Interruption In Conversation





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 naively 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.





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