will
like a man who speaks much, and will call him pleasing; some will
prefer modesty; some others an active and restless man; still others one
who shows calmness and deliberation in everything; and so every man
praises or decries according to his mind, always clothing vice with the
name of its kindred virtue, or virtue with the name of its kindred vice;
for example, calling an impudent man frank, a modest man dull, an
ignorant man good, a knave discreet, and so in all things else. Yet I
believe that there exists in everything its own perfection, altho
concealed; and that this can be determined through rational discussion
by any having knowledge of the thing in hand."

If this superb courtier could not reach decisions regarding perfection
in matters of culture and polish, I could scarcely hope to have entirely
reconciled the contending phases of conversation, even if I have
succeeded in impressing positively the evident faults to be avoided,
and the avowed graces of speech to be attained. With Castiglione as a
model I can only say regarding conversation what he said about the
perfect courtier: "I praise the kind of courtier that I most esteem, and
approve him who seems to me nearest right, according to my poor
judgment.... I only know that it is worse not to wish to do well than
not to know how."

Those heretofore interested in agreeable speech will at once recognize
my obligation to the few men and women who have written entertainingly
on conversation, and from whom I have often quoted. My excuse for
offering a new treatment is that I may perhaps have succeeded in
bringing the subject more within the reach of the general public, and to
have written more exhaustively. The deductions I have made are the
result of an affectionate interest in my subject and of notes taken
during a period of many years. If the book affords readers one-half the
pleasure and stimulus it has brought to me, my labors will be happily

Beyond my chief critics, to whom I dedicate this volume, I express my
gratitude to Mrs. Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, the pianiste, and to Dr.
Henrietta Becker von Klenze, formerly of the University of Chicago,
whose interest in all I have ever attempted to do has been an unfailing
support, and whose suggestions have added value to this work; to Dr.
Gustavus Howard Maynadier, of Harvard College, for friendly assistance
in many ways; and to Mr. George Benson Weston, of Harvard College, who
has been kind enough to read the manuscript, and by whose knowledge of
the literature of many languages I have greatly profited.

   August, 1912.


Chapter I



What is the aim of conversation?--The talk of Coleridge and
Macaulay--Browning's delightful conversation--Why we go into
society--The elements of good conversation--What it is not--Genius
and scholarship not essential to good conversation                    21

Chapter II


Dr. Johnson's and Robert Louis Stevenson's opinion of
discussion--Politeness and discussion--The hostess in
discussion--Flat contradiction in discussion--Polemical
squabbles--Brilliant discussion in France--The secret of
delightful conversation in France--Leading the talk--Topics for
discussion--Gladstone's conversation                                  35

Chapter III


Gossip in literature--Gossip comes from being of one kindred under
God--Gossip and the misanthrope--Personal history of people we know
and people we don't know--Gossip of books of biography--Interest in
others gives fellowship and warmth to life--Essential difference
between slander and innocent gossip--The psychology of the
slanderer--The apocryphal slanderer--"Talking behind another's
back"--Personal chat the current coin of conversation                 63

Chapter IV


Guests' talk during the quarter of an hour before dinner--What guests
may talk about--Talking to one's dinner-companion--Guests' duty to
host and hostess--The dominant note in table-talk--General and
_tête-à-tête_ conversation between guests--The raconteur at dinner    89

Chapter V


The amalgam for combining guests--Hosts' talk during the quarter of
an hour before dinner--Seating guests to enhance conversation--Number
of guests for the best conversation--Directing the conversation at
dinner--Drawing guests out--Signaling for conversation--General and
_tête-à-tête_ conversation--Putting strangers at ease--Steering talk
away from offensive topics--The gracious host and hostess--An ideal
dinner party                                                         111

Chapter VI


Its deadening effect on conversation--Habitual interruption--Nervous
interruption--Glib talkers--Interrupting by over-accuracy--Interruptions
outside the conversation-circle--Children and their interruption--Good
talk at table--Anecdotes of children's appreciation of good
conversation--The hostess who is "Mistress of herself tho China
fall"                                                                133

Chapter VII


Why cultivating the social instinct adds strength to business
persuasion--Secret of the ability to use tactful and vivid words in
business--Essential training necessary to the nice use of
words--Business success depends upon nicety and tact more than on
any quality of force                                                 161

Chapter VIII


Conversation is reciprocal--Good conversationalists cannot talk to
the best advantage without confederates--As in whist it is the
combination which effects what a single whist-playing genius cannot
accomplish--Good conversation does not mark a distinction among
subjects; It denotes a difference in talkability--The different
degrees of talkability--Imperturbable glibness impedes good
conversation--Ease with which one may improve one's conversational
powers                                                               175




     _What Is the Aim of Conversation?--The Talk of Coleridge and
     Macaulay--Browning's Delightful Conversation--Why We Go into
     Society--The Elements of Good Conversation--What It Is Not--Genius
     and Scholarship Not Essential to Good Conversation._




Good conversation is more easily defined by what it is not than by what
it is. To come to any conclusions on this subject, one should first
determine: What is the aim of conversation? Should the intention be to
make intercourse with our fellows a free school in which to acquire
information; should it be to disseminate knowledge; or should the object
be to divert and to amuse? It might seem that any person with a good
subject must talk well and be interesting. Alas! highly cultivated
people are sometimes the most silent. Or, if they talk well, they are
likely to talk _too_ well to be good conversationalists, as did
Coleridge and Macaulay, who talked long and hard about interesting
subjects, but were nevertheless recorded as bores in conversation
because they talked _at_ people instead of talking _with_ them. In
society Browning was delightful in his talk. He would not discuss
poetry, and was as communicative on the subject of a sandwich or the
adventures of some woman's train at the last drawing-room as on more
weighty subjects. Tho to some he may have seemed obscure in his art, all
agreed that he was simple and natural in his discourse. Whatever he
talked about, there could not be a moment's doubt as to his meaning.

From these facts concerning three men of genius, it can be inferred that
we do not go into society to get instruction gratis; that good
conversation is not necessarily a vehicle of information; that to be
natural, easy, gay, is the catechism of good talk. No matter how learned
a man is, he is often thrown with ordinary mortals; and the ordinary
mortals have as much right to talk as the extraordinary ones. One can
conceive, on the other hand, that when geniuses have leisure to mix in
society their desire is to escape from the questions which daily burden
their minds. If they prefer to confine themselves to an interchange of
ideas apart from their special work, they have a right to do so. In this
shrinking of people of genius from discussing the very subjects with
regard to which their opinion is most valuable, there is no doubt a
great loss to the world. But unless they themselves bring forth the
topic of their art, it must remain in abeyance. Society has no right to
force their mentioning it. This leads us, then, to the conclusion that
the aim of conversation is to distract, to interest, to amuse; not to
teach nor to be taught, unless incidentally. In good conversation people
give their charm, their gaiety, their humor, certainly--and their
wisdom, if they will. But conversation which essentially entertains is
not essentially nonsense. Some one has drawn this subtle distinction: "I
enter a room full of pleasant people as I go to see a picture, or listen
to a song, or as I dance--that I may amuse myself, and invigorate
myself, and raise my natural spirits, and laugh dull care away. True,
there must be ideas, as in all amusements worthy of the name there is a
certain seriousness impossible to define; only they must be kept in the

The aim and design of conversation is, therefore, pleasure. This agreed,
we can determine its elements. Conversation, above all, is dialog, not
monolog. It is a partnership, not an individual affair. It is listening
as well as talking. Monopolizing tyrants of society who will allow no
dog to bark in their presence are not conversationalists; they are
lecturers. There are plenty of people who, as Mr. Benson says, "possess
every qualification for conversing except the power to converse." There
are plenty of people who deliver one monolog after another and call
their talk conversation. The good conversationalists are not the ones
who dominate the talk in any gathering. They are the people who have the
grace to contribute something of their own while generously drawing out
the best that is in others. They hazard topics for discussion and
endeavor each to give to the other the chance of enlarging upon them.
Conversation is the interchange of ideas; it is the willingness to
communicate thought on all subjects, personal and universal, and in
turn to listen to the sentiments of others regarding the ideas advanced.

Good conversation is the nimbleness of mind to take the chance word or
the accidental subject and play upon it, and make it pass from guest to
guest at dinner or in the drawing-room. It is the discussion of any
topic whatever, from religion to the fashions, and the avoidance of any
phase of any subject which might stir the irascible talker to
controversy. As exprest by Cowper in his essay, "Conversation":

   "Ye powers who rule the tongue, if such there are,
   And make colloquial happiness your care,
   Preserve me from the thing I dread and hate--
   A duel in the form of a debate."

Wearing one's heart on one's sleeve is good for one conversationally.
Ready conversers are people who give their thought to others in
abundance; who make others feel a familiar heartbeat. No one can
approach so near to us as the sincere talker, with his sympathy and his
willing utterances. Luther, who stands out as one of the giants of the
Renaissance, came into close human touch with his friends in talk; in
conversation with him they could always feel his fierce and steady

Another element of successful conversation is good-humored tolerance,
the willingness to bear rubs unavoidably occasioned. The talker who
cavils at anything that is said stops conversation more than if he
answered only yes or no to all remarks addrest to him. Still another
element of good conversation is the right sort of gossip; gossip which
is contemporary and past history of people we know and of people we
don't know; gossip which is in no way a temptation to detract. Raillery
may also become a legitimate part of good conversation, if the ridicule
is like a good parody of good literature--in no way malignant or
commonplace. "Shop," if nicely adjusted to the conversational
conditions, may have its rightful share in interesting talk. Friends
often meet together just to talk things over, to get each other's point
of view, to hear each other tell of his own affairs, of his work and of
his progress. "Shop" talk was sometimes the essence of those famous
conversations of the seventeenth century coffee-house. Anecdotes are a
natural part of conversation, but they become the bane of talk unless
kept in strict restraint.

There are times when good conversation is momentary silence rather than
speech. It is only the haranguers who feel it their duty to break in
with idle and insincere chatter upon a pleasant and natural pause. A
part of the good fellowship of acceptable conversation is what one
might call "interest questions." "Interest questions" are just what the
words imply, and have about them no suspicion of the inquisitive and
impertinent catechizing which only fools, and not even knaves, indulge

The negative phase of conversation may largely grow out of a discussion
of the positive. By discovering what conversation is, we find, in a
measure, what it is not. It is not monolog nor monopolizing; it is not
lecturing nor haranguing; it is not detracting gossip; it is not
ill-timed "shop" talk; it is not controversy nor debate; it is not
stringing anecdotes together; it is not inquisitive nor impertinent
questioning. There are still other things which conversation is not: It
is not cross-examining nor bullying; it is not over-emphatic, nor is it
too insistent, nor doggedly domineering, talk. Nor is good conversation
grumbling talk. No one can play to advantage the conversational game of
toss and catch with a partner who is continually pelting him with
grievances. It is out of the question to expect everybody, whether
stranger or intimate, to choke in congenial sympathy with petty woes.
The trivial and perverse annoyances of one's own life are compensating
subjects for conversation only when they lead to a discussion of the
phase of character or the fling of fate on which such-and-such incidents
throw light, because the trend of the thought then encourages a tossing
back of ideas.

Perhaps the most important thing which good conversation is not, is
this: It is not talking for effect, or hedging. There are two kinds of
hedging in conversation: one which comes from failing to follow the
trend of the discussion; another which is the result of talking at
random merely to make bulk. The first is tolerable; the last is
contemptible. The moment one begins to talk for effect, or to hedge
flippantly, he is talking insincerely. And when a good converser runs
against this sort of talker, his heart calls out, with Carlyle, for an
empty room, his tobacco, and his pipe. It is maintained by some one that
there are three kinds of a bore: the person who tells the plot of a
play, the one who tells the story of a novel, and the one who tells his
dreams. This may be going too far with regard to dreams; for dreams, if
handled in the right way, are easily made a part of interesting talk.
But in sophisticated society books and plays are discust only by talking
about the prevailing idea round which the story centers. They are
criticized, not outlined. The most learned and cultivated talkers do not
attempt the difficult and unrewarded feat of giving a concise summary
of plots.

Good conversation, then, is the give and take of talk. A person who
converses well also listens well. The one is inseparable from the other.
Anything can be talked about in cultivated society provided the subjects
are handled with humanity and discrimination. Even the weather and the
three dreadful D's of conversation, Dress, Disease, and Domestics, may
be made an acceptable part of talk if suited to the time, the place, and
the situation. Nor is genius or scholarship essential to good
conversation. The qualities most needed are tact, a sincere desire to
please, and an appreciation of the truth that the man who never says a
foolish thing in conversation will never say a wise one.



     _Dr. Johnson's and Robert Louis Stevenson's Opinion of
     Discussion--Politeness and Discussion--The Hostess in
     Discussion--Flat Contradiction in Discussion--Polemical
     Squabbles--Brilliant Discussion in France--The Secret of Delightful
     Conversation in France--Leading the Talk--Topics for
     Discussion--Gladstone's Conversation._



Many people object to discussion, but they are invariably those on the
midway rounds of the conversational ladder; people to whom the joy of
the amicable intellectual tussle is unknown, and to whom the highest
standards of the art of talking do not appeal. Where there is much
intellectual activity discussion is sure to arise, for the simple reason
that people will not think alike. Polite discussion is the most
difficult and the most happy attainment of society as it is of
literature; and why should oral discussion be less attractive than
written? Dr. Johnson used to express unbounded contempt for all talk
that was not discussion; and Robert Louis Stevenson has given us frankly
his view: "There is a certain attitude, combative at once and
deferential, eager to fight yet most averse to quarrel, which marks out
at once the talkable man. It is not eloquence, nor fairness, nor
obstinacy, but a certain proportion of all these that I love to
encounter in my amicable adversaries. They must not be pontiffs holding
doctrine, but huntsmen questing after elements of truth. Neither must
they be boys to be instructed, but fellow-students with whom I may argue
on equal terms." From Mr. John B. Yeats, one of the many Irishmen who
have written tellingly on this interesting subject of human intercourse,
we have: "Conversation is an art, as literature is, as painting is, as
poetry is, and subject to the same laws from which nothing human is
excluded, not even argument. There is literature which argues, and
painting which argues, and poetry which argues, so why not conversation
which argues? Only argument is the most difficult to mold into the most
blessed shape of art."

Some people conceive an everlasting opposition between politeness and
earnest discussion. Politeness consists, they think, in always saying,
"yes, yes," or at most a non-committal "indeed?" to every word addrest
to them. This is apt to be our American vice of conversation, where, for
lack of courage in taking up discussion, talk often falls into a series
of anecdotes. In Germany the tendency is to be swept away in discussion
to the point of a verbal dispute.

There is no greater bore in society than the person who agrees with
everybody. Discussion is the arena in which we measure the strength of
one another's minds and run a friendly tilt in pleasing
self-assertiveness; it is the common meeting-ground where it is
understood that Barnabas will take gentle reproof from Paul, and Paul
take gentle reproof from Barnabas. Those who look upon any dissent from
their views as a personal affront to be visited with signs of resentment
are no more fit for brilliant talk than they are fit for life and its
vicissitudes. "Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul
in peace," it is true; but he also keeps himself dead to all human
intercourse and as colorless in the world as an oyster. "Too great a
desire to please," says Stevenson, "banishes from conversation all that
is sterling.... It is better to emit a scream in the shape of a theory
than to be entirely insensible to the jars and incongruities of life and
take everything as it comes in a forlorn stupidity." This is equivalent
to telling the individual who treads too nicely and fears a shock that
he had pleased us better had he pleased us less, which is the subtle
observation of Mr. Price Collier writing in the _North American Review_:
"It is perhaps more often true of women than of men that they conceive
affability as a concession. At any rate, it is not unusual to find a
hostess busying herself with attempts to agree with all that is said,
with the idea that she is thereby doing homage to the effeminate
categorical imperative of etiquette, when in reality nothing becomes
more quickly tiresome than incessant affirmatives, no matter how
pleasantly they are modulated. Nor can one avoid one of two conclusions
when one's talk is thus negligently agreed to: either the speaker is
confining herself entirely to incontradictable platitudes, or the
listener has no mind of her own; and in either case silence were
golden. In this connection it were well to recall the really brilliant
epigram of the Abbé de Saint-Réal, that '_On s'ennuie presque toujours
avec ceux que l'on ennuie._' For not even a lover can fail to be bored
at last by the constant lassitude of assent expressing itself in twin
sentiments to his own. 'Coquetting with an echo,' Carlyle called it.
For, tho it may make a man feel mentally masterful at first, it makes
him feel mentally maudlin at last; and, as the Abbé says, to be bored
one's self is a sure sign that one's companion is also weary."

Tho polite dissent is desirable in discussion, flat contradiction is
contemptible. Dean Swift affirms that a person given to contradiction is
more fit for Bedlam than for conversation. In discussion, far more than
in lighter talk, decency as well as honor commands that each partner to
the conversational game conform to the niceties and fairness of it. "I
don't think so," "It isn't so," "I don't agree with you at all," are too
flat and positive for true delicacy and refinement in conversation. "I
have been inclined to think otherwise," "I should be pleased to hear
your reasons," "Aren't you mistaken?" are more acceptable phrases with
which to introduce dissent. In French society a discrepancy of views is
always manifested by some courtesy-phrase, such as "_Mais, ne
pensez-vous pas_" or "_Je vous demande pardon_"--the urbane substitutes
for "No, you are wrong," "No, it isn't." Our own Benjamin Franklin,
whose appreciation of the conversational art in France won completely
the hearts of the French people, tells us in his autobiography that in
later life he found it necessary to throw off habits acquired in youth:
"I continued this positive method for some years, but gradually left
it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest
diffidence: never using when I advanced anything that might possibly be
disputed, the words 'certainly,' 'undoubtedly,' or any others that give
the air of positiveness to an opinion, but rather say, 'it appears to
me,' or 'I should think it so-and-so, for such-and-such a reason,' or 'I
imagine it to be so,' or it is so 'if I am not mistaken.'"

Unyielding obstinacy in discussion is deadening to conversation, and yet
the extreme contrary is crippling. Open resentment of any attempt at
warmth of speech is paralysis and torpor to talk. When one meets a
hostess, or a conversational partner, "whose only pleasure is to be
displeased," one is reminded of the railway superintendent who kept the
wires hot with fault-finding messages bearing his initials "H. F. C."
until he came to be known along the road as "Hell For Certain." People
of a resentful turn of mind, whose every sentence is a wager, and who
convert every word into a missile, are fit for polemical squabbles, but
not for polite discussion. Those raucous persons who, when their
opponents attempt to speak, cry out against it as a monstrous
unfairness, are very well adapted to association with Kilkenny cats, but
not with human beings. It is in order to vanquish by this means one who
might otherwise outmatch them entirely that they thus seek to reduce
their opponent to a mere interjection. "A man of culture," says Mr.
Robert Waters, "is not intolerant of opposition. He frankly states his
views on any given subject, without hesitating to say wherein he is
ignorant or doubtful, and he is ready for correction and enlightenment
wherever he finds it." Such a man never presses his hearers to accept
his views; he not only tolerates but considers opposed opinions and
listens attentively and respectfully to them. Hazlitt said of the
charming discussion of Northcote, the painter: "He lends an ear to an
observation as if you had brought him a piece of news, and enters into
it with as much avidity and earnestness as if it interested only himself

Of all the tenets of good conversation to which the French give heed,
their devotion to listening is the most notable. From this judiciously
receptive attitude springs their uninterrupting shrug of assent or
disapproval. But listening is only one of their many established
conversational dicta: "The conversation of Parisians is neither
dissertation nor epigram; they have pleasantry without buffoonery; they
associate with skill, with genius, and with reason, maxims and flashes
of wit, sharp satire, and severe ethics. They run through all subjects
that each may have something to say; they exhaust no subject for fear of
tiring their hearer; they propose their themes casually and they treat
them rapidly; each succeeding subject grows naturally out of the
preceding one; each talker delivers his opinion and supports it briefly;
no one attacks with undue heat the supposition of another, nor defends
obstinately his own; they examine in order to enlighten, and stop before
the discussion becomes a dispute." Such was Rousseau's description of
Parisian conversation; and some one else has declared that the French
are the only nation in the world who understand a _salon_ whether in
upholstery or talk. "Every Britisher," said Novalis more than a hundred
years ago, "is an island"; and Heine once defined silence as "a
conversation with Englishmen." We Americans, tho not so reserved in
talk as our English brothers, are less respectful to conversational
amenities; and both of us are far behind the French in the gracious art
of verbal expression. Not only is the spoken English of the cultured
Irish the most cosmopolitan and best modulated of any English in the
world, but the conversation of cultivated Irishmen more adequately
approaches the perfection of the French.

It is as illuminating to study the best models in human intercourse as
to study the best models in literature, or painting, or any other art.
One of the distinct elements in French conversation is that it is
invariably kept general; and by general I mean including in the talk all
the conversational group as opposed to _tête-à-tête_ dialog. Many people
disagree with the French in this. Addison declared that there is no such
thing as conversation except between two persons; and Ralph Waldo
Emerson and Walter Savage Landor said something of the same sort.
Shelley was distinctly a _tête-à-tête_ talker, as Mr. Benson, the
present-day essayist, in some of his intimate discourses, proclaims
himself to be. But Burke and Browning, the best conversationalists in
the history of the Anglo-Saxon race, like all the famous women of the
French _salon_, from Mme. Roland to Mme. de Staël, kept pace with any
number of interlocutors on any number of subjects, from the most
abstruse science to the lightest _jeu d'esprit_. Good talk between two
is no doubt a duet of exquisite sympathy; but true conversation is more
like a fugue in four or eight parts than like a duet. Furthermore,
general and _tête-à-tête_ conversation have both their place and
occasion. At a dinner-table in France private chats are very quickly
dispelled by some thoughtful moderator. Dinner guests who devote
themselves to each other alone are not tolerated by the French hostess
as by the English and American. Because _tête-à-tête_ conversation is
considered good form so generally among English-speaking peoples, I have
in other essays adapted my comments on this subject to our customs; but
talk which is distributed among several who conform to the courtesies
and laws of good conversation is the best kind of talk. In general talk
every one ought to have a voice. It is the undue humility of some and
the arrogance and polemical tendency of others that prevent good general
conversation. People have only to begin with three axioms: the first,
that everybody is entitled, and often bound, to form his own opinion;
second, that everybody is equally entitled to express that opinion; and
third, that everybody's opinion is entitled to a hearing and to
consideration, not only on the ground of courtesy, but because any
opinion honestly and independently formed is worth something and
contributes to the discussion.

Another principle of French conversation is that it is kept personal, in
the sense, I mean, that the personality of the speakers suffuses it.
"The theme being taken," as Stevenson says, "each talker plays on
himself as on an instrument, affirming and justifying himself." This
counter-assertion of personality, to all appearances, is combat, but at
bottom is amicable. An issue which is essentially general and impersonal
is lost in the accidental conflicts of personalities, because the
quality which plays the most important part is presence of mind, not
correct reasoning. A conversationalist whose argument is wholly
fallacious will often, by exercise of verbal adroitness, dispose of an
objection which is really fatal. The full swing of the personalities of
the speakers in a conversation is what makes the flint strike fire. It
is only from heated minds that the true essence of conversation springs;
and it is in talk which glances from one to another of a group, more
than in dialog, that this personality is reflected. "It is curious to
note," says an editorial in _The Spectator_, "how very much dialog there
is in the world, and how little true conversation; how very little, that
is, of the genuine attempt to compare the different bearing of the same
subject on the minds of different people. It is the rarest thing in the
world to come, even in the best authors, on a successful picture of the
different views taken by different minds on the same subject, and the
grounds of the difference."

Quite as noticeable an element in French conversation is the attitude of
the conversers to their subject. They never try to settle matters as if
their decisions were the last court of appeal, and as if they must make
frantic effort to carry their side of the question to victory. They
discuss for the pleasure of discussing; not for the pleasure of
vanquishing, nor even of convincing. They discuss, merely; they do not
debate, nor do they enter into controversy.

One of the greatest conversational charms of the French is their amenity
in leading talk. This grows out of a universal eagerness in France to
take pains in conversation and to learn its unwritten behests. The
uninitiated suspect little of the insight and care which matures even
the natural conversational ability of a Madame de Staël or a Francisque
Sarcey. The initiated know that the same principles which make the
French prodigious conversationalists make them capable and charming
hosts and hostesses. The talker who can follow in conversation knows
how to lead, and vice versa. Without a leader or "moderator," as the
admirable Scotch word has it, conversation is apt to become either tepid
or demoralized; and often, for the want of proper and sophisticated
leading, discussion that would otherwise be brilliant deteriorates into
pandemonium. As paradoxical as it sounds on first thought, it is
nevertheless true that thoroughly good conversation is impossible where
there is too much talk. Some sort of order must be imperceptibly if not
unconsciously maintained, or the sentences clash in general
conversation. Leading conversation is the adroit speech which checks the
refractory conversationalist and changes imperceptibly the subject when
it is sufficiently threshed or grows over-heated; it is guiding the talk
without palpable break into fresh fields of thought; it is the tact
with which, unperceived, the too slow narration of a guest is hurried by
such courteous interpolations as "So you got to the inn, and what then?"
or, "Did the marriage take place after all?"; it is the art with which
the skilful host or hostess sees that all are drawn into the
conversational group; it is the watchfulness that sends the shuttle of
talk in all directions instead of allowing it to rebound between a few;
it is the interest with which a host or hostess solicits the opinions of
guests, and develops whatever their answers may vaguely suggest; it is
the care with which an accidentally interrupted speech of a guest is
resuscitated; it is the consideration which puts one who arrives late in
touch with the subject which was being discust just before his
appearance. It is this concern for conversational cues which gives any
host or hostess an almost unbounded power in social intercourse; for he
is the best talker who can lead others to talk well.

It goes without saying that a people who have assimilated all the
foregoing tenets of good conversation are never disjointed in their
talk. Their consummate art of listening is responsible for their skill
in following the logical trend of the discourse. This may be considered
a national trait. In decent French society there are no abrupt
transitions of thought in the different speeches. The speech of each
speaker grows naturally out of what some one of his conversational
partners has just been saying, or it is duly prefaced by an introductory
sentence connecting it with a certain preceding speech. They know that,
once embarked, no converser can tell where the give and take of talk
will carry him; but they also know that this does not necessitate
awkward and direct changes of subject. The weakness of inattention and
of unconscious shunting in conversation is virtually unknown in good
society in France.

Is it any wonder that in a country where conversation is considered an
art capable of cultivation and having certain fixt principles, so many
French women of humble birth, like Sophie Arnould and Julie Lespinasse,
have earned their way to fame by their conversational powers? Is it any
wonder that in France polite discussion is made the most exhilarating
and delightful exercise in the world?

One reason there is so little acceptable conversational discussion is
the indisposition of people in society to say what they think; their
unwillingness to express their whole minds on any one subject. It is
this element of unfettered expression or revelation which makes
literature entertaining; why then withhold thought too cautiously from
conversation? The habit of evasion is cowardly as well as unsocial; and
nothing so augments conversation as being pleasantly downright; letting
people know where to find you. The most preposterous views get respect
if uttered intrepidly. Sincere speech is necessary to good conversation
of any kind, and especially is it essential to discussion. One of the
stupidest of conversational sins is quibbling--talking insincerely, just
for the sake of using words, and shifting the point at issue to some
incidental, subordinate argument on which the decision does not at all
depend. It is the intellectually honest person who sparkles in

Another reason why discussion is waning is the disrespect we feel for
great subjects. We only mention them, or hint at them; and this cannot
lead to very brilliant talk. Tho prattle and persiflage have their place
in conversation, talkers of the highest order tire of continually
encouraging chit-chat. "What a piece of business; monstrous! I have not
read it; impossible to get a box at the opera for another fortnight; how
do you like my dress? It was immensely admired yesterday at the B----s;
how badly your cravat is tied! Did you know that ---- lost heavily by
the crash of Thursday? That dear man's death gave me a good fit of
crying; do you travel this summer? Is Blank really a man of genius? It
is incomprehensible; they married only two years ago." This sort of
nimble talk is all very well; but because one likes sillibub
occasionally is no proof that one is willing to discard meat entirely.
Conversational topics can be too trivial for recreation as well as too
serious; and even important subjects can be handled in a light way if
necessary. "Clever people are the best encyclopedias," said Goethe; and
the great premier Gladstone was a charming man in society, though he
never talked on any but serious subjects. He was noted for his ability
to pump people dry without seeming in the least to probe. "True
conversation is not content with thrust and parry, with mere sword-play
of any kind, but should lay mind to mind and show the real lines of
agreement and the real lines of divergence. Yet this is the very kind of
conversation which seems to me so very rare." In order that a great
subject shall be a good topic of conversation, it must provoke an
enthusiasm of belief or disbelief; people must have decided opinions one
way or the other. I believe with Stevenson that theology, of all
subjects, is a suitable topic for conversational discussion, and for the
reason he gives: that religion is the medium through which all the world
considers life, and the dialect in which people express their
judgments. Try to talk for any length of time with people to whom you
must not mention creeds, morals, politics, or any other vital interest
in life, and see how inane and fettered talk becomes.

The tranquil and yet spirited discussion of great subjects is the most
stimulating of all talk. The thing to be desired is not the avoidance of
discussion but the encouragement of it according to its unwritten codes
and precepts. "The first condition of any conversation at all," says
Professor Mahaffy of Dublin, "is that people should have their minds so
far in sympathy that they are willing to talk upon the same subject, and
to hear what each member of the company thinks about it. The higher
condition which now comes before us is, that the speaker, apart from the
matter of the conversation, feels an interest in his hearers as distinct
persons, whose opinions and feelings he desires to know.... Sympathy,
however, should not be excessive in quality, which makes it
demonstrative. We have an excellent word which describes the
over-sympathetic person, and marks the judgment of society, when we say
that he or she is _gushing_. To be too sympathetic makes discussion,
which implies difference of opinion, impossible." Those who try to
discover how far conversation is advanced by sympathy and hindered by
over-sympathy; those who attempt to detect to what extent wholesome
discussion is degraded by acrid controversy, need not be afraid of
vigorous intellectual buffeting. Discussion springs from human nature
when it is under the influence of strong feeling, and is as much an
ingredient of conversation as the vocalizing of sounds is a part of the
effort of expressing thought.



     _Gossip in Literature--Gossip Comes from Being of One Kindred Under
     God--Gossip and the Misanthrope--Personal History of People We Know
     and People We Don't Know--Gossip of Books of Biography--Interest in
     Others Gives Fellowship and Warmth to Life--Essential Difference
     Between Slander and Innocent Gossip--The Psychology of the
     Slanderer--The Apocryphal Slanderer--"Talking Behind Another's
     Back"--Personal Chat the Current Coin of Conversation._



It seems strange that, in all the long list of brilliant dissertations
on every subject under the sun, no English essayist should have yielded
a word under the seductive title of "Gossip." Even Leigh Hunt, who wrote
vivaciously and exquisitely on so many light topics, was not attracted
by the enticing possibilities of this subject to which both the learned
and the unlearned are ready at all times to bestow a willing ear or eye.
One usually conceives gossip as something to which one lends only one's
ear, and never one's eye; but what are "Plutarch's Lives" but the right
sort of gossip? That so many literary men and women have vaguely
suspected the alluring tone-color of the word "gossip" is proved by: _A
Gossip in Romance_, Robert Louis Stevenson; _Gossip in a Library_,
Edmund William Gosse; _Gossip of the Caribbees_, William R. H.
Trowbridge, Jr.; _Gossip from Paris During the Second Empire_, Anthony
North Peet; _Gossip in the First Decade of Victoria's Reign_, Jane West;
_Gossip of the Century_, Julia Clara Byrne; _Gossiping Guide to Wales_,
Askew Roberts and Edward Woodall; _Gossip with Girls and Maidens
Betrothed and Free_, Blanche St. John Bellairs. Yet no one has ever
thought of writing about gossip for its own sweet sake.

Among every-day words perhaps the word "gossip" is more to be reckoned
with than any other in our language. The child who runs confidingly to
mother to report his grievance is a gossip; he is also an historian.
Certainly gossip is in its tone familiar and personal; it is the
familiar and personal touch which makes _Plutarch's Lives_ interesting.
At the root of the word "gossip," say etymologists, there lies an honest
Saxon meaning, "God's sib"--"of one kindred under God."

It would be only a misanthrope who would assert that he has no interest
in his fellows. He is invariably a selfish person who shuns personality
in talk and refuses to know anything about people; who says: "What is it
to me whether this person has heard Slezak in _Tannhäuser_; what do I
care whether Mrs. So-and-So has visited the French play; what concern is
it of mine if Mr. Millions of eighty marries Miss Beautiful of eighteen;
what is it to me whether you have watched the agonies of a furnishing
party at Marshall Field's and have observed the bridegroom of tender
years victimized by his wife and mother-in-law with their appeals to his
excellent taste; of what interest to me are the accounts of the
dissolute excesses which interspersed the wild outbreaks of religious
fanaticism of Henry the Third of France?" This selfish person is also
very stupid, for nothing so augments conversation as a normal interest
in other people.

   "I shook him well from side to side
     Until his face was blue.
   Come, tell me how you live, I cried,
     And what it is you do."

This plan of Alice's _Through the Looking Glass_ ballad singer for
shaking conversation out of people, tho somewhat too strenuous, is less
fatiguing than Sherlock Holmes's inductive methods. Like Sherlock
without his excuse, the kind and generous must confess to a colossal
interest in the affairs of others. Gossip is the dialog of the drama of
mankind; and we have a right to introduce any innocent and graceful
means of thawing their stories from the actors, and of unraveling
dramatic knots. People with keen judgment of men and things gather the
harvest of a quiet eye; they see in the little world of private life
histories as wonderful and issues as great as those that get our
attention in literature, or in the theater, or in public life. Personal
gossip in its intellectual form has a charm not unhealthy; and it gives
new lights on character more often favorable than unfavorable.

There is no difference, between enjoying this personal talk and enjoying
_The Mill on the Floss_ or books of biography. Boswell, in his _Life of
Johnson_, and Mrs. Thrale, in her _Letters_, were inveterate gossips
about the great man. And what an incomparable little tattler was Fanny
Burney--Madame d'Arblay! Lord William Lennox, in his _Drafts on My
Memory_, is full of irrepressible and fascinating _memorabilia_, from
the story of General Bullard's salad-dressing to important dramatic
history connected with the theater of his time. The _Spectator_ was the
quintessence of gossip in an age of gossip and good conversation. We
could go a great deal further back to the gossips of Theocritus, who are
as living and life-like as if we had just met them in the park. All
biography is a putting together of trifles which in the aggregate make
up the engrossing life-stories of men and women of former and
contemporary preeminence. It is to the gossips of all ages that we owe
much of value in literary history.

Without the personal interest in the affairs of others which makes
gossip possible, there would be no fellowship or warmth in life; social
intercourse and conversation would be inhuman and lifeless. Mr. Benson
in his essay "Conversation" tells us that an impersonal talker is likely
to be a dull dog. Mr. Henry van Dyke says that the quality of
talkability does not mark a distinction among things; that it denotes a
difference among people. And Chateaubriand, in his _Mémoirs
d'Outre-tombe_, confides to us that he has heard some very pleasant
reports become irksome and malicious in the mouths of ill-disposed
verbal historians.

One can interest one's self in the dramatic incidents in the lives of
one's acquaintances without ventilating or vilifying their character.
Gossip is capable of a more genial purpose than traducing people. It is
the malignity which turns gossip into scandal against which temperate
conversationalists revolt; the sort of thing which Sheridan gibbeted in
his celebrated play, _The School for Scandal_:

   "Give me the papers, (lisp)--how bold and free!
   Last night Lord L. was caught with Lady D.!
       .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
   "So strong, so swift, the monster there's no gagging:
   Cut scandal's head off, still the tongue is wagging."

But this is scandal, not gossip, and scandal comes from people incapable
of anything better either in mind or conversation. Among those who
understand the art of conversation, libelous talk is rarely heard; with
those who cultivate it to perfection, never. It is the first commandment
of the slanderer to repeat promptly all the vitriolic talk he hears, but
to keep strictly to himself all pleasant words or kindly gossip. Those
who draw no distinction between scandal and gossip should reflect that
gossip may be good-natured and commendatory as well as hostile and
adverse. In the published letters of the late James Russell Lowell is an
account of his meeting Professor Mahaffy of Trinity College, Dublin, who
is known to be one of the most agreeable of men. They met at the house
of a friend in Birmingham, England, and when Lowell took leave of Mr.
Mahaffy he said to his host: "Well, that's one of the most delightful
fellows I ever met, and I don't mind if you tell him so!" When Lowell's
remark was repeated to Mr. Mahaffy, he exclaimed, "Poor Lowell! to think
that he can never have met an Irishman before!" And this was gossip as
surely as the inimical prattle about Lord and Lady Byron was gossip. No,
indeed, slander and libelous talk are not necessary ingredients of
gossip. People who take malicious pleasure in using speech for malign
purposes suffer from a mental disorder which does not come under the
scope of conversation.

Regarding the mental deficiencies of those who love to wallow in the
mire of salacious news about others, the psychologists have come to some
interesting conclusions. To them it seems that there is an essential
identity between the gossip and the genius. In both, the mental
processes work with the same tendency to reproduce every fragment of
past experience, because both think by what is known as "total recall."
From the thought of one thing their minds pass to all sorts of remote
connections, sane and silly, rational and grotesque, relevant and
irrelevant. The essential difference between the gossip mind and the
genius mind is the power of genius to distinguish between the worthy and
the unworthy, the trivial and the relevant, the true and the false. The
thoughts of the gossip, so the psychologists tell us, have connection
but not coherence; the thoughts of the genius have coherence and
likewise connection and unity. Thus we discover that scandal-mongers are
at fault in the mind more than in the heart; and that it behooves people
who do not wish to have themselves voted mentally defective to draw a
distinction between scandal and innocent gossip. As I have already said,
there is nothing so interesting as the dramatic incidents in the lives
of human beings. Despite the nature-study enthusiasts who seem to refuse
mankind a place in nature, "the proper study of mankind is man" and will
forever remain so. But this does not mean that mental weaklings should
be allowed to discover and talk about only salacious episodes in the
history of their acquaintances. The vicious scandal-monger who defames
another, or hears him defamed or scandalized, and then runs to him with
enlarged and considerably colored tales of what was said about him, is
the poison of the serpent and should not be tolerated in society. A
sanitarium for mental delinquents is the only proper place for such a

And let me add that the apocryphal slanderer, the person who never says
but hints all sorts of malicious things, is the worst sort of
scandal-monger. The cultivated conversationalist who talks gossip in its
intellectual form does not indulge in oblique hints and insinuations. He
says what he has to say intrepidly because he says it discriminatingly.

Keen judgment which discovers the fundamental distinction between
scandal and suitable personality in talk raises gossip to the perfection
of an art and the dignity of a science. Undiscriminating people,
therefore, had better leave personalities alone and stick to the more
general and less resilient topics of conversation. Good gossip is
attainable only by minds that are capable of much higher talk than
gossip. Cultivated, well-poised, well-disposed persons need never be
afraid of indulging their conversation to a certain extent with gossip,
because they indulge it in the right way. And provided their personal
and familiar talk is listened to by equally cultivated, well-poised, and
well-disposed people, their gossip need not necessarily be limited to
the mention of only pleasant and complimentary history; no more, indeed,
than Plutarch found it necessary to tell of the glory of Demosthenes
without mention that there were those who whispered graft and bribery in
connection with his name. There are a few very good and very dull people
who try to stop all adverse criticism. All raillery strikes them as
cruel. They would like to see every parody murdered by the common
hangman. Even the best of comedy is constitutionally repellent to them.
They want only highly colored characters from which every mellow shade
of fault has been obliterated. One cannot say that they have a real love
of human nature, because they do not know what human nature is. They are
ready to take up arms with it at every turn. Such people cannot see that
ridicule, or gossip, can be either innocent or malignant; that history
can be either prejudiced or unbiased.

With many, refusing to hear adverse criticism is a mere pose, while with
others it is cynicism. In intercourse with the uneducated, any well-bred
person is properly shocked by their pleasure in detraction and in bad
news of all sorts. But the detestable people who seek every occasion to
vilify, and who wish to hear only harm of the world, are so exceptional
as to be negligible. These rare villains are eliminated when one speaks
of inability to distinguish between detraction and adverse criticism.
Those who can praise well are always adepts at criticizing adversely.
They never carry their criticism too far, nor give purposely an acrid
touch to it.

There is a grim tradition that a person should never say anything behind
another's back which he would not say before his face. This is all very
well so far as it relates to venomous tales repeated purposely to
injure; but how colorless are the people who never have critical
opinions on anything or anybody; or people who, having them, never
express them! Criticism and cavil are two very different things. Absence
of criticism is absence of the power of distinction. This age of science
has taught people to look truth straight in the face and learn to
discriminate. That person to whom everything is sweet does not know what
sweet is. The sophisticated world, unlike the unsophisticated, is not
afraid of "passing remarks." There is no doubt that criticism, whether
it comes directly or roundabout, adds a terror to life as soon as one
goes below a certain level of cultivation. The uneducated are frightened
at the mere thought of criticism; the cultivated are not. Perhaps the
reason for this difference is that ordinary people have a brutal and
entirely uncritical criticism to fear. In that society sensitiveness is
not very common. They are not dishonorable; they are merely hardy and
can see no distinctions. It is not given to these people to praise
rationally and to censure discriminatingly. Vilifying remarks are made
and repeated among them which clever people would be incapable of
uttering. The educated not only use a softened mode of speech, but they
avoid repeating remarks, unless with a discerning wish to be helpful to
others. The cultivated who have brought life to a far higher point than
the uncultivated have protected their liberty by a social rule. They say
what they like, and it does not get to the ears of the person about whom
they have said it. And if it did it wouldn't much matter. Criticism
which is critically given is usually critically received. The
maliciousness of adverse criticism seldom lies in the person who voices
it, but in the person who carries a tale. The moment sophisticated
people learn that one among them has venomously repeated an adversely
critical remark, they immediately know that that person is not to the
manner born. There is no surer proof.

If the born advocate is not always a saint, the born critic is not
always a sinner. Robert Louis Stevenson understood the importance of
the personal touch in conversation when he wrote: "So far as
conversational subjects are truly talkable, more than half of them may
be reduced to three: that I am I, that you are you, and that there are
other people dimly understood to be not quite the same as either." So,
also, did Mr. J. M. Barrie, when he told us that his beloved Margaret
Ogilvy, in spite of no personal interest in Gladstone, "had a profound
faith in him as an aid to conversation. If there were silent men in the
company, she would give him to them to talk about precisely as she would
divide a cake among children."

It is often hinted by men that women are made good conversationalists by
a sense of irresponsibility. But I am inclined to think that a little
gossip now and then is relished by the best of men as well as women.
The tendency to gossip with which men constantly credit women, and in
which tendency the men themselves keep pace, helps both men and women
very effectually to good conversation. "It is more important," says
Stevenson again, "that a person should be a good gossip and talk
pleasantly and smartly of common friends and the thousand and one
nothings of the day and hour, than speak with the tongues of men and
angels.... Talk is the creature of the street and market-place, feeding
on gossip; and its last resort is still in a discussion on morals. That
is the heroic form of gossip; heroic in virtue of its high pretensions;
but still gossip because it turns on personalities."

Gossip, we must admit, has a perennial interest for all of us. Personal
chat is the current coin of conversational capital. Society lives by
gossip as it lives by bread. The most absurd rule in the world is to
avoid personalities in conversation. To annihilate gossip would be to
cut conversational topics in half. There is musical gossip, art gossip,
theatrical gossip, literary gossip, and court gossip; there is political
gossip, and fashionable gossip, and military gossip; there is mercantile
gossip and commercial gossip of all kinds; there is physicians' gossip
and professional gossip of every sort; there is scientists' gossip; and
there is the gossip of the schools indulged in by masters and students
all over the educational world. Of all the gossip in the world the most
prodigious and prolific is religious gossip. Archbishops, bishops,
deans, rectors, and curates are discussed unreservedly; and the
questions put and answered are not whether they are apostolic teachers,
but whether they are high, low, broad, or no church; whether they wear
scarlet or black, intone or read, say "shibboleth" or "sibboleth."

The roots of gossip are deep in human interest; and, despite the nearly
universal opinion of moralists, great reputations are more often built
out of gossip than destroyed by it. Discriminating people do not create
enemies by personalities, nor separate friends, because they gossip with
a heart full of love, with charity for all, and with malice toward none.
Gossip as a legitimate part of conversation is defended by one of the
greatest of present-day scholars; and I cannot do better than to quote,
in closing, what Mr. Mahaffy has said about it: "The topic which ought
to be always interesting is the discussion of human character and human
motives. If the novel be so popular a form of literature, how can the
novel in real life fail to interest an intelligent company? People of
serious temper and philosophic habit will be able to confine themselves
to large ethical views and the general dealings of men; but to average
people, both men and women, and perhaps most of all to busy men who
desire to find in society relaxation from their toil, that lighter and
more personal kind of criticism on human affairs will prevail which is
known as gossip. It is idle to deny that there is no kind of
conversation more fascinating than this. But its immorality may easily
become such as to shock honest minds, and the man who indulges in it too
freely at the expense of others will probably have to pay the cost of it
himself in the long run; for those who hear him will fear him, and will
retire into themselves in his presence. On the other hand, nothing is
more honorable than to stand forth as the defender or the palliator of
the faults imputed to others, and nothing is easier than to expand such
a defense into general considerations as to the purity of human motives,
which will raise the conversation from its unwholesome grounds into the
upper air."



     _Guests' Talk During the Quarter of an Hour before Dinner--What
     Guests May Talk About--Talking to One's Dinner-Companion--Guests'
     Duty to Host and Hostess--The Dominant Note in Table-Talk--General
     and_ Tête-à-Tête _Conversation between Guests--The Raconteur at



"Good talk is not to be had for the asking. Humors must first be
accorded in a kind of overture for prolog; hour, company, and
circumstances be suited; and then at a fit juncture, the subject, the
quarry of two heated minds, spring up like a deer out of the wood."
Stevenson knew as well as Alice in Wonderland that something has to open
the conversation. "You can't even drink a bottle of wine without opening
it," argued Alice; and every dinner guest, during the quarter of an hour
before dinner, has felt the sententiousness of her remark. Someone in
writing about this critical period so conversationally difficult has
contended that no person in his senses would think of wasting good talk
in the drawing-room before dinner, but Professor Mahaffy thinks
otherwise: "In the very forefront there stares us in the face that
awkward period which even the gentle Menander notes as the worst
possible for conversation, the short time during which people are
assembling, and waiting for the announcement of dinner. If the witty man
were not usually a selfish person, who will not exhibit his talent
without the reward of full and leisurely appreciation, this is the real
moment to show his powers. A brilliant thing said at the very start
which sets people laughing, and makes them forget that they are waiting,
may alter the whole complexion of the party, may make the silent and
distant people feel themselves drawn into the sympathy of common
merriment, and thaw the iciness which so often fetters Anglo-Saxon
society. But as this faculty is not given to many, so the average man
may content himself with having something ready to tell, and this, if
possible, in answer to the usual question exprest or implied: Is there
any news this afternoon? There are few days that the daily paper will
not afford to the intelligent critic something ridiculous either in
style or matter which has escaped the ordinary public; some local event,
nay, even some local tragedy, may suggest a topic not worth more than a
few moments of attention, which will secure the interest of minds
vacant, and perhaps more hungry to be fed than their bodies. Here then,
if anywhere in the whole range of conversation, the man or woman who
desires to be agreeable may venture to think beforehand, and bring with
them something ready, merely as the first kick or starting point to make
the evening run smoothly." However this may be, it is only with that
communicative feeling which comes after eating and drinking that talkers
warm up to discriminating discussion; and in the drawing-room just
before dinner, one can scarcely expect the conversation to turn on
anything but trifles.

At the moment a man presents his arm to the woman he is to take in to
dinner, he must have something ready in the way of a remark, for if he
goes in in silence, he is lost. There are a thousand and one nothings he
may say at this time. I know a clever man who talks interestingly for
fifteen minutes about the old-fashioned practice of offering a woman the
hand to lead her in to dinner, and whether or not that custom was more
courteous and graceful than our modern way of proceeding.

The question is often asked, "What should guests talk about at a
dinner?" I restrict my interrogation to guests, because there is a
distinction between the directing of a dinner-guest's conversation and
the guiding of the talk by host or hostess into necessary or interesting
channels. Dinners, especially in diplomatic circles, are as often given
to bring about dexterously certain ends in view as they are given for
mere pleasure; and when this is the case it is necessary as well as
gracious to steer conversation along the paths that it should go. A
guest's first duty is to his dinner-companion, the person with whom,
according to the prearranged plan of the hostess, he enters the
dining-room and by whom he finds himself seated at table. His next duty
is to his hosts. He has also an abstract conversational duty to his
next nearest neighbor at table. It is every guest's duty, too, to keep
his ears open and be ready to join in general talk should the host or
hostess attempt to draw all their guests into any general discussion.

The best answer to the question, "What should guests at dinner talk
about?" is, anything and everything, provided the talk is tinctured with
tact, discretion, and discrimination. To one's dinner-companion, if he
happens to be a familiar acquaintance, one can even forget to taboo
dress, disease, and domestics. One might likewise, with discretion, set
at liberty the usually forbidden talk of "shop," on condition that such
intimate conversation is to one's dinner-companion alone and is not
dragged into the general flights of the table-talk. While one talks to
one's dinner-companion in a low voice, however, it needs nice
discrimination not to seem to talk under one's breath, or to say
anything to a left-hand neighbor which would not be appropriate for a
right-hand neighbor to hear. When in general talk, the habit some
supposedly well-bred persons have of glancing furtively at any one guest
to interrogate telepathically another's opinion of some remark is bad
taste beyond the power of censure or the possibility of forgiveness.

At large, formal dinners, on the order of banquets, it would be
impossible for all guests to include a host or hostess in their
conversational groups from any and every part of the table; only those
guests seated near them can do this. But at small, informal dinners all
guests should, whenever possible, consider it their duty to direct much
of their conversation to their host and hostess. I have seen guests at
small dinners of no more than six or eight covers go through the
various courses of a three hours' dining, ignoring their host and
hostess in the entire table-talk, while conversing volubly with others.
There is something more due a host and hostess than mere greetings on
entering and leave-takings on departing. If the dinner-party is so large
that all guests cannot show them at the table the attention due them,
the delinquent ones can at least seek an opportunity in the
drawing-room, after guests have left the dining-room, to pay their host
and hostess the proper courtesy. Hosts should never be made to feel that
it is to their cook they owe their distinction, and to their table alone
that guests pay visits.

To say that the dominant note in table-talk should be light and humorous
is going too far; but conversation between dinner-companions should tend
strongly to the humorous, to the light, to the small change of ideas.
There should be an adroit intermixing of light and serious talk. I noted
once with keen interest a shrewd mingling of serious talk and small talk
at a dinner given to a distinguished German scientist.

A clever woman of my acquaintance found herself the one selected to
entertain at table this foreigner and scholar. When she was presented in
the drawing-room to the eminent man who was to take her in to dinner,
her hostess opened the conversation by informing the noted guest that
his new acquaintance, just that morning, had had conferred upon her the
degree of doctor of philosophy, which was the reason she had been
assigned as dinner-companion to so profound a man. The foreigner
followed the conversational cue, recounting to his companion his
observations on the number of American women seeking higher education,
_et cetera_. Such a conversational situation was little conducive to
small talk; but on the way from the drawing-room to the dining-table,
this clever woman directed the talk into light vein by assuring the
scholar and diplomat that there was nothing dangerous about her even if
she did possess a university degree; that she would neither bite nor
philosophize on all occasions; that she was quite as full of life and
frolic as if she had never seen a university. You can imagine the effect
of this vivacity upon the profoundest of men, and you can see how this
clever woman's ability at small talk made a comrade of a notable
academician. As the dinner progressed the talk between these two wavered
from jest to earnest in a most charming manner. Apropos of a late book
on some serious subject not expurgated for babes and sucklings, but
written for thinking men and women, the German scientist asked if he
might present his companion with a copy, provided he promised to glue
carefully together the pages unfit for frolicking feminine minds. Two
days later she received the book with some of the margins pasted--which
pages, of course, were the first ones she read.

When making an attempt to sparkle in small talk, dinner-guests should
remember that the line of demarcation between light talk and buffoonery
may become dangerously delicate. One can talk lightly, but nicely; while
buffoonery is just what the lexicographers define it to be: "Amusing
others by clownish tricks and by commonplace pleasantries." Gentle
dulness ever loved a joke; and the fact that very often humorists, paid
so highly in literature to perform, will not play a single
conversational trick, is the best proof that they have the good sense
to vote their hosts and companions capable of being entertained by
something nobler than mere pleasantry. "When wit," says Sydney Smith,
"is combined with sense and information; when it is in the hands of one
who can use it and not abuse it (and one who can despise it); who can be
witty and something more than witty; who loves decency and good nature
ten thousand times better than wit,--wit is then a beautiful and
delightful part of conversation."

Opinions as to what good nature is would perhaps vary. "You may be
good-natured, sir," said Boswell to Doctor Johnson, "but you are not
good-humored." The speech of men and women is diverse and variously
characteristic. All people say "good morning," but no two of God's
creatures say it alike. Their words range from a grunt to gushing
exuberance; and one is as objectionable as the other. Even weighty
subjects can be talked about in tones of badinage and good breeding.
Plato in his wonderful conversations always gave his subject a fringe of
graceful wit, but beneath the delicate shell there was invariably a hard
nut to be cracked. If good nature above all is sincere, it will escape
being gushing. The hypocrisy which says, "My dear Mrs. So-and-so, I'm
perfectly delighted to see you; do sit right down on this bent pin!" is
not good nature; it is pure balderdash.

Thoughtful dinner-guests take pains not to monopolize the conversation.
They bring others of the company into their talk, giving them
opportunities of talking in their turn, and listening themselves while
they do so: "You, Mr. Brown, will agree with me in this"; or, "Mr.
Black, you have had more experience in such cases than I have; what is
your opinion?" The perfection of this quality of conversational charm
consists in that rare gift, the art of drawing others out, and is as
valuable and graceful in guests as in hosts.

The French have some dinner-table conventions which to us seem strange.
At any small dining of eight or ten people the talk is always supposed
to be general. The person who would try to begin a _tête-à-tête_
conversation with the guest sitting next to him at table would soon find
out his mistake. General conversation is as much a part of the repast as
the viands; and wo to the unwary mortals who, tempted by short
distances, start to chatter among themselves. A diner-out must be able
to hold his own in a conversation in which all sorts of distant, as well
as near, contributors take part. Of course, this implies small dinners;
but English-speaking people, even in small gatherings, do not attempt
general conversation to such an extent. They consider it a difficult
matter to accomplish the diagonal feat of addressing guests at too great
a distance.

Dinner-companions, however, should be alert to others of the
conversational group. A guest can as easily lead the talk into general
paths as can a host or hostess. Indeed, it is gracious for him to do
this, tho it is not his duty. The duty lies entirely with a host or
hostess. At any time through the dinner a guest can help to make
conversation general: If some one has just told in a low voice, to a
right-hand or left-hand neighbor alone, some clever impersonal thing, or
a good anecdote, or some interesting happening suitable to general
table-talk, the guest can get the attention of all present by addressing
some one at the furthest point of the table from him: "Mr. Snow, Miss
Frost has just told me something which will interest you, I know, and
perhaps all of us: Miss Frost, please tell Mr. Snow about," _et cetera_.
Miss Frost, then, speaking a little louder in order that Mr. Snow may
hear, engages the attention of the entire table. The moment any one
round the table thus invites the attention of the whole dinner-group,
dinner-companions should drop instantly their private chats and join in
whatever general talk may ensue on the topic generally introduced. The
thread of their _tête-à-tête_ conversation can be taken up later as the
general table-talk is suspended.

A narration or an anecdote should not be long drawn out. A dinner-guest,
or a host, or a hostess, is for the time being a conversationalist, not
a lecturer. It is the unwritten law of successful dinner-talk that no
one person round the table should keep the floor for more than a few
short sentences. The point in anecdotes should be brought out quickly,
and no happening of long duration should be recounted. A guest in
telling any experience can break his own narration up into conversation
by drawing into his talk, or recital, others who are interested in his
hobby or in his experience. Responses to toasts at banquets may be
somewhat longer than the individual speeches of a single person in
general table-talk; but any dinner-speaker knows that even his response
runs the risk of being spoiled if extended beyond a few minutes.

There are never-failing topics of interest and untold material out of
which to weave suitable dinner-talk, provided it is woven in the right
way. And this weaving of talk is an art in which one may become
proficient by giving it attention, just as one becomes the master of
any other art by taking thought and probing into underlying principles.
So in the art of talking well, even naturally fluent talkers need by
faithful pains to get beyond the point where they only happen to talk.
They need to attain that conscious power over conversational situations
which gives them precision and grace in adapting means to ends and a
fine discrimination in choosing among their resources.

A one-sided conversation between companions is deadly unless
discrimination is used in the matter of listening as well as talking.
For instance:

     _Mr. Cook_: "Don't you think the plan of building a great riverside
     drive a splendid one?"

     _Miss Brown_: "Yes."

     _Mr. Cook_: "The New York drive is one of the joys of life; it
     gives more unalloyed pleasure than anything I know of."

     _Miss Brown_: "Yes."

Unless under conditions suitable to listening and not to talking, Mr.
Cook might feel like saying to Miss Brown, as a bright young man once
said to a quiet, beautiful girl: "For heaven's sake, Miss Mary, say
something, even if you have to take it back." While it is true that
listening attentively is as valuable and necessary to thoroughly good
conversation as is talking one's self, good listening demands the same
discretion and discrimination that good talking requires. It is the
business of any supposedly good conversationalist to discern when and
why one must give one's companion over to soliloquy, and when and why
one must not do so.

The dining-room is both an arena in which talkers fight with words upon
a field of white damask, and a love-feast of discussion. If guests are
neither hatefully disputatious, nor hypocritically humble, if they are
generous, frank, natural, and wholly honest in word and mind, the
impression they make cannot help being agreeable.



     _The Amalgam for Combining Guests--Hosts' Talk During the Quarter
     of an Hour before Dinner--Seating Guests to Enhance
     Conversation--Number of Guests for the Best Conversation--Directing
     the Conversation at Dinner--Drawing Guests Out--Signaling for
     Conversation--General and_ Tête-à-tête _Conversation--Putting
     Strangers at Ease--Steering Talk Away from Offensive Topics--The
     Gracious Host and Hostess--An Ideal Dinner Party._



Sydney Smith, by all accounts a great master of the social art, said of
himself: "There is one talent I think I have to a remarkable degree:
there are substances in nature called amalgams, whose property it is to
combine incongruous materials. Now I am a moral amalgam, and have a
peculiar talent for mixing up human materials in society, however
repellent their natures." "And certainly," adds his biographer, "I have
seen a party composed of materials as ill-sorted as could possibly be
imagined, drawn out and attracted together, till at last you would
believe they had been born for each other."

But this rôle of moral amalgam is such a difficult one, it must be
performed with such tact and delicacy, that hostesses are justified in
employing whatever mechanical aids are at their command. In
dinner-giving, the first process of amalgamation is to select congenial
people. Dinners are very often flat failures conversationally because
guests are invited at random. Choosing the lesser of two evils, it is
better to run the risk of offending than to jeopardize the flow of talk
by inviting uncongenial people. When dinners are given to return
obligations it is not always easy to arrange profitably the inviting and
seating of guests. But the judgment displayed just here makes or mars a
dinner. A good way out of the difficulty, where hosts have obligations
to people of different tastes and interests, is to give a series of
dinners, and to send the invitations out at the same time. If Mrs. X. is
asked to dine with Mrs. Z. the evening following the dinner to which
Mrs. Z. has invited Mrs. Y., Mrs. X. is not offended.

To see that there is no failure of tact in seating guests should be the
next process of amalgamation. To get the best results a great deal of
care should be bestowed upon the mixture of this human salad. Guests
should be seated in such a way that neighbors at table will interest
each other; a brilliant guest should be placed where he may at least
snatch crumbs of intellectual comfort if his near companions, tho
talkative, are not conversationalists of the highest order; the
loquacious guest should be put next to the usually taciturn, provided he
is one who can be roused to conversation when thrown with talkable
people. Otherwise one of the hosts should devote himself to the business
of promoting talk with the uncommunicative but no less interesting
person. A wise hostess will consider this matter of seating guests in
connection with selecting and inviting them. It is, therefore, one of
the subordinate and purely mechanical processes of the real art of

If hosts forget nothing that will tempt a guest to his comfort, they
will remember above all the quarter of an hour before dinner, and will
begin the actual conquest of amalgamation while their friends are
assembling. By animation and cordiality they will put congenial guests
in conversation with each other, and will bring forth their mines of
things old and new, coining the ore into various sums, large and small,
as may be needed.

In some highly cultured circles, men and women are supposed to be
sufficiently educated and entertaining to require no literary or
childish aids to conversation. Every dinner-giver, however, knows the
device of suitable quotations, or original sayings, or clever limericks,
on place-cards, and the impetus they give to conversation between
dinner-companions as the guests are seated. But the responsibility of
host and hostess does not end when they thus furnish dinner-companions a
conversational cue. "This is why," as has been well said by Canon
Ainger, "a dinner party to be good for anything, beyond the mere
enjoyment of the menu, should be neither too large nor too small. Some
forgotten genius laid it down that the number should never be less than
that of the Graces, nor more than that of the Muses, and the latter half
of the epigram may be safely accepted. Ten as a maximum, eight for
perfection; for then conversation can be either dialog, or may spread
and become general, and the host or hostess has to direct no more than
can profitably be watched over. It is the dinner party of sixteen to
twenty that is so terrible a risk.... Good general conversation at table
among a few is now rather the exception, from the common habit of
crowding our rooms or our tables and getting rid of social obligations
as if they were commercial debts. Indeed many of our young people have
so seldom heard a general conversation that they grow up in the belief
that their only duty in society will be to talk to one man or woman at a
time. So serious are the results of the fashion of large dinner parties.
For really good society no dinner-table should be too large to exclude
general conversation." At a banquet of thirty or forty, for instance,
general talk is impossible. At such banquets toasts and responses take
the place of general talk; but at small dinners it is gracious for a
host and hostess to lead the conversation often into general paths.
Ignoring a host and hostess through the various courses of a three
hours' dining, which I have already mentioned, can as easily be the
fault of the host and hostess themselves as it can be due to inattention
on the part of guests. A host and hostess should no more ignore any one
guest than any one guest should ignore them; and if they sit at their
own table, as I have sometimes seen hosts and hostesses do, assuming no
different function in the conversation than if they were the most
thoughtless guest at the table of another, they cannot expect their own
guests to be anything but petrified, however instinctively social.

The conversational duty of a host and hostess is, therefore, to the
entire company of people assembled at their board, as well as especially
to their right-hand neighbors, the guests of honor. It is the express
function of a host and hostess to see that each guest takes active part
in general table-talk. Leading the talk into general paths and drawing
guests out thus become identical. It is this promoting of general
conversation which is the backbone of all good talk. Many people,
however, do not need to be drawn out. Mr. Mahaffy cautions: "Above all,
the particular guest of the occasion, or the person best known as a wit
or story-teller, should not be pressed or challenged at the outset, as
if he were manifestly exploited by the company." Such a guest can safely
be left quite to himself, unless he is a stranger. As drawing out the
people by whom one finds one's self surrounded in society will be
treated in a forthcoming essay, I shall not deal with it here further
than to tell how a famous pun of Charles Lamb's gave a thoughtful host
not only the means of swaying the conversation of the entire table to a
subject of universal interest, but as well the means of drawing out a
well-informed yet timid girl. Guiding his talk with his near neighbor
into a discussion of the _pros_ and _cons_ of punning, he attracted the
attention of all his guests by addressing some one at the further end of
the table: "Mr. White, we were speaking of punning as a form of wit, and
it reminded me that I have heard Miss Black, at your left, repeat a
clever pun of Charles Lamb's--a retort he made when some one accused him
of punning. Miss Black, can you give us that pun? I'm afraid I've
forgotten it." In order that her host and all the table might hear her
distinctly, Miss Black pitched her voice a little higher than in talk
with her near neighbors and responded quickly: "I'll try to remember it,

   "'If I were punish-ed
   For every pun I've shed,
   I should not have a puny shed
     Wherein to lay my punished head!'"

Thus Miss Black was not only drawn out, she was also drawn _into_ the
conversation and became the center of an extended general discussion on
the very impersonal and interesting subject of punning. As the talk on
punning diverged, the conversation gradually fell back into private
chats between dinner-companions.

A host or hostess will know intuitively when the conversation has
remained _tête-à-tête_ long enough, and will once more make it general.
When guests pay due attention to their host and hostess, the talk will
naturally be carried into general channels, especially where guests are
seated a little distance away. Even in general conversation a good
story, if short and crisp, is no doubt a good thing; but when either a
host or a guest does nothing but "anecdote" from the soup to the coffee,
story-telling becomes tiresome. Anecdotes should not be dragged in by
the neck, but should come naturally as the talk about many different
subjects may suggest them.

It is the duty of the host and hostess, and certainly their pleasure, to
make conversational paths easy for any strangers in a strange land. It
does not follow that a host and hostess are always well acquainted with
all their guests. There are instances where they have never even met
some of them. An invitation is extended to the house-guest of a friend;
or some person of distinction temporarily in the vicinity is invited,
the formality of previous calls being waived for this reason or that.
Unless a hostess can feel perfectly safe in delegating to some one else
the entertaining of a stranger, it is wise to seat this guest as near to
herself as possible, even tho he is not made a guest of honor. She can
thus learn something about her new acquaintance and put the stranger on
an equal conversational footing with the guests who know each other

In their zeal to give their friends pleasure, a host or hostess often
tells a guest that he is to take a particularly brilliant woman in to
dinner, and the woman is informed that she is to be the neighbor of a
notably clever man. To one whose powers are brought out by being put on
his mettle this might prove the best sort of conversational tonic; on
the other hand it might be better tact to say that tho a certain person
has the reputation of being exceptionally clever, he is, in truth, as
natural as an old shoe; that all one has to do to entertain him is to
talk ordinarily about commonplace topics. In ninety-nine cases out of a
hundred this is so. Some one is responsible for the epigram: "A great
man always lives a great way off"; and it is true that when we come to
know really great people we find that they are as much interested as any
one else in the commonplaces of life. Indeed, the more intellectual
people are, the more the homely things of life interest them. When
Tennyson was once a passenger on a steamer crossing the English Channel,
some people who had been assigned to seats opposite him in the dining
saloon learned that their neighbor at table was the great poet. In a
flutter of interest they listened for the wisdom which would drop from
the distinguished man's mouth and heard the hearty words, "What fine
potatoes these are!" This particular point requires nice discernment on
the part of host and hostess; they should know when they may safely
impress one guest with the cleverness of the other, and when it would be
disastrous to do so. Suppose the consequence is that each guest waits
for the sparkling flow of wit from the other, and to the consternation
of the host and hostess there is profound silence between two really
interesting people on whose cleverness they had counted to make their
dinner a success!

It is also the province of a host and hostess tactfully to steer the
drift of general table-talk away from topics likely to offend the
sensibilities of any one guest. Hosts owe not only attention but
protection to every person whom they ask to their home, and it devolves
upon them to interpose and come to the rescue if a guest is disabled in
any way from doing himself any sort of conversational justice. Swaying
conversation round and over topics embarrassing to any guest requires
the utmost tact and delicacy on the part of a host and hostess; for in
keeping one guest from being wounded or embarrassed, the offender
himself must not be made to feel conscious of his misstep. Indeed he may
be, and usually is, quite unconscious of the effect his words are having
on those whom he does not know well. Any subject which is being handled
dangerously must be _juggled_ out of sight, and the determination to
juggle it must be concealed. Tho it is quite correct for one to say
one's self, "I beg pardon for changing the subject abruptly," nothing is
worse form than to say to another, "Change the subject," or, "Let us
change the subject." To do this is both rude and crude. Directing
conversation means leading talkers unconsciously to talk of something
else. Any guest, as well as a host or hostess, may graciously steer
conversation when it touches a subject some phase of which is likely to
offend sensitive and unsophisticated people. At a series of dinners
given to a circle of philosophic minds religious intolerance was largely
the subject of discussion. The circle, for the most part well known to
each other, was of liberal belief. A guest appeared among them, and it
was known only to one or two that this man was a sincere Catholic. As
the talk turned upon religious discussion, one of the guests so directed
the conversation as to bring out the information that the stranger was a
Catholic by faith and rearing. This was a very kind and appropriate
thing to do. It acquainted the hostess with a fact of which she was
ignorant; and it gave all present a feeling of security in whatever
they might say.

A hospitable host and hostess will not absorb the conversation at their
table. They will render the gracious service of furnishing a background
for the cleverness of others, rather than display unsparingly their own
brilliancy. Indeed, a man or woman does not have to be brilliant or
intellectual to succeed in this most gracious of social arts. The host
or hostess who possesses sympathy and tact will surpass in dinner-giving
the most brilliant person in the world who selfishly monopolizes
conversation at his own table. If guests cannot go away from a
dinner-table feeling better pleased with themselves, that campaign of
hospitality has been a failure. When the self-satisfaction on their
faces betrays the subtle art of the host and hostess in having convinced
all their guests that they have made themselves interesting, then the
acme of hospitality has been achieved. One of the most good-natured but
most inane of men was one day chuckling at having been royally diverted
at a dinner-party.

"He was at Mrs. X's," said some one.

"How do you know that?"

"Indeed! Don't I know her way? She'd make a raven go home rivaling the

To be able to make your guests better pleased with themselves is the
greatest of all social accomplishments.

"An ideal dinner party," says a famous London hostess, "resembles
nothing so much as a masterpiece of the jeweler's art in the center of
which is some crystalline gem in the form of a sparkling and sympathetic
hostess round whom the guests are arranged in an effective setting." It
would seem quite as necessary that a host prove a crystalline gem in
this masterpiece of the jeweler's art. To be signally successful at
dinner-giving, care to make the talk interesting is as necessary as care
in the preparation of viands. Really successful hosts and hostesses take
as much precaution against fatalities in conversation as against those
which offend the palate. While attending carefully to the polishing of
the crystal and to the preparing of the menu which will make their table
a delight, they remember that the intellect of their guests must be
satisfied no less than their eyes and their stomachs.



     _Its Deadening Effect on Conversation--Habitual
     Interruption--Nervous Interruption--Glib Talkers--Interrupting by
     Over-Accuracy--Interruptions Outside the
     Conversation-Circle--Children and Their Interruption--Good Talk
     at Table--Anecdotes of Children's Appreciation of Good
     Conversation--The Hostess Who Is "Mistress of Herself Tho China



Interruption, more surely than anything else, kills conversation. The
effusive talker who, in spite of his facility for words, is in no sense
a conversationalist, refuses to recognize the fact that conversation
involves a partnership; that in this company of joint interest each
party has a right to his turn in the conversational engagement. He
ignores his conversational partners; he breaks into their sentences with
his own speech before they have their words well out of their mouths. He
has grown so habitual in his interrupting that he rattles on
unconscious of the disgust he is producing in the mind of any
well-bred, discriminating conversationalist who hears him. The best of
talkers interrupt occasionally in conversation; but the unconscious,
rude interruption of the habitual interrupter, and the unintentional,
conscious interruption of the cultivated talker are easily discernible,
and are two very different things.

We are accustomed to think that children are the only offenders in
interrupting; but, shades of the French _salon_, the crimes of the
adults! The great pity about this positive phase of interrupting is that
all habitual interrupters are totally unconscious that they continually
break into the speeches of their conversers and literally knock their
very words back into their mouths. Robert Louis Stevenson pronounced
this eulogy over his friend, James Walter Ferrier: "He was the only man
I ever knew who did not habitually interrupt." Now, you who read this
may not believe that you are one of the violators of this first
commandment of good conversation, "thou shalt not interrupt"; but stop
to think what small chance you have of escape when only _one_
acquaintance of Stevenson's was acquitted of this crime. One must become
conscious of the fact that he continually interrupts before he can cease
interrupting. The unconsciousness is what constitutes the crime; for
conscious interruption ceases to be interruption. The moment a good
talker is aware of having broken into the speech of his converser, he
forestalls interruption by waiting to hear what was about to be said. He
instantly cuts off his own speech with the conventional courtesy-phrase,
"I beg your pardon," which is the same as saying, "Pardon me for seeming
to be unwilling to listen to you; I really am both willing and glad to
hear what you have to say." And he proves his willingness by waiting
until the other person can finish the thought he ventured upon. What
better proof that conversation is listening as well as talking?

Sheer, nervous inability to listen is responsible for one phase of
interruption to conversation. It is the interruption of the wandering
eye which tells that one's words have not been heard. "The person next
to you must be bored by my conversation, for it is going into one of
your ears and out of the other," said a talker rather testily to his
inattentive dinner-companion whose absent-minded and tardy replies had
been snapping the thread of the thought until it grew intolerable. She
was perhaps only a little less irritating than the man who became so
unconscious in the habit of inattention that on one occasion his
converser had scarcely finished when he began abstractedly: "Yes, very
odd, very odd," and told the identical anecdote all over again.

There is another phase of interrupting which proceeds from the jerky
talker whose remarks are not provoked by what his conversational partner
is saying, with observation and answer, affirmation and rejoinder, but
who waits breathlessly for a pause to jump in and tell some thought of
his own. Of this sort of talker Dean Swift wrote: "There are people
whose manners will not suffer them to interrupt you directly, but what
is almost as bad, will discover abundance of impatience, and lie upon
the watch until you have done, because they have started something in
their own thoughts, which they long to be delivered of. Meantime, they
are so far from regarding what passes that their imaginations are wholly
turned upon what they have in reserve, for fear it should slip out of
their memory; and thus they confine their invention, which might
otherwise range over a hundred things full as good, and that might be
much more naturally introduced." An anecdote or a remark will keep. We
are not under the necessity of begrudging every moment that shortens our
own innings; of interrupting our companion by our looks and voting him
an impediment to our own much better remarks.

A less objectionable phase of interrupting, because it as often springs
from kind thought as from arrogance, is that of the conversationalist so
anxious to prove his quickness of perception that he assumes to know
what you are going to say before you have finished your sentence in your
own mind, and to put an interpretation on your arguments before you are
done stating them. His interpretation is as often exactly the opposite
of your own as it is identical; and, right or wrong, the foisted-in
explanation serves only to interrupt the sequence of thought. As early
as 1832 a writer in the _New England Magazine_ waxed wroth to pugilistic
outburst against this form of interruption: "I have heard individuals
praised for this, as indicating a rapidity of mind which arrived at the
end before the other was half through. But I should feel as much
disposed to knock a man down who took my words out of my mouth, as one
who stole my money out of my pocket. Such a habit may be a credit to
one's powers, but not to one's modesty or good feeling. What is it but
saying, 'My dear sir, you are making a very bungling piece of work with
that sentence of yours; allow me to finish it for you in proper style.'"
Tho one is inclined to feel that this author could well have reserved
his verbal scourging for more irritating forms of impertinent
interruption, it is nevertheless true that people are more entirely
considerate who allow their conversational partners to finish their
statements without fear of being tript up.

It is only lack of discrimination on the part of glib talkers to suppose
that those who express themselves more deliberately are less interesting
in conversation. The pig is one of the most rapidly loquacious of
animals, yet no one would say that the pig is an attractive
conversationalist. Pope may have been slow in forming the mosaic of
symbols which express so superbly the fact that

   "Words are like leaves; and where they most abound
   Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found,"

but his deliberateness did not dim the wisdom, or interest, or beauty,
of his lines. Slow talkers, if allowed to express themselves in their
own way, only add to the attractiveness of any group. Why should we
enjoy characterization more in literature and in drama than in life?
"Good talking," says Stevenson, "is declarative of the man; it is
dramatic like an impromptu piece of acting where each should represent
himself to the greatest advantage; and that is the best kind of talk
where each speaker is most fully and candidly himself, and where, if you
should shift the speeches round from one to another, there would be the
greatest loss in significance and perspicuity."

The Gradgrinds of society who are always coming down upon us with some
horrible and unnecessary piece of fact are another form of interruption
to good conversation. They stop you to remind you that the accident
happened in Tremont Street, not in Boylston; and they suspend a
pertinent point in the air to inform you that it was Mr. Jones's eldest
sister, not his youngest, who was abroad at the time of the San
Francisco earthquake. If some one refers to an incident as having
occurred on the tenth of the month, they deem it necessary to stop the
talker because they happen to know that it was on the ninth. People are
often their own Gradgrinds, interrupting themselves in the midst of a
narration to correct some trivial mistake which has no bearing one way
or the other on what they are saying.

Many otherwise good talkers are at times afflicted with aphasia and lose
the simplest and most familiar word at just the crucial moment--the very
word which is necessary to the point they wish to make. This happens
more often with elderly people; and it was on such an occasion that I
heard a catchword fiend, a moderately young person, use her pet phrase
as a red lantern to stop better, if more halting, talk. "Mr. Black was
telling me to-day about Mr. White's being appointed to ---- what do you
call that office?" implored the dignified matron. "Just call it
anything, Mrs. Gray, a bandersnatch, or a buttonhook, or a
battering-ram," impertinently suggested the glib undergraduate who had
been applying these words to everybody and everything, and who continued
to do so until she had found a new catchword as the main substance of
her conversation. The infirmities of age, as well as the mellowed wisdom
of it, deserve the utmost consideration, especially from youth; and in
this instance deference in aiding the elderly woman to find her word
would have been more graceful than pleasantry, even if the pleasantry
were of a less spurious kind.

Conversation suffers from outside interruptions as much as from
interrupting directly within the conversational group. Bringing very
little children into grown-up company led Charles Lamb to propose the
health of Herod, King of the Jews! Society is no place for young
children; and if older children are permitted to be present they should
be led to listen attentively and to join the conversation modestly. If a
child ventures an opinion or asks a question concerning the topic he is
hearing discust, he should be welcomed into the conversation. His views
should, in this case, be given the same consideration, no matter how
immature, as the riper views of his elders; he should be made a
legitimate part of the conversational group. Either this, or he should
be sent entirely away. There are no half measures in a matter of this
sort. The parent's reiterated commands to "keep quiet," or "to be seen
and not heard," interrupt as much as the child's prattle. Furthermore,
many a child's natural aptitude for talking well has been crusht by
older people stifling every thought the youngster attempted to utter. A
bright young girl of my acquaintance was so supprest by her parents from
the age of seven to fifteen that she early acquired the habit of never
opening her mouth without first getting the consent of father's eyebrow,
or mother's. A child thus treated in youth grows up to be timid and
halting in speech; his individuality and spontaneity are smothered.
Either let the children talk, meanwhile teaching them _how_ to converse,
or send them off to themselves where they may at least express their
thoughts to citizens of their own age. The very best conversational
lesson that a child can be given is imparted when he is taught not to
interrupt; when he is made to understand that he must either talk
according to the niceties of thoroughly good conversation or must be
sent away.

It is often contended that children are out of place at a dining-table
where even tolerable conversation is supposed to be carried on. This
view is no doubt well taken regarding formal dinners; but round the
family board is the best place in the world to implant in children the
principles of good conversation and interesting table-talk. To this end
family differences and unpleasantnesses should be left behind when the
family goes to the table. Parents should insist, as far as possible,
that their children discuss at the dining-table only the pleasant and
interesting happenings of the day. "First of all," says Mr. Mahaffy,
"let me warn those who think it is not worth while taking trouble to
talk in their family circle, or who read the newspaper at meals, that
they are making a mistake which has far-reaching consequences. It is
nearly as bad as those convent schools or ladies' academies, where
either silence or a foreign tongue is imposed at meals. Whatever people
may think of the value of theory, there is no doubt whatever that
practise is necessary for conversation; and it is at home among those
who are intimate, and free in expressing their thoughts, that this
practise must be sought. It is thus, and thus only, that young people
can go out into the world properly provided with the only universal
introduction to society--agreeable speech and manner."

Trampling on the social and conversational rights of the young was some
time ago so well commented upon in _The Outlook_ that I transfer part of
the article to these pages. The editorial emphasized also the
educational advantages of good table-talk in the home: "There is no
educational opportunity in the home more important than the talk at
table. Children who have grown up in homes in which the talk ran on
large lines and touched all the great interests of life will agree that
nothing gave them greater pleasure or more genuine education.... Perhaps
one reason why some American children are aggressive and lacking in
respect is the frivolity of the talk that goes on in some American
families. If children are in the right atmosphere they will not be
intrusive or impertinent. Make place for their interests, their
questions, the problems of their experience; for there are young as well
as old perplexities. Encourage them to talk, and meet them more than
half-way by the utmost hospitality to the subjects that interest and
puzzle them. Give them serious attention; do not ridicule their
confusion of statement nor belittle their troubles.... Do not limit the
talk at table to the topics of childhood, but make it intelligible to
children. Some people make the mistake of 'talking down' to their
children; of turning the conversation at table into a kind of elaborate
'baby-talk'; not realizing that they are robbing their children of
hearing older people talk about the world in which they live. The child
is always looking ahead, peering curiously into the mysterious world
round him, hearing strange voices from it, getting wonderful glimpses
into it. At night when the murmur of voices comes upstairs, he hears in
it the sounds of a future full of great things.... It is not, therefore,
the child of six who sits at the table and listens; it is a human
spirit, eager, curious, wondering, surrounded by mysteries, silently
taking in what it does not understand to-day, but which will take
possession of it next year and become a torch to light it on its way.
It is through association with older people that these fructifying ideas
come to the child; it is through such talk that he finds the world he is
to possess.... The talk of the family ought not, therefore, to be
directed at him or shaped for him; but it ought never to forget him; it
ought to make a place for him."

Apropos of children's appreciation of good talk, this story is told of a
young son of one of the clever men of Chicago: Guests were present and
the boy sat quietly listening to the brilliant conversation of his
elders, when his father suggested to Paul that it was late and perhaps
he had better go to bed. "Please, father, let me stay," pleaded the
youngster, "I do so enjoy interesting conversation." Another and as deep
a childlike appreciation comes from the classic city of our American
Cambridge. The little daughter of one of its representative families
had lain awake for hours upstairs straining her ears to hear the
conversation from below. When her mother came into the little one's room
after her guests had gone, the tiny lady said plaintively, "Mother dear,
while I've been lying here all alone you were having such a liberal time
downstairs." Unconscious recognition of his just right to converse
occasionally with older people was exprest naïvely by the little son of
a prominent Atlanta family when visiting friends on a plantation. "I
like to stay here because you let me talk every day at the table,"
answered John, when his host asked him why he was pleased in the
country. "Don't they let you talk every day at home, John?" "Oh, when
father says 'give the kiddo a chance,' then they let me talk." This
appreciation of his host's welcoming him into the conversation was a
rare compliment from little John to his older friends and to their
interest in child-life.

Another external and demoralizing interruption to talk is poor
table-service. There can be no good conversation at table where the talk
is constantly interrupted by wordy instructions to servants. A hostess
who takes pride in the table-talk of her guests assures herself in
advance that the maid or the butler serving the table is well trained,
in order that no questions of servants can jeopardize the flow of
conversation. If anything makes it necessary for serving maid or butler
to confer with host or hostess, it should be done in an undertone so
that conversation is not interrupted. But no matter how quietly the
servant does this, the conversation _is_ interrupted by the mere fact
that the attention of the host or hostess is diverted for even a moment
from the subject being discust. In the home, as in the business office,
efficient help means efficient management. It is a reflection on any
hostess to have her table served so badly three hundred and sixty-five
days in the year that the service is an interruption to table-talk. If
she were capable herself, she would have a capable, well-trained maid or
butler. If a maid or butler could not be trained properly, her
capability would show itself in dismissing that servant and getting one
who could be trained. To the end that conversation will not be
interrupted, the "Russian" method of dining-table service is preferable
to all others, and is becoming as popular in America as in the rest of
the world.[A]

A host and hostess can themselves, by the very atmosphere they create,
become an unconscious element of interruption to table-talk. To insure
fluent conversation at table, hosts must be free from worry; they must
cultivate imperturbability; they must be able to ignore or smile at any
accident which might happen "in the best regulated family." There is
nothing more distasteful to guests than to observe that their host is
anxious lest the arrangements of the hostess miscarry, or that their
hostess is making herself quite wretched by a fear that the dishes will
not be prepared to perfection, or over the breaking of some choice bit
of crystal. At a dinner recently I saw the hostess nervous enough to
weep over an accident which demolished a treasured salad bowl; and the
result was that it took strong effort on the part of a self-sacrificing
and friendly guest to keep up the pleasant flow of talk. How much more
tactful and delightful was the manner in which another hostess treated a
similar situation. The guests were startled by a crash in the butler's
pantry, and every one knew from the tinkling sound that it was cut
glass. After a few words of instruction quietly given, the hostess
laughingly said, "I hope there is enough glass in reserve so that none
of you dear people will have to drink champagne from teacups." This was
not only a charming, informal way of smoothing out an awkward situation,
but it gave the poor butler the necessary confidence to finish serving
the dinner. Had the hostess been upset over the affair her agitation
would have been communicated to the servants; and instead of one mishap
there might have been several. A hostess should still "be mistress of
herself tho China fall." In dinner-giving, as in life, it is the part
of genius to turn disaster into advantage. "I was once at a
dinner-party," said an accomplisht diner-out, "apparently of undertakers
hired to mourn for the joints and birds in the dishes, when part of the
ceiling fell. From that moment the guests were as merry as crickets."

Interrupting within the conversational group is perhaps the most
insufferable of all impediments to rippling talk; and interruptions from
without are quite as intolerable. What pleasure is there in conversation
between two people, or among three or four, when the thought is
interrupted every other remark? Frequent references to subjects entirely
foreign to the topic under discussion give conversation much the same
jerky, sputtering ineffectualness as sticking a spigot momentarily in a
faucet prevents an even flow of water from a tank. People who have any
feeling for really good conversation do not allow needless hindrances to
destroy the continuity and joy of their intercourse with friends and
acquaintances. And people who do permit these interruptions are not
conversationalists; they are mere drivelers.


[Footnote A: The author, if addrest "Secretary for Mary Lavinia Greer
Conklin, Post Office Box 1239, Boston, Massachusetts," would be glad to
give information about the Russian method of serving, and would be
pleased, also, to answer questions and to correspond with readers
regarding any individual conversational situation in which they may find
themselves, provided a self-addrest and stamped envelop is enclosed for



     _Why Cultivating the Social Instinct Adds Strength to Business
     Persuasion--Secret of the Ability to Use Tactful and Vivid Words in
     Business--Essential Training Necessary to the Nice Use of
     Words--Business Success Depends upon Nicety and Tact More Than on
     Any Quality of Force._



There is an aspect of business words which has to do with social tact.
"The social tact of business words" sounds incongruous on first thought.
Business is largely force, to be sure; but a pleasing mien is often
powerful where force would fail. Training in social instinct and nicety
is more essential to a man's commercial interests than is visible on the
face of things. For instance:

     _Customer_ (entering store)--"I wish a tin of 'Cobra' boot polish,

     _Dealer_--"Sorry, madam, we do not stock 'Cobra,' as we are seldom
     asked for it. Do you wish polish for the class of shoes you are

To tell a customer abruptly, "We do not carry such-and-such a brand in
stock" has the effect of leading her immediately to turn to go. This is
not cordial, nor gracious, nor diplomatic; hence it is unbusiness-like.
Furthermore, to tell a customer that the brand she mentions is seldom
asked for is immediately to question her judgment. The dealer, in this
case, lost a chance to get attention on the part of his customer by
failing to infer, the moment he mentioned her shoes, that she wore a
good quality, had good taste, or common sense, or some such thing. His
reply could have been vastly improved by an exercise of the social
instinct. To answer her with some non-committal, tactful response would
open up cordial relations at once and afford the chance easily and
gracefully to lead the talk to another brand of polish.

_Dealer_--"Do you prefer 'Cobra' polish, madam? For high-grade shoes
such as you wear we find this brand more generally serviceable and

Telling expression, whether in business or in the drawing-room, depends
as much upon how one says a thing as upon what one says; as much upon
what one refrains from saying as upon what one does say.

What is the secret of the ability to put thought into tactful as well as
vivid words? Or is there a secret? There are those who invariably say
the right word in the right way. The question is: how have they found it
possible to do this; how have they learned; how have they brought the
faculty of expression to a perfected art? Or was this ability born in
them? Or, if there is a secret of proficiency, do the adroit managers
of words guard their secret carefully? And if so, why?

Piano artists, and violin artists, and canvas artists, and singing
artists, are uniformly proud of the persevering practise by which they
win success. Why should not ready writers and ready talkers be just as
proud of honest endeavor? Are they so vain of the praise of "natural
facility for expression" that they seldom acknowledge the steps of
progression by which they falteringly but tenaciously climb the ladder
of their attainment? A few great souls and masters of words have been
very honest about the ways and means by which they became skilful
phrase-builders. Robert Louis Stevenson, as perfect in his talk as in
his written expression, said of himself: "Tho considered an idler at
school, I was always busy on my own private ends, which was to learn to
use words. I kept two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.
As I walked my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words.
As I sat by the roadside a penny version book would be in my hand, to
note down the features of the scene. Thus I lived with words. And what I
thus wrote was written consciously for practise. I had vowed that I
would learn to write; it was a proficiency that tempted me, and I
practised to acquire it. I worked in other ways also; often accompanied
my walks with dialogs and often exercised myself in writing down
conversations from memory. This was excellent, no doubt; but there was
perhaps more profit, as there was certainly more effort, in my secret
labors at home.[B] That is the way to learn expression. It was so Keats
learned, and there was never a finer temperament for literature than
Keats's; it was so, if we could trace it out, that all men have

What, then, is the essential training necessary to the nice handling of
words? The idea is quite general that an extensive vocabulary alone
makes thought flow exactly off the tip of one's tongue or pen. But is
this true? One should have a command of words, to be sure; one should
know more descriptive words than "awful, fierce, fine, charming"--terms
used in an unthinking way by people who do not concern themselves with
specific adjectives. But to know how to use a vocabulary is of even more
importance than to possess one. Indeed, merely to possess a vocabulary
without the ability to weave the words into accurate, characterized
designs on an effective background is ruinous to the success of any
talker or writer. To employ an extensive vocabulary riotously is worse
than to own none.

When the poet Keats wrote those well-known lines,

   "A thing of beauty is a joy forever
   Its loveliness increases,"

the first line stood originally:

   "A thing of beauty is a constant joy."

The poet knew that this was the thought he wanted, but he felt that it
had not the simple, virile swing he coveted. And so the line remained
for many months, "A thing of beauty is a constant joy," in spite of the
author's many attempted phrasings to improve it. Finally the simple word
"forever" came to him, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." Then he had
it, and he knew he had it--the essential note, the exact word. Certainly
the word "forever" was a part of Keats's vocabulary; he undoubtedly
knew this simple word. It was not the word, but adroitness in using it,
which made Keats's lines complete in their polished and natural

One of the world's worshiped piano virtuosi, who has quite as
intellectual a comprehension of words as of music, was asked by the
editor of a magazine to contribute biographical data and photographs for
an article on musical composers. The pianiste had published no
compositions, and the gracious answer swung readily into line: "If your
article is to deal exclusively with musical composers, I cannot be
included. I have never published any of my compositions because I feel
that they cannot add anything to my reputation as a pianiste, of which I
am----" Just here, as with Keats's line, vocabulary could not serve the
purpose. The pianiste could have said "of which I am proud." No, a
modest phrase must express honest pride--"my reputation as a pianiste
which I guard sedulously," or "defend zealously." No, this the exactness
and simplicity of true art rejected. Then came the simple, perfect
phrasing--"my reputation as a pianiste, of which I am somewhat jealous."
Unquestionably, as with Keats's word "forever," the word "jealous" was
perfectly familiar. It was not any one exceptional word which was
necessary, but a weaving of simple words--if I may be permitted the
expression. Here, in order to get the effect desired this master-mind
refrained from using a vocabulary. Words came readily enough; but the
tongue was in command of silence because pretentious words failed the
end. This perfection of expression is not a matter of vocabulary alone.
It is more than vocabulary; it is a grappling after the really subtle
and intellectual elements of the art of expression and persuasion.

Of what use all the delicately tinted tapestry threads in the world,
spread out before a tapestry-worker, if he does not possess the ability
to weave them into faultless designs, employing his colors sparingly
here, and lavishly there?

"One's tongue and pen should be in absolute command, whether for silence
or attack," says Stevenson again; and, more than on any quality of
force, business success depends upon that same nicety in the use of
words which selects the tactful expression, the modest and simple
phrase, in the drawing-room; the sort of nicety which is unobtrusive
exactness and delicacy; an artistry which in no way labels itself
skilful. But underneath all, the woof of the process is social
skill--that skill which is the ability to go back to unadorned first
principles with the dexterity of one who has acquired the power to do
the simple thing perfectly by having mastered the entire gamut of the


[Footnote B: Even Stevenson acknowledged secrecy in his earlier



     _Conversation Is Reciprocal--Good Conversationalists Cannot Talk to
     the Best Advantage without Confederates--As in Whist, It Is the
     Combination Which Effects What a Single Whist-playing Genius Cannot
     Accomplish--Good Conversation Does not Mark a Distinction among
     Subjects; It Denotes a Difference in Talkability--The Different
     Degrees of Talkability--Imperturbable Glibness Impedes Good
     Conversation--Ease with Which One May Improve One's Conversational



Good conversation, then, is like a well-played game of whist. Each has
to give and take; each has to deal regularly round to all the players;
to signal and respond to signals; to follow suit or to trump with
pleasantry or jest. And neither you yourself, nor any other of the
players, can win the game if even one refuses to be guided by its rules.
It is the combination which effects what a single whist-playing genius
could not accomplish. Good conversation, therefore, consists no more in
the thing communicated than in the manner of communicating; no more than
good whist consists entirely in playing the cards without recognizing
even one of the rules of the game. One cannot talk well about either
cabbages or kings with one whose attention wanders; with one who
delivers a sustained soliloquy, or lecture, and calls it conversation;
with one who refuses to enter into amicable discussion; or, when in,
does nothing but contradict flatly; with one who makes abrupt
transitions of thought every time he opens his mouth; with one, in
short, who has never attempted to discover even a few of the thousand
and one essential hindrances and aids to conversation. As David could
not walk as well when sheathed in Saul's armor, so even nimble minds
cannot do themselves justice when surrounded by people whose every
utterance is demoralizing to any orderly and stimulating exchange of

   "For wit is like a rest
   Held up at tennis, which men do the best
   With the best players,"

said Sir Foppling Flutter; and few would refuse to admit that fortunate
circumstances of companionship are as much a factor of good conversation
as is native cleverness. Satisfactory conversation does not depend upon
whether it is between those intellectually superior or inferior, or
between strangers or acquaintances; but upon whether, mentally superior
or inferior, known or unknown, each party to the conversation talks with
due recognition of its first principles. There are, to be sure,
different classes of talkers. There are those of the glory of the sun
and others of the glory of the moon. It is easy enough to catch the note
of the company in which one finds one's self; but the most entertaining
and captivating person in the world is petrified when he can not put his
finger on one confederate who understands the simplest mandates of his
art, whether talking badinage or wisdom. Without intelligent listeners,
the best talker is at sea; and any good conversationalist is defeated
when he is the only member of a crowd of interrupters who scream each
other down.

Conversation is essentially reciprocal, and when a good converser flings
out his ball of thought he knows just how the ball should come back to
him, and feels balked and defrauded if his partner is not even watching
to catch it, much less showing any intention of tossing it back on
precisely the right curve. "The habit of interruption," says Bagehot,
"is a symptom of mental deficiency; it proceeds from not knowing what is
going on in other people's minds." It is impossible for a good talker to
talk to any advantage with a companion who does not concern himself in
the least with anybody's mental processes--not even his own.

Given conversation which is marked by conformity to all its unwritten
precepts, "Men and women then range themselves," says Henry Thomas
Buckle, "into three classes or orders of intelligence. You can tell the
lowest class by their habit of talking about nothing else but persons;
the next by the fact that their habit is always to talk about things;
the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas." Discussion
is the most delightful of all conversation, if the company are _up to
it_; it is the highest type of talk, but suited only to the highest type
of individuals. Therefore, a person who in one circle might observe a
prudent silence may in another very properly be the chief talker. Highly
bred and cultured people have attained a certain unity of type, and are
interested in the same sort of conversation. "Talk depends so wholly on
our company," says Stevenson. "We should like to introduce Falstaff and
Mercutio, or Falstaff and Sir Toby; but Falstaff in talk with Cordelia
seems even painful. Most of us, by the Protean quality of man, can talk
to some degree with all; but the true talk that strikes out all the
slumbering best of us comes only with the peculiar brethren of our
spirits.... And hence, I suppose, it is that good talk most commonly
arises among friends. Talk is, indeed, both the scene and the instrument
of friendship."

On the whole, then, the very best social intercourse is possible only
when there is equality. Hazlitt in one of his delightful essays has said
that, "In general, wit shines only by reflection. You must take your cue
from your company--must rise as they rise, and sink as they fall. You
must see that your good things, your knowing allusions, are not flung
away, like the pearls in the adage. What a check it is to be asked a
foolish question; to find that the first principles are not understood!
You are thrown on your back immediately; the conversation is stopt like
a country-dance by those who do not know the figure. But when a set of
adepts, of _illuminati_, get about a question, it is worth while to hear
them talk."

If we are to have a rising generation of good talkers, by our own choice
and deliberate aim social intercourse should be freed from the
barbarisms which so often hamper it. Conversation at its highest is the
most delightful of intellectual stimulants; at its lowest the most
deadening to intellect. Better be as silent as a deaf-mute than to
indulge carelessly in imperturbable glibness which impedes rather than
encourages good conversation. Really clever people dislike to compete in
a race with talkers who rarely speak from the abundance of their hearts
and often from the emptiness of their heads. On the other hand, one can
easily imagine a sage like Emerson the victim of conceited prigs,
listening to their vapid conversational performances, and can readily
understand why he considered conversation between two congenial souls
the only really good talk.

Marked conversational powers are in some measure natural and in some
acquired; "and to maintain," says Mr. Mahaffy, "that they depend
entirely upon natural gifts is one of the commonest and most
widely-spread popular errors.... It is based on the mistake that art is
opposed to nature; that natural means _merely_ what is spontaneous and
unprepared, and artistic what is _manifestly_ studied and artificial....
Ask any child of five or six years old, anywhere over Europe, to draw
you the figure of a man, and it will always produce very much the same
kind of thing. You might therefore assert that this was the _natural_
way for a child to draw a man, and yet how remote from nature it is. If
one or two children out of a thousand made a fair attempt, you would
attribute this either to special genius or special training--and why?
because the child had really approached nature." Just as a child, either
with talent for drawing or without it, can draw a better picture of a
man after he has been trained, than before, so can those not endowed by
nature with ready speech polish and amend their natural defects. Neither
need there be artificiality or affectation in talk that is consciously
cultivated; no more indeed than it is affectation to eat with a fork
because one knows that it is preferable to eating with a knife.

The faculty of talking is too seldom regarded in the light of a talent
to be polished and variously improved. It is so freely employed in all
sorts of trivialities that, like the dyer's hand, it becomes subdued to
that it works in. Canon Ainger has declared positively that
"Conversation might be improved if only people would take pains and have
a few lessons." Nearly two hundred years before Canon Ainger came to
this decision, Dean Swift contended that "Conversation might be reduced
to perfection; for here we are only to avoid a multitude of errors,
which, altho a matter of some difficulty, may be in every man's power.
Therefore it seems that the truest way to understand conversation is to
know the faults and errors to which it is subject, and from thence every
man to form maxims to himself whereby it may be regulated, because it
requires few talents to which most men are not born, or at least may
not acquire, without any great genius or study. For nature has left
every man a capacity for being agreeable, tho not of shining in company;
and there are hundreds of people sufficiently qualified for both, who,
by a very few faults that they might correct in half an hour, are not so
much as tolerable." It is recorded of Lady Blessington by Lord Lennox in
his _Drafts on My Memory_ that in youth she did not give any promise of
the charms for which she was afterwards so conspicuous, and which, in
the first half of the nineteenth century, made Gore House in London
famous for its hospitality. A marriage at an early age to a man subject
to hereditary insanity was terminated by her husband's sudden death, and
in 1818 she married the Earl of Blessington. Everything goes to prove
that, in those few years during her first husband's life, she set
herself earnestly to cultivating charm of manner and the art of

Talking well is given so little serious consideration that the average
person, when he probes even slightly into the art, is as surprized as
was Molière's _bourgeois gentilhomme_ upon discovering that he had
spoken prose for forty years. Plato says: "Whosoever seeketh must know
that which he seeketh for in a general notion, else how shall he know it
when he hath found it?" And if what I write on this subject enables
readers to know for what they seek in good conversation, even in
abstract fashion, I shall be grateful. When all people cultivate the art
of conversation as assiduously as the notably good talkers of the world
have done, there will be a general feast of reason and flow of soul;
each will then say to the other, in Milton's words,

   "With thee conversing, I forget all time."


     _The Art of Drawing Others Out_

     _Conversation versus Mere Talk_

     _Following the Trend of the Conversation; Abrupt Transitions of

     _Listening in Conversation_

     _Some Common Errors in Making Introductions_

     _Raconteurs and Their Anecdotes_

     _Commonplaces of Conversation_

     _Subjects for Conversation; Book Talk_

     _The Give and Take of Talk_

     _Distinction Between Inquisitive Questioning and "Interest

     _Justifiable Limits of Wit, Raillery, and Humor_

     _The Use and Abuse of Slang_

     _Small Talk: Glib Talkers_

     _Adjusting "Shop" to the Time, the Place, and the Situation_

     _Giving and Accepting Compliments_

     _Joking and Jesting; Difference Between Pleasantry and Buffoonery_

     _A Softened Mode of Speech_

     _Brutal Frankness and Intellectual Honesty_

     _Thrusting and Parrying in Conversation_

     _The Value in Conversation of Knowing "Who's Who"_

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's note

The following changes have been made to the text:

Page 41: "it isn't so" changed to "It isn't so".

Page 65: "Tannhaüser" changed to "Tannhäuser".

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