The Art of Conversation: Timeless, Timely Do’s and Don’ts from 1866
By Maria Popova
Manners today are often seen as a quaint subject that belongs in Lord Chesterfield’s outlandish advice on the art of pleasing or Esquire‘s dated guide to dating. But in a culture where we regularly do online what we’d never do in person and behave offline in ways our grandparents wouldn’t have dared dream of even in their most defiant fantasies, there’s something to be said for the lost art of, if not “manners,” politeness and simple respect in communication. Though originally published in 1866, Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness (public library; public domain; free Kindle download) by Arthur Martine contains a treasure trove of timeless — and increasingly timely — pointers on the necessary art of living up to our social-animal destiny.
Martine contextualizes his mission:
Politeness has been defined as an “artificial good-nature;” but it would be better said that good-nature is natural politeness. It inspires us with an unremitting attention, both to please others and to avoid giving them offense. Its code is a ceremonial, agreed upon and established among mankind, to give each other external testimonies of friendship or respect. Politeness and etiquette form a sort of supplement to the law, which enables society to protect itself against offenses which the law cannot touch. For instance, the law cannot punish a man for habitually staring at people in an insolent and annoying manner, but etiquette can banish such an offender from the circles of good society, and fix upon him the brand of vulgarity. Etiquette consists in certain forms, ceremonies, and rules which the principle of politeness establishes and enforces for the regulation of the manners of men and women in their intercourse with each other.
The true aim of politeness, is to make those with whom you associate as well satisfied with themselves as possible. … Politeness is a sort of social benevolence, which avoids wounding the pride, or shocking the prejudices of those around you.
But he offers an important disclaimer:
[Politeness] must be cultivated, for the promptings of nature are eminently selfish, and courtesy and good-breeding are only attainable by effort and discipline. But even courtesy has limits where dignity should govern it, for when carried to excess, particularly in manner, it borders on sycophancy, which is almost as despicable as rudeness. To overburden people with attention; to render them uncomfortable with a prodigality of proffered services; to insist upon obligations which they do not desire, is not only to render yourself disagreeable, but contemptible.
Among Martine’s most timeless advice are his guidelines on the art of conversation, to which an entire section of the book is dedicated. He begins:
As the object of conversation is pleasure and improvement, those subjects only which are of universal interest can be made legitimate topics of pleasantry or discussion. And it is the gift of expressing thoughts and fancies in a quick, brilliant, and graceful manner on such topics,—of striking out new ideas, eliciting the views and opinions of others, of attaching the interest of all to the subject discussed, giving it, however trifling in itself, weight and importance in the estimation of the hearers, that constitutes the great talent for conversation. But this talent can never, we may safely aver, be displayed except in a good cause, and when conversation is carried on in a spirit of genuine charity and benevolence.
He offers a few pointers:
- Know when not to speak:
- Mind the rudeness of laconic response:
- Don’t be a self-righteous contrarian:
The power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse; and those who cannot preserve it, have really no business to speak. … The silence that, without any deferential air, listens with polite attention, is more flattering than compliments, and more frequently broken for the purpose of encouraging others to speak, than to display the listener’s own powers. This is the really eloquent silence. It requires great genius—more perhaps than speaking—and few are gifted with the talent…
Never give short or sharp answers in ordinary conversation, unless you aspire to gain distinction by mere rudeness; for they have in fact no merit, and are only uncivil. “I do not know,” “I cannot tell,” are the most harmless words possible, and may yet be rendered very offensive by the tone and manner in which they are pronounced. Never reply, in answer to a question like the following, “Did Mrs. Spitewell tell you how Miss Rosebud’s marriage was getting on?” “I did not ask.” It is almost like saying, I never ask impertinent questions, though you do; we learn plenty of things in the world without having first inquired about them. If you must say, you did not ask, say, that “you forgot to ask,” “neglected it,” or “did not think of it.” We can always be ordinarily civil, even if we cannot always be absolutely wise.
Leave quibbling of every kind to lawyers pleading at the bar for the life of a culprit; in society and conversation it is invariably out of place, unless when Laughter is going his merry round. At all other times it is a proof of bad breeding.
He then goes on to outline a cautionary taxonomy of “bores” and other ill-mannered conversation archetypes, diagnosing the specific downfall of each:
- The loud talker, who “silences a whole party by his sole power of lungs”:
- The excessive life-sharer, whom you no doubt know well from your Facebook timeline:
- The clever bore “takes up every idle speech, to show his wisdom at a cheap rate”:
- The indifferent or apathetic bore parades his inattentiveness in your face:
- The lingering bore who overstays his welcome:
- The hobby-riders, who sound like a broken record:
- The Malaprops, with their special gift for choosing the least appropriate topics of conversation:
- The egotistical bore, who stifles with his vanity:
All subjects are alike to him; he speaks on every topic with equal fluency, is never at a loss, quotes high authority for every assertion, and allows no one else to utter a word; he silences, without the least ceremony, every attempt at interruption, however cleverly managed. … Great, and especially loud and positive talkers, have been denounced by all writers on manners as shallow and superficial persons.
[This is] the man who gives an account of his dogs, horses, lands, books, and pictures. Whatever is his, must, he thinks, interest others; and listen they must, however resolutely they may attempt to change the current of his discourse.
Women of this class are sometimes too fond of praising their children. It is no doubt an amiable weakness; but I would still advise them to indulge as little as possible in the practice; for however dear the rosy-cheeked, curly-headed prattlers may be to them, the chances are, that others will vote the darlings to be great bores; you that have children, never speak of them in company.
The grave expounder of truisms belongs to this class. He cannot allow the simplest conversation to go on, without entering into proofs and details familiar to every child nine years of age; and the tenor of his discourse, however courteous in terms and manner, pays you the very indifferent compliment, of supposing that you have fallen from some other planet, in total and absolute ignorance of the most ordinary and every-day things connected with this little world of ours. All foreigners are particularly great at this style of boring.
If he refrains from the direct and absolute rudeness of yawning in your face, [he] shows, by short and drawling answers, given at fits and starts, and completely at variance with the object of the conversation, that he affects at least a total indifference to the party present, and to the subject of discourse. In society, the absent man is uncivil; he who affects to be so, is rude and vulgar. All persons who speak of their ailings, diseases, or bodily infirmities, are offensive bores. Subjects of this sort should be addressed to doctors, who are paid for listening to them, and to no one else. Bad taste is the failing of these bores.
[These are] the ladies and gentlemen who pay long visits, and who, meeting you at the door prepared to sally forth, keep you talking near the fire till the beauty of the day is passed; and then take their leave, “hoping they have not detained you.” Bad feeling or want of tact here predominates.
[They] constantly speak on the same eternal subject [and] bore you at all times and at all hours, whether you are in health or in sickness, in spirits or in sorrow, with the same endless topic, must not be overlooked in our list; though it is sufficient to denounce them. Their failing is occasioned by a total want of judgment.
A numerous and unhappy family [who] are constantly addressing the most unsuitable speeches to individuals or parties. To the blind they will speak of fine pictures and scenery; and will entertain a person in deep mourning with the anticipated pleasures of to-morrow’s ball. A total want of ordinary thought and observation, is the general cause of the Malaprop failing.
It is truly revolting, indeed, to approach the very Boa-constrictor of good society; the snake who comes upon us, not in the natural form of a huge, coarse, slow reptile, but Proteus-like, in a thousand different forms; though all displaying at the first sight the boa-bore, ready to slime over every subject of discourse with the vile saliva of selfish vanity. Pah! it is repulsive even to speak of the species, numerous, too, as the sands along the shore.
Martine adds an admonition against talking too much by way of Jonathan Swift, who observed:
Nothing is more generally exploded than the folly of talking too much; yet I rarely remember to have seen five people together, where some one among them hath not been predominant in that kind, to the great constraint and disgust of all the rest. But among such as deal in multitudes of words, none are comparable to the sober, deliberate talker, who proceedeth with much thought and caution, maketh his preface, brancheth out into several digressions, findeth a hint that putteth him in mind of another story, which he promises to tell you when this is done, cometh back regularly to his subject, cannot readily call to mind some person’s name, holdeth his head, complaineth of his memory; the whole company all this while in suspense; at last says, it is no matter, and so goes on. And to crown the business, it perhaps proveth at last a story the company has heard fifty times before, or at best some insipid adventure of the relater.
He then offers his own counsel on striking the right balance:
In conversation there must be, as in love and in war, some hazarding, some rattling on; nor need twenty falls affect you, so long as you take cheerfulness and good humor for your guides; but the careful and measured conversation just described is always, though perfectly correct, extremely dull and tedious — a vast blunder from first to last.
Martine quotes La Bruyère:
The great charm of conversation consists less in the display of one’s own wit and intelligence, than in the power to draw forth the resources of others; he who leaves you after a long conversation, pleased with himself and the part he has taken in the discourse, will be your warmest admirer. Men do not care to admire you, they wish you to be pleased with them; they do not seek for instruction or even amusement from your discourse, but they do wish you to be made acquainted with their talents and powers of conversation; and the true man of genius will delicately make all who come in contact with him feel the exquisite satisfaction of knowing that they have appeared to advantage.
No, no, let us not deceive ourselves; we never want subjects of conversation; but we often want the knowledge how to treat them; above all, how to bring them forward in a graceful and pleasing manner.
He then recapitulates the essence of the art of conversation:
Cheerfulness, unaffected cheerfulness, a sincere desire to please and be pleased, unchecked by any efforts to shine, are the qualities you must bring with you into society, if you wish to succeed in conversation. … a light and airy equanimity of temper,—that spirit which never rises to boisterousness, and never sinks to immovable dullness; that moves gracefully from “grave to gay, from serious to serene,” and by mere manner gives proof of a feeling heart and generous mind.
The chapter ends with some “general rules for conversation,” in which Martine presents a selection of do’s and don’ts. Here is a synthesis of his most salient points:
- Don’t correct your conversation partner or go on righteousness crusades. It is a sign of, at best, vanity or, at worst, sheer rudeness to force your opinion on another.
- Be selective. Novelist William Gibson has stressed the importance of a “personal micro-culture”. Susan Sontag wrote in her diary that she’s only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation. Artist Austin Kleon has astutely argued that “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.” Martine suggests the same is true of selecting your conversation company:
- Keep your commitments but give those who fail to keep theirs the benefit of the doubt:
- Be mindful of your audience and don’t parade your knowledge before those less learned:
- Omission isn’t lying, it’s politeness. (Here we might disagree with Martine.) Learn to evade.
- Say “yes” whenever possible. When you say “no,” do so firmly:
- Let your opinion change — advice particularly apt in today’s hasty culture where not having an opinion is considered an embarrassment; seek to understand rather than to be right, and don’t be a know-it-all:
- Don’t be pretentious and do away with affectation:
- Practice genuine humility and avoid arrogance:
Reproof is a medicine like mercury or opium; if it be improperly administered, with report either to the adviser or the advised, it will do harm instead of good.
If a man is telling that which is as old as the hills, or which you believe to be false, the better way is to let him go on. Why should you refuse a man the pleasure of believing that he is telling you something which you never heard before? Besides, by refusing to believe him, or by telling him that his story is old, you not only mortify him, but the whole company is made uneasy, and, by sympathy, share his mortification.
It is bad manners to satirize lawyers in the presence of lawyers, or doctors in the presence of one of that calling, and so of all the professions. Nor should you rail against bribery and corruption in the presence of politicians, (especially of a New York politician,) or members of Congress, as they will have good reason to suppose that you are hinting at them. It is the aim of politeness to leave the arena of social intercourse untainted with any severity of language, or bitterness of feeling.
Whenever the lady or gentleman with whom you are discussing a point, whether of love, war, science or politics, begins to sophisticate, drop the subject instantly. Your adversary either wants the ability to maintain his opinion,– and then it would be uncivil to press it — or he wants the still more useful ability to yield the point with unaffected grace and good-humor; or what is also possible, his vanity is in some way engaged in defending views on which he may probably have acted, so that to demolish his opinions is perhaps to reprove his conduct, and no well-bred man goes into society for the purpose of sermonizing.
To reprove with success, the following circumstances are necessary, viz.: mildness, secrecy, intimacy, and the esteem of the person you would reprove.
If you have been once in company with an idle person, it is enough. You need never go again. You have heard all he knows. And he has had no opportunity of learning anything new. For idle people make no improvements.
Don’t give your time to every superficial acquaintance: it is bestowing what is to you of inestimable worth, upon one who is not likely to be the better for it.
Be careful of your word, even in keeping the most trifling appointment. But do not blame another for a failure of that kind, till you have heard his excuse.
All local wits, all those whose jests are understood only within the range of their own circle or coterie, are decided objectionables in general society. It is the height of ill-breeding, in fact, to converse, or jest, on subjects that are not perfectly understood by the party at large; it is a species of rude mystification, as uncivil as whispering, or as speaking in language that may not be familiar to some of the party. But you must not make a fool of yourself, even if others show themselves deficient in good manners; and must not, like inflated simpletons, fancy yourself the object of every idle jest you do not understand, or of every laugh that chance may have called forth. Ladies and gentlemen feel that they are neither laughed at nor ridiculed.
In society, the object of conversation is of course entertainment and improvement, and it must, therefore, be adapted to the circle in which it is carried on, and must be neither too high nor too deep for the party at large, so that every one may contribute his share, just at his pleasure, and to the best of his ability.
A gentleman will, by all means, avoid showing his learning and accomplishments in the presence of ignorant and vulgar people, who can, by no possibility, understand or appreciate them. It is a pretty sure sign of bad breeding to set people to staring and feeling uncomfortable.
In a mixed company, never speak to your friend of a matter which the rest do not understand, unless it is something which you can explain to them, and which may be made interesting to the whole party.
Do not endeavor to shine in all companies. Leave room for your hearers to imagine something within you beyond all you have said.
Think like the wise; but talk like ordinary people. Never go out of the common road, but for somewhat.
Put yourself on the same level as the person to whom you speak, and under penalty of being considered a pedantic idiot, refrain from explaining any expression or word that you may use.
You need not tell all the truth, unless to those who have a right to know it all. But let all you tell be truth.
If a favor is asked of you, grant it, if you can. If not, refuse it in such a manner, as that one denial may be sufficient.
Fools pretend to foretell what will be the issue of things, and are laughed at for their awkward conjectures. Wise men, being aware of the uncertainty of human affairs, and having observed how small a matter often produces a great change, are modest in their conjectures.
Reflect upon the different appearances things make to you from what they did some years ago, and don’t imagine that your opinion will never alter, because you are extremely positive at present. Let the remembrance of your past changes of sentiment make you more flexible.
In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.
Give your opinion modestly, but freely; hear that of others with candor; and ever endeavor to find out, and to communicate truth.
It is an advantage to have concealed one’s opinion. For by that means you may change your judgment of things (which every wise man finds reason to do) and not be accused of fickleness.
Avoid the habit of employing French words in English conversation; it is extremely bad taste to be always using such expressions as ci-devant, soi-disant, en masse, couleur de rose, etc. Do not salute your acquaintances with bon jour, nor reply to every proposition, volontiers.
There is an affected humility more insufferable than downright pride, as hypocrisy is more abominable than libertinism. Take care that your virtues be genuine and unsophisticated.
If you can express yourself to be perfectly understood in ten words, never use a dozen. Go not about to prove, by a long series of reasoning, what all the world is ready to own.
You will please so much the less, if you go into company determined to shine. Let your conversation appear to rise out of thoughts suggested by the occasion, not strained or premeditated: nature always pleases: affectation is always odious.
Nothing is more nauseous than apparent self-sufficiency. For it shows the company two things, which are extremely disagreeable: that you have a high opinion of yourself, and that you have comparatively a mean opinion of them.
The modest man is seldom the object of envy.
If you are really a wit, remember that in conversation its true office consists more in finding it in others, than showing off a great deal of it yourself. He who goes out of your company pleased with himself is sure to be pleased with you.
Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness is a treat in its entirety. It’s available as a free download in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg, or as a cleaned up and formatted free Kindle book.
Public domain photographs via The Library of Congress
Published April 17, 2013