THE ART OF TALKING
The charm of conversation chiefly depends upon the
the participants. It is a great accomplishment to be able to enter
gently and agreeably into the moods of others, and to give way to them
with grace and readiness.
The spirit of conversation is oftentimes more important than
ideas expressed. What we are rather than what we say has the most
permanent influence upon those around us. Hence it is that where a
group of persons are met together in conversation, it is the inner life
of each which silently though none the less surely imparts tone and
character to the occasion.
It requires vigorous self-discipline so to cultivate the
kindness and sympathy that they are always in readiness for use. These
qualities are essential to agreeable and profitable intercourse, though
comparatively few people possess them.
Burke considered manners of more importance than laws. Sidney
described manners as the shadows of virtues. Dean Swift defined manners
as the art of putting at ease the people with whom we converse.
Chesterfield said manners should adorn knowledge in order to smooth its
way through the world. Emerson spoke of manners as composed of petty
We all recognize that a winning manner is made up of seemingly
insignificant courtesies, and of constant little attentions. A person
of charming manner is usually free from resentments, inquisitiveness,
Personality plays a large part in interesting conversation.
Precisely the same phraseology expressed by two different persons may
make two wholly different impressions, and all because of the
difference in the personalities of the speakers.
The daily mental life of a man indelibly impresses itself upon
face, where it can be unmistakably read by others. What a person is,
innately and habitually, unconsciously discloses itself in voice,
manner, and bearing. The world ultimately appraises a man at his true
The best type of talker is slow to express positive opinions,
sparing in criticism, and studiously avoids a tone or word of finality.
It has been well said that "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. Conversation is like
lawn-tennis, and requires alacrity in return at least as much as vigor
in service. A happy phrase, an unexpected collocation of words, a
habitual precision in the choice of terms, are rare and shining
ornaments of conversation, but they do not for an instant supply the
place of lively and interesting matter, and an excessive care for them
is apt to tell unfavorably on the substance of discourse."
When Lord Beaconsfield was talking his way into social fame,
said of him, "I might as well attempt to gather up the foam of the sea
as to convey an idea of the extraordinary language in which he clothed his
description. There were at least five words in every sentence that must
have been very much astonished at the use they were put to, and yet no
others apparently could so well have expressed his idea. He talked like
a racehorse approaching the winning-post—every muscle in action, and
the utmost energy of expression flung out into every burst."
We are told that Matthew Arnold combined all the
good conversation—politeness, vivacity, sympathy, interestedness,
geniality, a happy choice of words, and a never-failing humor. When he
was once asked what was his favorite topic for conversation, he
instantly answered, "That in which my companion is most interested."
Courtesy, it will be noted, is the fundamental basis of good
conversation. We must show habitual consideration and kindliness
towards others if we would attract them to us. Bluntness of manner is
no longer excused on the ground that the speaker is sincere and
outspoken. We expect and demand that our companion in conversation
should observe the recognized courtesies of speech.
There was a time when men and women indulged freely in satire,
irony, and repartee. They spoke their thoughts plainly and
unequivocally. There were no restraints imposed upon them by society,
hence it now appears to us that many things were said which might
better have been left unsaid. Self-restraint is nowadays one of the
cardinal virtues of good conversation.
The spirit of conversation is greatly changed. We are enjoined
keep the voice low, think before we speak, repress unseasonable
allusions, shun whatever may cause a jar or jolt in the minds of
others, be seldom prominent in conversation, and avoid all clashing of
opinion and collision of feeling.
Macaulay was fond of talking, but made the mistake of always
choosing a subject to suit himself and monopolizing the conversation.
He lectured rather than talked. His marvelous memory was perhaps his
greatest enemy, for though it enabled him to pour forth great masses of
facts, people listened to him helplessly rather than admiringly.
was a great talker, and talked much in protest of talking. No man broke
silence oftener than he to tell the world how great a curse is talking.
But he told it eloquently and therein was he justified. There was in
him too much vehement sternness, of hard Scotch granite, to make him a
pleasant talker in the popular sense. He was the evangelist of golden
silence, and though he did not apparently practice it himself, his
genius will never diminish.
Gladstone was unable to indulge in small talk. His mind was so
constantly occupied with great subjects that he spoke even to one
person as if addressing a meeting. It is said that in conversation with
Queen Victoria he would invariably choose weighty subjects, and though
she tried to make a digression, he would seize the first opportunity to
resume his original theme, always reinforced in volume and onrush by
Lord Morley is attractive though austere in conversation. He
dogmatizes nor obtrudes his own opinions. He is a master of
phrase-making. But although he talks well he never talks much.
story is told that at a recent dinner in London ten leading public men
were met together, when one suggested that each gentleman present
should write down on paper the name of the man he would specially
choose to be his companion on a walking tour. When the ten papers were
subsequently read aloud, each bore the name of Lord Morley.
Lord Rosebery is considered one of the most accomplished
the day. Deferential, natural, sympathetic, observant, well-informed,
he easily and unconsciously commands the attention of any group of men.
His voice is said to recommend what he utters, and a singularly refined
accent gives distinction to anything he says. He is a supreme example
of two great qualifications for effective talking: having something
worth while to say, and knowing how to say it.
Among distinguished Canadians, Sir Thomas White is one of the
interesting speakers. His versatile mind, and broad and varied
experience, enable him to converse with almost equal facility upon
politics, medicine, finance, law, science, art, literature, Dates, details, facts, figures, and
illustrations are at his
ready command. His manner is natural, courteous, and genial, but in
argumentation the whole man is so thoroughly aroused to earnestness and
intensity as almost to overwhelm an opponent. His greatest quality in
speaking is his manifest sincerity, and it is this particularly which
has ingratiated him in the hearts of his countrymen.
The Honorable Joseph H. Choate must certainly be reckoned
best conversationalists of our time. His manner, both in conversation
and in public speaking, is singularly gracious and winning. He is
unsurpassed as a story-teller. His fine taste, combined with long
experience as a public man, makes him an ideal after-dinner speaker.
Some eminent men try to mask their greatness when engaged in
conversation. They do not wear their feelings nor their greatness on
their sleeves. Some have an utter distaste for anything like personal
display. It is said of the late Henry James that a stranger might talk
to him for an entire evening without discovering his identity.
is an interesting account of an evening's conversation between Emerson
and Thoreau. When Thoreau returned home he wrote in his Journal:
"Talked, or tried to talk, with R.W.E. Lost my time, nay, almost my
identity. He, assuming a false opposition where there was no difference
of opinion, talked to the wind." Emerson's version of the conversation
was this: "It seemed as if Thoreau's first instinct on hearing a
proposition was to controvert it. That habit is chilling to the social
affections; it mars conversation."
Conversation offers daily opportunity for intellectual
high order. The reading of great books is desirable and indispensable
to education, but real culture comes through the additional training
one receives in conversation. The contact of mind with mind tends to
stimulate and develop thoughts which otherwise would probably remain
The culture of conversation is to be recommended not only for
own sake, but also as one of the best means of training in the art of
public speaking. Since the best form of platform address
today is simply conversation enlarged and elevated, it may almost be
assumed that to excel in one is to be proficient in the other.
Good conversation requires, among other things, mental
accuracy of statement, adequate vocabulary, facility of expression, and
an agreeable voice, and these qualities are most essential for
effective public speaking. Everyone, therefore, who aspires to speaking
before an audience of hundreds or thousands, will find his best
opportunity for preliminary training in everyday speech.
There is no greater affliction in modern life than the
talker. He talks incessantly. Presumably he talks in his sleep. Talking
is his constant exercise and recreation. He thrives on it. He lives for
talking's sake. He would languish if he were deprived of it for a
single day. His continuous practice in talking enables him easily to
outdistance all ordinary competitors. There is nothing which so
completely unnerves him as long periods of silence. He has the talking
habit in its most virulent form.
The trifling talker is equally objectionable. He talks much,
says little. He skims over the surface of things, and is timid of
anything deep or philosophical. He does not tarry at one subject. He
talks of the weather, clothes, plays, and sports. He puts little
meaning into what he says, because there is little meaning in what he
thinks. He cannot look at anything seriously. Nothing is of
great significance to him. He is in the class of featherweights.
The tedious talker is one without terminal facilities. He
right on with no idea of objective or destination. He rises to go, but
he does not go. He knows he ought to go, but he simply cannot. He has
something more to say. He keeps you standing half an hour. He talks a
while longer. He assures you he really must go. You tell him not to
hurry. He takes you at your word and sits down again. He talks some
more. He rises again. He does not know even now how to conclude. He has
no mental compass. He is a rudderless talker.
Probably the most obnoxious type is the tattling talker. He
has something startlingly personal to impart. It is a sacred secret for
your ear. He is a wholesale dealer in gossip. He fairly smacks his lips
as he relates the latest scandal. He is an expert embellisher. He
adroitly supplies missing details. He has nothing of interest in his
own life, since he lives wholly in the lives of others. He is a
frightful bore, but you cannot offend him. He is adamant.
is the tautological talker, or the human self-repeater. He goes over
the ground again and again lest you have missed something. He is very
fond of himself. He tells the same story not twice, but a dozen times.
"You may have heard this before," says he, "but it is so good that it
will bear repetition." He tries to disguise his poverty of thought in a
masquerade of ornate language. If he must repeat his words, he adds a
little emphasis, a flourishing gesture, or a spirit of nonchalance.
Again, there is the tenacious talker, who refuses to release
though you concede his arguments. When all others tacitly drop a
subject, he eagerly picks it up. He is reluctant to leave it. He would
put you in possession of his special knowledge. You may successfully
refute him, but he holds firmly to his own ideas. He is positive he is
right. He will prove it, too, if you will only listen. He knows that he
knows. You cannot convince him to the contrary, no indeed. He will talk
you so blind that at last you are unable to see any viewpoint clearly.
A recognized type is the tactless talker. He says the
in the right way, and the right thing in the wrong way. He is impulsive
and unguarded. He reaches hasty conclusions. He confuses his
tactlessness with cleverness. He is awkward and blundering. His
indifference to the rights and feelings of others is his greatest
enemy. He is a stranger to discretion. He speaks first, and thinks
afterwards. He may have regrets, but not resolutions. He is often
tolerated, but seldom esteemed.
The temperamental talker is one of the greatest of
He deals in superlatives. He views everything emotionally. He talks
feelingly of trifles, and ecstatically of friends. He gushes. He
flatters. To him everything is "wonderful," "prodigious," "superb,"
"gorgeous," "heavenly," "amazing," "indescribable," "overwhelming."
Extravagance and exaggeration permeate his most commonplace
observations. He is an incurable enthusiast.
The tantalizing talker is one who likes to contradict you. He
divides his attention between what you are saying and what he can
summon to oppose you. He dissents from your most ordinary observations.
His favorite phrases are, "I don't think so," "There is where you are
wrong," "I beg to differ," and "Not only that." Tell him it will be a
fine day, and he will declare that the signs indicate foul weather. Say
that the day is unpromising, and he will assure you it does not look
that way to him. He cavils at trifles. He disputes even when there is
To listen to the tortuous talker is a supreme test of
slowly winds his way in and out of a subject. He traverses by-paths,
allowing nothing to escape his unwearied eye. He goes a long way about,
but never tires of his circuitous journey. Ploddingly and perseveringly
he zigzags from one point to another. He alters his course as often as
the crooked way of his subject changes. He twists, turns, and diverges
without the slightest inconvenience to himself. He likes nothing better
than to trace out details. His talking disease is discursiveness.
The tranquil talker never hurries. He has all the time there
you are very busy he
will wait. He is uniformly moderate and polite. He is
a rare combination of oil, milk, and rose-water. He would not harm a
syllable of the English language. His talking has a soporific effect.
It acts as a lullaby. His speech is low and gentle. He never speaks an
ill-considered word. He chooses his words with measured caution. He is
what is known as a smooth talker.
The torpedo talker is of the rapid fire explosive variety. He
into a conversation. He scatters labials, dentals, and gutturals in all
directions. He is a war-time talker,—boom, burst, bang, roar, crash,
thud! He fills the air with vocal bullets and syllabic shrapnel. He is
trumpet-tongued, ear-splitting, deafening. He fires promiscuously at
all his hearers. He rends the skies asunder. He is nothing if not
vociferous, stentorian, lusty. He demolishes every idea in his way. He
is a Napoleon of words.
The tangled talker never gets anything quite straight. He
spoils the best story. He always begins at the wrong end. Despite your
protests of face and manner he talks on. He talks inopportunely. He becomes
inextricably confused. He is weak in statistics. He has no memory for
names or places. He lacks not fluency but accuracy. He is a twisted
The triumphant talker lays claim to the star part in any
conversation. He likes nothing better than to drive home his point and
then look about exultingly. He says gleefully, "I told you so." That he
can ever be wrong is inconceivable to him. He knows the facts since he
can readily manufacture them himself. He is self-satisfied, for in his
own opinion he has never lost an argument. He is a brave and bold
These, then, are some types of talking which we should not emulate.
Study the list carefully—the tiresome talker, the trifling talker, the
tedious talker, the tattling talker, the tautological talker, the
tenacious talker, the tactless talker, the temperamental talker, the
tantalizing talker, the tangled talker, the triumphant talker—and guard
yourself diligently against the faults which they represent. Talking
should always be a pleasure to the speaker and listener, never a bore.