Good Conversation Conclusion

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 Moliere'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."

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