Good conversation is more easily defined by what it is not than by what it is. Highly cultivated people are sometimes the most silent. Or, if they talk well, they are likely to talk too well to be good conversationalists but were nevertheless recorded as bores in conversation because they talked at people instead of talking with them.
In good conversation people give their charm, their gaiety, their humor, certainly—and their wisdom, if they will. 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.
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 addressed to him. 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 in.
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.
In discussion, far more than in lighter talk, decency as well as honor commands that each partner to the conversational game conform to the niceties and fairness of it. "I don't think so," "It isn't so," "I don't agree with you at all," are too flat and positive for true delicacy and refinement in conversation. "I have been inclined to think otherwise," "I should be pleased to hear your reasons," "Aren't you mistaken?" are more acceptable phrases with which to introduce dissent. In French society a discrepancy of views is always manifested by some courtesy-phrase, such as "Mais, ne pensez-vous pas" or "Je vous demande pardon"—the urbane substitutes for "No, you are wrong," "No, it isn't."
Benjamin Franklin, whose appreciation of the conversational art in France won completely the hearts of the French people, tells us in his autobiography that in later life he found it necessary to throw off habits acquired in youth: "I continued this positive method for some years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence: never using when I advanced anything that might possibly be disputed, the words 'certainly,' 'undoubtedly,' or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion, but rather say, 'it appears to me,' or 'I should think it so-and-so, for such-and-such a reason,' or 'I imagine it to be so,' or it is so 'if I am not mistaken.'"
People of a resentful turn of mind, whose every sentence is a wager, and who convert every word into a missile, are fit for polemical squabbles, but not for polite discussion. Those raucous persons who, when their opponents attempt to speak, cry out against it as a monstrous unfairness, are very well adapted to association with Kilkenny cats, but not with human beings. It is in order to vanquish by this means one who might otherwise outmatch them entirely that they thus seek to reduce their opponent to a mere interjection. "A man of culture," says Mr. Robert Waters, "is not intolerant of opposition. He frankly states his views on any given subject, without hesitating to say wherein he is ignorant or doubtful, and he is ready for correction and enlightenment wherever he finds it." Such a man never presses his hearers to accept his views; he not only tolerates but considers opposed opinions and listens attentively and respectfully to them. Hazlitt said of the charming discussion of Northcote, the painter: "He lends an ear to an observation as if you had brought him a piece of news, and enters into it with as much avidity and earnestness as if it interested only himself personally."
Quite as noticeable an element in good conversation is the attitude of the conversers to their subject. They never try to settle matters as if their decisions were the last court of appeal, and as if they must make frantic effort to carry their side of the question to victory. They discuss for the pleasure of discussing; not for the pleasure of vanquishing, or even of convincing. They discuss, merely; they do not debate, nor do they enter into controversy.
One of the stupidest of conversational sins is quibbling—talking insincerely, just for the sake of using words, and shifting the point at issue to some incidental, subordinate argument on which the decision does not at all depend. It is the intellectually honest person who sparkles in discussion. Another reason why discussion is waning is the disrespect we feel for great subjects. We only mention them, or hint at them; and this cannot lead to very brilliant talk. Though prattle and persiflage have their place in conversation, talkers of the highest order tire of continually encouraging chit-chat. "What a piece of business, monstrous! I have not read it; impossible to get a box at the opera for another fortnight; how do you like my dress? It was immensely admired yesterday at the B——s; how badly your cravat is tied! Did you know that —— lost heavily by the crash of Thursday? That dear man's death gave me a good fit of crying; do you travel this summer? Is Blank really a man of genius? It is incomprehensible; they married only two years ago." This sort of nimble talk is all very well; but because one likes syllabub occasionally is no proof that one is willing to discard meat entirely. Conversational topics can be too trivial for recreation as well as too serious; and even important subjects can be handled in a light way if necessary. In order that a great subject shall be a good topic of conversation, it must provoke an enthusiasm of belief or disbelief; people must have decided opinions one way or the other.
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. 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."
A less objectionable phase of interrupting, because it has 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.
Good conversation consists no more in the thing communicated than in the manner of communicating. 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 cannot 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.
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 is 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. 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 it is that good talk most commonly arises among friends. Talk is, indeed, both the scene and the instrument of friendship."
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.
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. 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 as to indulge carelessly in imperturbable glibness which impedes rather than encourages good conversation. Really clever people dislike competing in a race with talkers who rarely speak from the abundance of their hearts and often from the emptiness of their heads.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Conversation, by Mary Greer Conklin)