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

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.

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