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What Conversation Is And What It Is Not
Good conversation is more easily defined by what it is not ...
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What Conversation Is And What It Is Not
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
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.
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