Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Polite Conversation

Here is a fascinating excerpt from a 1921 Book of Etiquette by Lillian Eichler. It is extremely quaint and obviously the relic from a distant era of world history. However, there are some points which might be useful. I wonder if the talking heads of news shows, constantly interrupting each other, have damaged our ability to carry on polite conversations.

It is strange, but true, that the spirit of conversation is often more important than the ideas expressed. This is especially true in social circles. Since speech is never used in solitude, we may take it for granted that the spoken word is an expression of the longing for human sympathy. Thus, it is a great accomplishment to be able to enter gently and agreeably into the moods and feelings of others, and to cultivate the feelings of sympathy and kindness.

Early in the seventeenth century the /causerie/ (chat) was highly esteemed in France. This was a meeting, at the Hotel Rambouillet, of the great nobles, literary people, and intelligent and brilliant women of France, gathered together for the definite purpose of conversation--of "chatting." Among these people, representing the highest intellectual class in France at the time, there developed the taste for daily talks-the tendency of which was toward profound, refined and elegant intercourse according to the standards of that day, and the criticisms offered by the members had a certain influence on the manners and literature of the epoch....

There is a certain charm in correct speech, a certain beauty in correct conversation. And it is well worth striving for.


Courtesy is the very foundation of all good conversation. Good speech consists as much in listening politely as in talking agreeably. Someone has said, very wisely, "A talker who monopolizes the conversation is by common consent insufferable, and a man who regulates his choice of topics by reference to what interests not his hearers but himself has yet to learn the alphabet of the art." To be agreeable in conversation, one must first learn the law of talking just enough, of listening politely while others speak, and of speaking of that in which one's companions are most interested....

One should never interrupt unless there is a good reason for it and then it should be done with apologies. It is not courteous to ask a great many questions and personal ones are always taboo. One should be careful not to use over and over and over again the same words and phrases and one should not fall in the habit of asking people to repeat their remarks. Argument should be avoided and contradicting is always discourteous. When it seems that a heated disagreement is about to ensue it is wise tactfully to direct the conversation into other channels as soon as it can be done without too abrupt a turn, for to jerk the talk from one topic to another for the obvious purpose of "switching someone off the track" is in itself very rude.

Let your proverb be, "Talk well, but not too much."

Conversation should be lively without noise. It is not well-bred to be demonstrative in action while speaking, to talk loudly, or to laugh boisterously. Conversation should have less emphasis, and more quietness, more dignified calmness. Some of us are so eager, in our determination to be agreeable in conversation, to dominate the entire room with our voice, that we forget the laws of good conduct. And we wonder why people consider us bores....

Another mistake to avoid is rapid speaking. To talk slowly and deliberately, is to enhance the pleasure and beauty of the conversation. Rapidity in speech results in indistinctness, and indistinctness leads invariably to monotony.


How often, here in our own country, even in the most highly cultivated society, do we hear a man or woman carelessly interrupt the conversation of another, perhaps an older person, without so much as an apology! It is bad form, to say the least, but it is also distinctly rude. No person of good breeding will interrupt the conversation of another no matter how startling and remarkable an idea he may have. It will be just as startling and remarkable a few minutes later, and the speaker will have gained poise and confidence in the time that he waits for the chance to speak.

Whispering in company is another bad habit that must be avoided. The drawing-room or reception room is no place for personal secrets or hidden bits of gossip. The man or woman commits a serious breach in good conduct by drawing one or two persons aside and whispering something to them....

If you are forgetful, and somewhat shy in the company of others, it might be well to jot down and commit to memory any interesting bit of information or news that you feel would be worthy of repetition. It may be an interesting little story, or a clever repartee, or some amusing incident-but whatever it is, make the appeal general. It is
a mistake to talk only about those things that interest you; when Matthew Arnold was once asked what his favorite topic for conversation was, he answered, "That in which my companion is most interested."

Make that your ideal, and you can hardly help becoming an agreeable and pleasing conversationalist.


sc said...

The Greeks and Romans had elaborate rules on rhetoric. The Greeks began to codify the rules of rhetoric; the last great Roman rhetorician was Quintillian.

The idea was that there were rules to discourse, and that some techniques were acceptable to sway the crowd's opinion, whereas others weren't. The idea was that a gentleman - women didn't vote in Greece or Athens, nor did slaves - would not stoop to dishonest rhetorical devices, and if he did, his peers would catch on immediately.

Once upon a time, many if not most Catholic schools had societies devoted to the art of the learned debate; the Philodemic Society at Georgetown dates back to 1830.

Of course today, Fox News exemplifies the sophist that has mastered neither the art of clear thinking nor the art of gentlemanly discourse, but rather the questionable technique of appealing to the emotions of the howling mob.

Georgette said...

Great article, EMV. I see what you mean about the quaintness of its phrasing dating it, but its advice certainly still holds true. Kindness and sympathy, as well as courtesy and speaking distinctly yet not boisterously sure do take one a long way in relating with others. I'd also add humility, as well--especially the ability to acknowledge when one cannot contribute anything of interest to the topic being discussed! I think we've all had our encounters with the "Cliffs" (remember him from the old TV show "Cheers"?) of this world to know how tiring a know-it-all can be!

Juliana said...

Thank you for this post. It is certainly relevant for today. I agree with Georgette that humility is important; it will definitely help one to remember these important rules of etiquette!

I would like to add your blog to my blogroll, as long as you don't mind. I've only posted a response once before (on Men and Manners) but I read your blog every day. I enjoy reading your blog so much that I would like to link to it. I very recently started my own blog (so recently that I've only put up a small introductory post).

I am not Catholic (I'm Eastern Orthodox), but my husband and I named our son Declan (after the Irish St. Declan of Ardmore). I have a link to St. Declan and monastic Ireland on my blog. I have especially enjoyed your posts on Ireland and St. Patrick!

God Bless,

elena maria vidal said...

sc, thank you for the historical background!

Yes, Georgette, I agree that humility is the key!

Juliana, I would be honored for you to add me to your blogroll!

Brantigny said...

I have lifted (!) the entire article to aid in the course I teach to inmates at this prison (Napoleon Hill). Chapter 3, is "How to creat an attractive personality."

How very timely!

Hope you don't mind.


elena maria vidal said...

Not at all!

Allison said...

I am a terrible interrupter. As always, excellent reading found here.

Thank you!