Discussion Versus Controversy

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 Abbe de Saint-Real, 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 Abbe 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 tete-a-tete 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 tete-a-tete 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 Stael, 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 tete-a-tete 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 tete-a-tete 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 Stael 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.

PRESENT PERFECT TENSE Good Conversation Conclusion facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail