Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation

While down on the Pennsylvania and Maryland border over the weekend, I visited with a friend who had been cleaning out her attic. She offered me the 1949 edition of The Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation, which she thought I might find interesting, amusing, and "blogworthy." Perusing The Course, I am struck by the quaintness of it, as well as being intrigued by the fact that learning how to converse in a lively and effective manner was once considered a matter of import. (Perhaps it should be again, to prevent gatherings from deteriorating into scandal-mongering gossip sessions.) The ability to participate in a conversation was considered vital for making one's way in business and society.

Being a skilled conversationalist, knowing when to speak and when to listen, how not to chatter and especially how not to be a bore, can be a way of showing love, kindness, and consideration for others. It can also be a means of changing minds and hearts, of communicating faith and beliefs.

Here are some excerpts from Lesson 1 of The Ethel Cotton Course.
Conversation is the great universal need of mankind. It is the bridge which you must cross to meet your fellow men....

Common courtesy demands speech! If you are a chronic listener, people are apt to think one or two things; either you are dull and have nothing to say, or that you are unfriendly or uninterested and do not care to express ideas. On the other hand, if you do exchange ideas you derive a keener enjoyment as well as an increased knowledge of human nature which may lead to a better understanding of life....

Don't chatter! Remember that "con" means "with." To converse is to talk "with" not "to" your friends. If you talk constantly and do not permit others to express themselves, you will gain nothing.... Listening is an essential part of social courtesy.

To avoid monopolizing the conversation, find a subject of interest to the other person. (This has special value for the silent person in that it tends to keep his mind off himself. If he is conscious of other people's interests, he is not likely to be conscious of himself.) You must realize that YOUR interests may not be of great moment to those with whom you are carrying on a conversation. Someone has said: "The man who constantly chatters cannot be a gentleman at heart."

Stay with the subject! If the conversation is to be interesting and valuable, the ideas exchanged must be worthwhile. Dull or, as it is often called, "rag-bag" conversation is usually caused either by the introduction of unnecessary details or irrelevant ideas, or by lack of intelligent selection and order. Conversation should never move in circles or jump from subject to subject. It should lead to an end or at least move forward....

A worthwhile topic should grow as different people add their ideas....After a well-ordered conversation, you will know more about the subject discussed than you did when it was introduced. You may even have changed your viewpoint or modified your opinion. You will have a broader knowledge if various angles have been presented. In a group of eight or less each person should be permitted, even encouraged, to express himself on the subject being discussed. No one should introduce a new subject until each one has had an opportunity to offer his opinion. This creates universal interest.

~ The Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation, Lesson No. 1.
Chicago: Conversation Studies, 1949, pp 2-5