Art of Conversation
Essay # 1
The conversation has been called an “art” by Dean Swift and indeed the term is quite appropriate. For just as proficiency in an art comes from nature, so the power of conversation is more or less an inborn gift. There are no books that lay down rules for polite conversation; there is no school where it can be learned; and yet it is a talent as brilliant as music, a pastime as innocent as gardening, a recreation as profitable as reading.
Without conversation, human society would be a dull affair. Man is by nature gregarious—he loves the company of his fellow-men; indeed, the more refined and cultured he is the greater is the need he feels for society. The craving for his kind is such a strong natural desire that it is reckoned as one of the indispensable humans wants,—almost as one of the necessaries of life. It has been well said that a man who wishes to live entirely aloof from his fellow-men, must either be a saint or a savage. If man had not been in the habit of carrying on a conversation with his fellowmen, half of the keen zest of life would be gone. Our joys are doubled when communicated to others; our sorrows are lessened when imparted to others; so that conversation adds to the enjoyment of life both by intensifying our pleasures and by diminishing our pains.
The conversation is sometimes an admirable test of a man’s intelligence. A fellow who is in the habit of keeping an unmeaning reserve in society is generally detected to be a dull fool, though some half-witted knaves put on an affected gravity in order to pass for wise men. No man, however wise, can be so busy communing with his own weighty thoughts that he can hardly find time to drop a few words in social conversation when as a matter of fact he does find time to appear in society. The only difference between the wise and the foolish, so far as their attitude in society goes, is that the one talks little but does talk, the other does not either talk at all, or talks rank nonsense.
Compared with reading, the conversation will be found to be as delightful a recreation as that which the best books can afford to the best lover of books; while in one respect conversation perhaps excels reading, inasmuch as exclusive devotion to books makes a man conceited and pedantic, rigid and inflexible in his views, and addicted to monologue; whereas by a conversation a man comes to find that there are others who are his equal and perhaps his superior, and thus his conceit vanishes; he also learns to have respect or at least a consideration for the views of others; and also allows a chance to others to speak, without trying to engross the whole talk for himself.
There have been in England some renowned conservationists, who, though guilty of the above defects, did yet so charm their hearers that their names have been handed down to posterity as the greatest talkers of the world. Dr. Johnson was one of these. His talk was so interesting that it held his audience spellbound. His talk was so refined, so polished, so instructive that it has passed into literature. But when he talked, he generally monopolized the conversation, and yet nobody grudged it, because they listened passively as though under the influence of magic. The late Mr. Gladstone was also a gifted conversationalist, and he too, like Dr. Johnson, appropriated the whole talk, to the exclusion of other speakers. Lord Macaulay was perhaps the most brilliant of them all. Thackeray says of his conversation: “To remember the talk is to wonder: to think not only of the treasures he had in his memory, but of the trifles he had stored there, and could produce with equal readiness.” And the very same charge was brought by some contemporaries against Macaulay too—that he talked too much himself and gave little chance to others in the company.
Such men are, of course, exceptions: a man of genius is readily excused for faults which would be regarded as serious blemishes in ordinary people. Generally speaking, conversation, in order to be enjoyable, must be free and unrestrained. There can be no interesting conversation except between equals, equals, not necessarily in age, though that too would be again, but equals in understanding, in taste and habit, in views and opinions. Freedom of talk not only implies perfect liberty on the part of the entire company to give expression to whatever thoughts and feelings they like but also the absence of all restrictions in the matter of subjects. If the conversation runs continually in one channel, it soon ceases to be interesting: to be truly enjoyable it must possess variety.
The greatest use of conversation is, however, not to provide amusement, but to promote friendship. Friendship does not subsist on mere companionship: there must be mutual sympathy, and the best way of ensuring this is by a free exchange of views. A friend must open his heart to a friend before the two can properly be called by the name of a friend. The conversation is thus the first step in the formation of friendships, and the more the opportunities of talking the greater grows the friendship, until with our best friends comes our best talk. In fact, as an instrument of friendship, the conversation is more powerful than the conferring of actual favours.
The conversation is a faculty which can be as readily misused as it can be quickly acquired. The commonest faults are those of talkativeness and egotism. These two vices are intimately connected with each other: a man who talks too much is apt to talk a great deal about himself, and the man who is fond of talking about himself is naturally inclined to expatiate largely on his own virtues and talk an hour longer than on a less congenial subject. Talkativeness is not only a social fault but a pang of moral guilt,—at least it is the parent of vice it is the mother of lies. It is impossible that a man should talk much and not tell a lie; for even where a man is brief in his talk it is exceedingly hard for him to preserve the strict truth.
Egotism is perhaps less culpable than loquacity. It springs from a sense of vanity and is only a sign of poor intelligence; for such a man thinks that because he is of such mighty importance to himself, he is equally so to others, while the truth is that his affairs can have no more weight with other men than theirs can have with him.
It cannot be denied that, though open to a few errors, the art of conversation is most useful art, and deserves to be cultivated by every educated person. In India, however, conversation, as a social pastime, has scarcely an existence yet, even among the educated classes. There is no common spot in a town or city where educated Indians can meet together. “Indian clubs,” where they exist, are still in their infancy, and provide more scope for indoor and outdoor games, for newspapers and debates, than for conversation. An educated Indian gentleman, when he meets a European gentleman at the latter’s house or in some social gathering, finds himself in an awkward difficulty in trying to carry on a conversation with him. The reason is obvious: their interests, their pursuits, their tastes, all differ. The subjects of conversation are usually of a social nature, such as weddings, theatres, balls, sports, etc., and in these the Indian either takes no interest at all or finds himself excluded by his caste rules or some such impediment. The result is that conversation between Indian and European gentlemen must often necessarily degenerate either into hollow formalities, or into what is popularly called ‘shop’: or what frequently happens is that the European gentleman takes upon himself the role of the talker and the meek Indian contents himself with being a passive listener, sitting in stolid silence all the time, occasionally breaking into a faint smile at a joke which he happens to understand, or politely shaking his head in unqualified acceptance of whatever drops from his interlocutor’s lips, and finally coming away from his presence gratified at heart with the excellent monologue that he had heard and the still better dumb show that he had enacted. This is the general nature of “conversation,” as between an Indian and a European. Between two Indians, the conversation is of an entirely different nature, but neither can this kind of talk be properly called conversation. The talk is mostly about matters of business or domestic concern, or official routine, or sometimes even scandal. This is not the best use to which man can put the divine gift of speech. And yet it is, unfortunately, a fact that the general tone and tenor of the conversation in Indian society is very different from that which proceeds in European Circles.
Essay # 2
The conversation is an art. Of course, everyone, even the most ignorant, can converse with others; but to converse pleasantly, sensibly, and easily does not come naturally to many, but has to be learnt. It is, also, an art worth learning, because without it no one can be a social success.
To converse well we must learn and remember several things. First, we must remember that it takes at least two people to make conversation. This means that each one must learn not only to talk well but also to listen well. That is, we must not want to talk all the time, but must be willing to listen politely and with interest to what the other person wants to say. Some men can talk quite well if they are allowed to do all the talking, but get quite cross if anyone else wants to say a word or ask a question. Such men may be good preachers or lecturers, but they are very bad conversationalists.
Another point is that we must learn to talk about the subjects that interest the company in which we happen to be even though they may not interest us very much. If we are always talking about only a few subjects that interest us, we may become bores. And it is bad manners to be always forcing others to talk about things they care nothing about. At the same time, if we learn to talk in an interesting way, we can often lead the conversation into fresh subjects and so teach people about matters in which they took little interest before.
To become good talkers we must overcome any natural shyness that might prevent our expressing our own thoughts: and we must also avoid the opposite fault of insisting too much upon our own opinions, and of rudely contradicting others.
In a word, the secret of the art of conversation is the same as the secret of good manners-consideration for the feelings of others. While holding and defending our own opinions, we must keep our temper and avoid saying things that would hurt or shock our hearers.