[Book excerpt] The Art of Conversation

Over 80 years ago, an American scholar and author called Henry Thomas wrote a whole book chapter of advice on how to be a good conversationalist.

Mankind hasn’t changed in these 80 years, and every word of Thomas’ advice still holds true today. Not only that, but some of it is particularly suited to the fragmented written conversations we all engage in throught text and audio messaging — media whose artificiality makes us forget too easily that we must be civil, unselfish and sympathetic.

So, for the benefit of all of us who want to improve our conversation skills, here are some of the best passages from the chapter The Art of Conversation, in The Complete Book of English.

Conversation is a fine art. It is the art of exchanging thoughts. It is an art which even the least gifted of us can cultivate. Not everybody can paint or play music, but almost everybody can talk. Conversation, therefore, is that art which gives pleasure to the greatest number.

“To talk,” writes Robert Louis Stevenson, “is our chief business in this world; and talk is by far the most accessible of pleasures. It costs nothing in money; it is all profit; it completes our education, founds and fosters friendships, and can be enjoyed at any age and in almost every state of health.”


When our talk is over, each of us will go his way richer and wiser because of the conversation. For we have all had an opportunity to look into the other’s mind and to see the complex and subtle motives that regulate our thoughts. “It is only by understanding others,” said a great thinker, “that we can get our own hearts understood.”


But (…) it is necessary to guard against blind passion. A warm interest in your point of view — yes; but a flaming hatred against the other fellow’s point of view — certainly not. For then your conversation will degenerate into vituperation.

Let your conversation (…) be always constructive rather than destructive. (…) “The words of the pure,” we read in the sacred proverbs, “are words of pleasantness.”


Every conversation should be a duel of tongues. But it should be a bloodless duel. Let the wit flash back and forth, but let it not be a cutting wit. The most brilliant speakers are the most tolerant speakers. It is bad manners, and bad conversation, to hurt your opponent. A conversation is most witty when those who take part in it are ready to laugh with, rather than at, one another.


Gossip is the most universal, and perhaps the most interesting of all subjects for conversation. We are all of us, God bless us, born gossipers. Let us all try to be thoughtful gossipers. (…)


There is nothing so vicious as evil gossip. On the tongues of thoughtless people gossip may descend to slander, and heaven help those who are the victims of such slander. Evil gossip is the shop-talk of little minds. (…)

But on the other hand, good gossip is a delight. It pleases those who gossip, those who are gossiped to, and even those who are gossiped about. For, as André Maurois observes, “men so like to be talked about that a discussion of their faults delights them”. If you gossip about people, you make them feel important. (…) Good-natured gossip is indeed the best compliment you can pay to people. (…) If we talk about people, it is because they interest us. We discuss those about whom we try to learn something. The great novelist Henry James confessed that he was fond of gossip. “It is through it only,” he said, “that we learn about man.”


Be mentally quick (…) but not brutally quick. The man whose tongue hurts is a fool. There is no greater conversational bore than the fellow who degenerates into a mere “wise-cracker” when he tries to be a wit. We all know him, and we all try to avoid him.


Be civil. (…) He who is civil is thoughtful; he who is thoughtful is modest; he who is modest is charming. When you indulge in a conversation, remember not to overemphasize your own importance. There are others present who regard themselves as being equally important. Make them feel that you are aware of their worth.


Be unselfish. On the one hand, do not sit back merely as a listener. Join as a speaker. It is your duty to bear part of the burden of the conversation. Be silent when others have something important to say, and do not be afraid to speak when you yourself have something worthwhile to contribute. On the other hand, do not monopolize the conversation. A man who does this is always regarded as a bully, and what is worse, as an unmitigated bore.


Be sympathetic. Give a willing ear to your opponent’s point of view. Try to see the subject under discussion from his angle as well as from your own. The better you understand each other, the sooner you will reach a common ground of agreement and closer friendship.

Sympathize with others. Respect their points of view. Do not, however, become patronizing. We admire those who regard us as equals, but we despise those who presume to look down upon us. Sympathy includes a warm respect. Patronage includes a cold pity. None of us wants to be pitied.


Be tactful. Tact is that peculiar ability to come into contact with others in such a manner as not to hurt their feelings. (…) Above all, a tactful man will sense the dangerous moment when a pleasant conversation is likely to turn into an unpleasant argument, and he will switch the subject to something more palatable.

Cultivate tact. It is one of the rarest social virtues. But it is also one of the most valuable. If you are recognized as a tactful person, you will be a welcome guest wherever good conversations are held.


Image: The upper flights of the Spanish steps in Rome, by Julius Friedlænder. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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