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Full text of "Conversation Please A Clinic For Talkers"

131 896 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 





ft 

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CONVERSATION, 
PLEASE 

A CLINIC FOR TALKERS 



DRAWINGS BY 



rtxson 



THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY 
INDIANAPOLIS Publishers NEW YORK 



COPYRIGHT, 1939, BY LOREN CARROLL 



FIKST EDITION 



NOTE Some of the material in these chapters appeared in BSQUIIE 
and CORONET, and is published with their permission. 



PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 



PRINTttD AND OUND BY 
RAUNWOKTH * CO,, INC. 
UILDCR* Or BOOK* 
T. CONN. 



CONTENTS 

I WHY A CONVERSATION CLINIC? 9 

II BEHIND THE GARGOYLES l8 

HI CLAMPING DOWN TOE LIPS 27 

IV THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 4! 

V THOSE WHO KNOW HOW 67 

VI WALLFLOWERS 80 

VII THE QUEEN PASSED THE SUGAR 92 

vni BORES: THEIR CAUSE AND CURE 99 

IX THE PIG'S TAIL AND OTHER MATTERS 114 

X MONKEY WRENCHES IN THE MACHINERY I2O 

XI THREE SPADES AND BACH FUGUES 137 

XII THE ART OF SAYING GOOD-BY 143 

XIII MOTH-BALL VOCABULARY 152 

XIV MORTAL SINS 159 
XV VENIAL SINS 164 

XVI TARNISHED COLD 169 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 



Method is not less requisite in ordinary conversa- 
tion than in writing, provided a man would 
talk to make himself understood. 

AWHSON 



The Wisdom of Conversation ought not to be 
over much affected, but much less despised; for 
it hath not only an honour in itself, but an in- 
fluence also in, business and government. 

FRANCIS BACON 



CHAPTER ONE 



WHY A CONVERSATION CUNIC? 

CONVERSATION IS THE GREATEST WEAPON WE POSSESS IN OUR 
skirmish with the world. By our speech we attract 
others or repel them. We use it to buy and sell, woo and 
win, cajole others into doing our bidding. We use it for 
more sinister purposes, too, but let that pass. 

Most of us devote more time to talking than to any other 
activity. It brings us more pleasure than dancing, golfing, 
going to the movies, cutting coupons, eating mango salad. 
Conversation is not only a pleasure in itself but it keeps 
the memory o other pleasures alive. We would enjoy few 
activities if we were forbidden to talk about them after- 
ward. 

The number of words we speak every day runs up to a 
fabulous total. On an average most of us spout twenty-five 
or thirty thousand. On certain days, of course, we talk less 
than others. Take a woman about to ask her husband for 
a mink coat. Her output is likely to sink as low as 5,000 
a day till her husband says, "My dear, what's the matter?*' 
When he catches on, it reminds him of the time he didn't 
speak a word from breakfast till the hour he had fixed 
to ask the boss for a raise. 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

But a mink on the back or a raise in the pocket is 
likely to raise the daily total as high as 50,000 words. Other 
occasions that may lift the word output to a 50,000 level 
are operations, cocktail parties, trips to a psychoanalyst, a 
scandal in the neighborhood. 

Again, occupations and religious affiliations have some- 
thing to do with the daily wordage. Quakers talk less than 
members o Ethical Societies. (Try talking about ethics and 
see what a fancy total you can run up.) Night watchmen 
talk less than stenographers. And the most garrulous 
stenographer talks less than the woman who sits in a de- 
partment-store information booth: "Dog collars, madam, 
are seventh floor west, near the guppies." . . * 'What was it 
you wanted, sir? ... What? . . . No, there's nothing 
like that in the store!" 

Just as individuals fluctuate, so does the nation, A chart 
showing country-wide production would doubtless reveal 
that a week of rain, Eat-an-Apple-Week, Be-Kind-to-Babies- 
Week cuts the American output to 10,000 words a day per 
capita. A week of rain, as the industrial scientists have 
discovered, slows down everything. And if you have ever 
tried eating apples or being kind to babies for a whole 
week, you know how this can cut down the energies. But 
on the other side of the picture, the American total is 
probably quintupled during an election campaign or the 
football season. What the national total is after Hitler 
makes a speech or a movie star threatens to read her diary 
in court, only God and Dr. Gallup could tdUL 

10 



WHY A CONVERSATION CLINIC? 

At all events we spend an incredible part of our energy 
in conversation. If it is so important, why do we pay so 
little attention to it? Why are we willing to pay good 
money to learn golf, bridge, archery and beadwork, yet 
willing to let our conversation go hang? 

Many of us spend a great deal of time trying to "im- 
prove our minds." This is all very well, but what about 
improving our conversation at the same time? New ideas 
popping out of soggy, graceless conversation are like top- 
notch dinners served on county-jail china. 

Some of us set up economic and social progress as our 
chief purpose in life. Very well, but what about remember- 
ing this: our success depends on our relations with other 
human beings and our relations with other human beings 
depend on conversation. 

For most of us, conversation is our only means of self- 
expression. We actually perform certain futile acts such as 
climbing the Bunker Hill monument and swimming three 
hundred feet under water in order to boast about them 
later. Midway in some strenuous experience we often catch 
our minds forming the words that will communicate the 
experience to wife, husband or friend. Sometimes we catch 
ourselves taking note of some trivial episode, much too 
trivial for general conversation, in order to tell it to one 
particular friend who will savor it. This is the creative in- 
stinct at work in us. 

Fundamentally, conversation is an explosion of the ego. 
But unlike coal mines and gas tanks, which have been 

n 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

known to explode in the dead of night, the ego must 
have an audience. Thus we are always in the market for 
good listeners. 

The ego does not explode with the same force in con- 
versation as it does, for instance, in committing murder or 
falling in love. But whereas most of us go through life with- 
out committing murder and most of us fall in love at 
rarish intervals, we all of us talk every chance we get. 

Talking is a perfectly natural impulse, a perfectly legiti- 
mate way for the ego to work off excess steam. But if we 
are going to get the full good out of it, it should be done 
properly. If we are going to snare others into listening to us, 
we ought to give them a good time, too. Unlike tiger 
hunting or diplomacy, conversation is a game where fair 
play pays good dividends. 

Conversation is one of the most important elements in 
life. It is more important than our looks, our clothes, the 
size of our muscles, our sex appeal. We do all sorts of 
things about our looks even unto plastic surgery. We select 
our clothes with care (even to produce an effect of not 
selecting our clothes with care). We exercise our muscles 
hoping to look like Sandow. We ape Clark Gable and 
Claudette Colbert in our struggle for sex appeal. But we 
do nothing about our conversation. 

Because we possess the gift of speech most of us think 
we know everything there is to be known about conversa- 
tion. We merely open the mouth and think the matter 
will take care of itself. 

12 



WHY A CONVERSATION CLINIC? 

It doesn't. That is why parties are swarming with bores, 
why corporations save money by installing dictaphones, 
why salesmen see doors slammed in their faces, why bridge 
is a common vice, why the most careful of us sometimes 
see our friends looking like the Dying Gladiator. 

The most careful of us are usually shameless just after 
some big moment in our lives. The birth of litde Elmer, an 
operation for adenoids ("My dear, I thought I was smother- 
ing when they put that thing over my nose."), a trip to 
Tahiti, a win in the lottery, imprisonment in an elevator 
between the thirty-third and thirty-fourth floors any of 
these, we think, gives us the right to spill out fifteen or 
twenty thousand words right on the spot. 

To think we understand conversation because we possess 
the gift of speech is as silly as to think we could construct 
an angel cake because the wedding loot included one of 
those pronged tins, or we could play Brahms's Wdtz in 
A Major because Uncle Abel left us a violin. 

No, conversation does not take care of itself. It requires 
thought and technique. Hence this book a conversation 
clinic. Without getting grim about it, we will ask ourselves 
a few questions. Just why is conversation important? What 
should go into it? What should be left out? What makes 
a bad conversationalist? Why do so many people boggle 
it? Are there any rules to the game? Is there any differ- 
ence between business and social conversation? 

I we can answer these questions we can perhaps inake 
our tongue-wagging hours a litde happier. Not only hap- 

13 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

pier but more profitable. The good conversationalist (not 
merely the glib chatterbox) is usually successful in per- 
sonal and business relationships. When it comes to making 
friends and keeping them, getting jobs, selling things, he 
knows how to make words count. 

So our clinic will consider conversation as a social weapon 
and examine a technique for improving it. 

This is the positive side of the clinic. There is also a 
negative side. Throughout the book you'll probably recog- 
nize boners and the kind of people who make them. One 
type to be examined fully with all his works and pomps 
is the bore. There are two good reasons for putting the 
bore under a microscope. In the first place we need to 
strengthen our defenses against him. In the second, most of 
us have a few drops of bore blood in our veins and it be- 
hooves us to keep it under control. 

At first glance it would seem that the likely candidates 
for a conversation clinic would be the uneducated, the 
inarticulate, the socially delinquent. But this is not the case. 
The humbler breeds of mankind often acquit themselves 
admirably in conversation. Their speech fits their personali- 
ties. Their blunders, because they seem natural and in- 
evitable, are easily forgiven. 

It is the educated, the clever, the intelligent, who make 
a mess of conversation. 

The reason is not far to seek. The simple man with sim- 
ple ideas and prejudices, with an uncomplicated personality, 




"Oh, but I'm boring you? 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

expresses himself with a minimum of difficulty. The su- 
perior man with richer thoughts, a more richly inflected 
personality, finds self-expression no easy problem. What's 
more, he rarely faces the fact that conversation is a problem. 
His blunders stand out like an albino in the Congo. 

Whether this book has anything for you depends on 
how you answer these questions: 

DO YOU 

1. Study the wallpaper or your fingernails when others 
are talking? 

2. Spatter your conversation with eccentric words or 
with foreign words and phrases? 

3. Tell long anecdotes? 

4. Whisper at concerts? 

5. Say, "Oh, but I'm boring you!" 

6. Tell the plots of movies, plays, novels? 

7. Muscle in when others have the floor? 

8. Say, "You understand what I mean? 1 ' 

If you don't do any of these things or commit kindred 
faults, if your best friend has never jumped to his feet 
muttering, "Was that the phone?" during your story about 
Aunt Hortense and the naked burglar, if the hostess has 
never pounced on one of your commas with, "Oh, do have 
another mutton chop!" then this book is not for you. 
You are undoubtedly a brilliant conversationalist and read- 
ing it will only make you self-conscious about your virtues. 

On the other hand, if some of your best stories fall flat, 

16 



WHY A CONVERSATION CLINIC? 

if you wonder why the Joneses didn't telephone, i you 
take ten minutes to say good-by, or if you punctuate your 
talk and the talk of others with, "Oh, that reminds 
me . . ." then this is for you. No harm will come to you 
if you stay on to the end of this conversation clinic. 



CHAPTER TWO 



BEHIND THE GARGOYLES 

THIS IS A SHORT CHAPTER BUT THE MOST VITAL IN THE 
book. Unless we get the first principles of conversa- 
tion fixed in our minds, we shall never learn to exploit it 
to the full. 

What are the aims of conversation? In general, they are 
two: 

1. To make it express our own personality. 

2. To make it an instrument for improving our relations 
with others. 

The first is not so simple as it sounds. How often have 
we heard remarks like these: "I thought Jimmy was a smart 
aleck when I first met him." . . . "It took me months to 
see that Harry is a swell person." ... "I got Jenny all 
wrong, I thought she was a wretched little snob." 

These are ways of saying that Jimmy, Harry and Jenny 
are inept conversationalists. They use words, not to project 
their own personalities but to create unfavorable impres- 
sions. 

The good conversationalist has wits enough not to slander 
himself. He talks to make himself understood, not mis- 
understood. His conversation is natural but he does not 

18 



BEHIND THE GARGOYLES 

necessarily say the first thing that pops into his head. He 
has too much sense to simulate knowledge he does not 
possess. He expresses his own opinions, not other men's. 
He uses words that come natural to him, not phrases pil- 
fered from others. 

He has the courage to avow his prejudices. If he dislikes 
in-a-door beds and strawberry shortcake he does not pre- 
tend he read in a book "by a scientist" that one gives you 
lumbago and the other housemaid's knee. I he thinks ash 
trays pinched from restaurants are good household decora- 
tions he does not pretend he found this recommended 
in the catechism. He simply has his prejudices. 

Knowing that the shrewdest people make naive remarks, 
he tosses off his full quota without shame. If he happens 
to be a man who cannot catch onto women and their 
wiles, he is not at all confounded when his observations 
are considered naive. It never seems to do him any harm. 
Other men don't mind, and as for women, they seem to 
flock to gullible men. It probably gives them a greater 
sense of security. 

From time to time the good conversationalist is incon- 
sistent. When trapped, he admits it, perhaps quoting Emer- 
son's remark, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little 
minds." 

The good conversationalist does the best he can with the 
sense of humor God gave him. He does not belong to the 
"I don't know what I'd do if it weren't for my sense of 
humor" school of thought because he knows that in a per- 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

sonal crisis most of us lose our sense of humor in less time 
than it takes to split an infinitive. A sense of humor 
usually has to be cultivated. He feels he has done a good 
job if he learns to laugh at his own foibles. 

This is the basic character of a good conversationalist. 
But it is subject to modification. The first modification 
comes in adjustment to other people. 

Few of us are hermits by nature. We fear loneliness and 
to avoid it we are willing to pay a heavy price in com- 
promise and inconvenience. In our hours of desolation we 
instinctively seek out another human being who will offer 
us sympathy and support. "I don't want any sympathy," 
we say. We mean let's be honest with ourselves that 
we do want sympathy, subtly expressed. 

We like people who help us to think well of ourselves. 
We like those who make us feel stronger, cleverer than 
we are. We seek their company. We know that friendship 
is a reciprocal affair and unless we give something in re- 
turn, it withers and dies. Like the very devil we shun 
those who expose our weaknesses, who hold us up to scorn, 
who make biting remarks, who constantly scatter gloom. 

The good conversationalist knows all this. He knows 
his success in the world depends in large measure on 
other human beings. For the good of his own soul, to say 
nothing of such mundane matters as social and business 
relations, he must make friends and, having made th$$| 
hold them. 

This is the time to point out, perhaps, that there is a 

20 



BEHIND THE GARGOYLES 

difference between conversation with friends and conversa- 
tion with strangers. 

Our friends know a great deal about our character, pur- 
poses, abilities, moods. Whatever we say fits into a general 
background. We need not, therefore, be careful about 
the impression we are creating. If we make a ribald re- 
mark, our friends will not conclude we have a low porno- 
graphic mind. If we indulge in a bit of silliness they will 
not set us down for a buffoon. 

But with strangers we must proceed on different lines. 
One single flippant remark might get us a reputation for 
being a cheap cynic. One bookish allusion in a very un- 
bookish conversation might convince the others they are 
harboring a show-off. One burst of inopportune laughter 
might make an enemy. 

Consider the experience of a young man who would 
willingly put on sackcloth and ashes to serve as Exhibit A 
in this matter of inopportune laughter. At a luncheon he 
noticed that a woman across the table was getting confused 
between "llama" and "lama." The young man thought 
this was funny and let out a guffaw. The woman reddened 
and changed the subject. 

A few weeks later Exhibit A, representative of a textile 
firm, went to a large hotel hoping to place an order for 
brocades running into thousands of dollars. And there 
was the woman of the luncheon party enthroned like an 
empress behind one of those half-acre desks laden with 
telephones and push buttons. She was manager of the 

21 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

hotel. The man made his offer and the woman made her 
answer. The answer was wrapped up in north wind and 
tied with icicles. 

All this was petty o the woman, you might say, and 
quite rightly. She admitted it herself when a friend inter- 
vened. "He's a decent young fellow," said the friend. "You 
have a completely wrong idea of him." 

The woman answered, "He behaved like a smug, snide 
litde smart aleck. And I behaved like a child. If he ever 
comes around again I'll be specially nice to him. Unfor- 
tunately this order is placed." 

The order had gone to a dull old buzzard who didn't 
know the difference between a "llama" and a "lama" but 
did know enough not to laugh at the wrong time. 

All this is by way of saying that strangers, unlike friends, 
make deductions about us as they go along and all too 
quickly they hug their first impressions to their bosoms. So, 
i we have any discretion, we will maintain a suitable sim- 
plicity of manner with strangers and refrain from showing 
the gargoyles of our character till we are sure of an ap- 
preciative audience. 

Whether with friends or with strangers we ought to be 
quick to perceive the moods of others. We need not be 
expert psychologists to know that people can shift their 
moods very often in the course of a day. We ought to keep 
our ears and eyes open for prevailing moods. You don't 
talk about your new Packard to the man who has just 
lost his job. You don't tell jokes about cremation to a 

22 



BEHIND THE GARGOYLES 

man facing a dangerous operation. And you don't peddle 
the details about your gallstones at a bride's shower or a 
groom's bachelor dinner. 

To be a good conversationalist whether in a group or 
with one person you should know when to introduce a 
tone of levity, when to keep it serious, when nerves are 
frayed, when boisterousness is acceptable and so on. You 
should never rub fur the wrong way. Perceiving the moods 
of others and let us repeat, it takes no more than a pair 
of good ears and eyes is one of the keys to successful con- 
versation. 

Does this mean we should always accept the moods of 
others? By no means! We cannot sob away a whole morn- 
ing with the dowager who wants to tell us how much 
Towser's death has meant to her and how Roosevelt is 
taking the bread right out of her mouth. No more can 
we laugh away the afternoon with the washerwoman who 
appears with a ripe anthology of radio jokes, determined 
to spill them all. 

The main thing is to perceive the moods of others and 
then defer to them or depart from them with full determina- 
tion. 

Whether you talk or whether you listen, you must play 
a definite role in conversation. You must make people feel 
at ease. Every person present must be included in the 
talk. Sometimes a roundup glance is sufficient. Sometimes 
the shy must be encouraged to talk. If the encouragement 
only serves to make them more shy, they must be let alone. 

23 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

But if you constantly include them in your glance, they 
will feel part of the proceedings. 

Now the next step in making friends requires a little 
more magnanimity than merely bestowing smiling glances 
on wallflowers. You must make opportunities for others 
to shine. If Evelyn has just returned from Bali on a tramp 
steamer and has told you two or three hilarious episodes, 
make way for her to tell the best of them to the others. 
If she's the proper sort of person she'll be your ally for 
life. If she isn't, chuck her out. In the same way let every- 
one know that Emil is putting up a new bank in Whynot, 
North Carolina, that Ariadne won the national Eat-More 
Betel-Nuts jingle contest, that Alex is the only man who 
ever finished the Japanese translation of Mein Kampf. 
Laugh at the witty sallies o your friends, give them credit 
for their acute observations and if they possess a certain 
kind of wit, humor or repartee, wangle the conversation 
around so they can exercise it. Make yourself an attentive 
and appreciative audience. 

This brings us to the verge of flattery. As a matter of 
fact, let's have a word about flattery. In the first place it is 
a good idea to praise your friends f requently. But the praise 
should be uttered in an honest spirit. 

There's nothing meaner in the world than the man who 
admires mean things. The rogue who has the force of char- 
acter to perpetrate a program of evil is invariably a better 
man than his passive, skulking admirers. The man who 
flatters people for their vices and weaknesses is base. The 

24 



\ 




Mrs. Blenheim grow the best sweet pens in Omps, 
West Virginia. 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

man who flatters when he doesn't mean a word o it (and 
don't let the "success" books whitewash your conscience) 
is a shabby human being. 

But what about honest admiration? You must admire 
some things about your friends or they wouldn't be your 
friends. Mention their admirable qualities and mention 
them in the open. There is something pretty tenth-rate 
about people who run around whispering their compli- 
ments as if they were spreading scandal. It is not unusual 
to hear a remark like this: "I think Elizabeth's got the 
best taste in clothes of any woman I ever met but don't tell 
her I said so." 

A good conversationalist would tell Elizabeth straight 
off. He would also tell Johnny Winthrop he was the wit- 
tiest man in Arkansas and Billy McGregor that his Irish 
setters would make the setters in the Dublin dog show 
green with envy. 

Paying tribute where tribute is due is a legitimate means 
of giving others a good time. But only where tribute is due. 
It is not necessary to tell Mrs. Blenheim that her furniture 
is exquisite when it actually looks like the stage sets from 
"Diamond Lil." It happens that Mrs. Blenheim grows the 
best sweet peas in Omps, West Virginia.* Why not men- 
tion the sweet peas? 

Finally, to be a good conversationalist one should know 
when to talk and when to listen. The value of listening will 
be discussed in the next chapter. 

* And consider the pleasure of rolling Qmps, West Virginia, across your 
tongue. 

26 



CHAPTER THREE 



CLAMPING DOWN THE LIPS 

Know how to listen and you will profit 
even from those who talk badly. PLU- 
TARCH. 

THE FIRST REQUISITE OF A GOOD CONVERSATIONALIST IS AN 
ability to listen. Listening to another human being is 
one of the friendliest acts we can perform. It is a far finer 
act than sending flowers to hospitals and opening motorcar 
doors for aged ladies. Listening is the greatest tribute we 
can pay to another's personality. 

But everyone, you might say, listens. 

The answer is (sorry to be so brusque) that everyone does 
not listen* Few do. Listening does not mean merely closing 
the mouth and letting another talk. Dead-fish listening is 
common enough among those who are tired, those who 
have just rolled off 80,000 words and cannot think up an- 
other postscript. 

Real listening is something more positive. It means us- 
ing the eyes to regard the speaker. It means absorbing 
what he says. It does not mean looking at the wallpaper, 
studying one's fingernails or conspiring to break in at the 
next semicolon. 

If you think listening is an ordinary trait, try paying 

27 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

strict attention to the next person who addresses you. De- 
cide firmly to make no reply till thirty seconds after the 
final period. 

Listen to the tones of voice, watch the speaker's eyes, ob- 
serve how he puts his sentences together, his choice of 
words, the cogency of his ideas, his sincerity or lack of it, 
his shrewdness or naivete. Whatever the obvious sense of 
the words, they also have overtones, undertones, implica- 
tions that reveal a great deal about the speaker. 

Perhaps the main interest in the talk is what the speaker 
left unsaid. An artful person might purposely leave a 
great deal unsaid. A guileless one might reveal more than 
he intended. 

In any case, how much of this do you take in? Nothing 
at all, of course, if you don't listen, or listen with only one 
ear. 

So, pay attention to the next person that addresses you. 
Follow as closely as if you intended to write it down after- 
ward. You will realize you are having a new experience. 
And from the face of the person opposite you, you will 
realize he is having a new experience, too. 

Let us take an example of not listening: 

John: My cousin, Dick, broke his leg in Angora. The 
doctors didn't set the bones properly and he had to go all 
the way to Vienna to get fixed up. He had to stay in the 
Vienna clinic six weeks. 

Anne: Uh, huh. A lot of terrible things can happen in 
places like that* A friend of mine had an experience in 

28 



CLAMPING DOWN THE LIPS 

Bolivia. She got bitten by some strange insect . * . (fifteen 
minutes' worth). 

Next day: 

Anne: John told me something that happened to his 
cousin . . . Fred ... is that it? Oh yes, Dick. He was 
traveling in the Orient, no, the Near East . . . Damascus 
. . . that's it. He got pleurisy and nearly died in a hospital. 
Then they took him to Vienna and the train ride nearly 
finished him. But now he's getting well. You can't get any 
medical attention in those places at all. 

Martha: Why, that's funny! That's not the story he 
told me at alL Why, he said that . . . 

Anne: Imagine! Everyone says he's a little flip with the 
truth but personally this is the first time I ever had any 
experience with it. 

Real listening is not easy. It requires concentration. 

Most people pay undivided attention to only the first 
few words of what a speaker has to say. Someone says, 
for instance: 

"I was out in the garden running down chipmunks when 
someone called to say a man was waiting to see me. It was 
a fellow from the insurance company who called to say 
Aunt Isabel had gone on the rampage and changed bene- 
ficiaries for the fifteenth time since January. The woman 
is simply bats. She . . ," 

As soon as he can, the average "listener" jumps in with 
something like this: 

29 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

"That reminds me of a story my Aunt Ella used to tell 
about . . *" 

Now let us pause for a moment and try to guess what 
this gifted conversationalist is going to contribute. He 
shouldn't have been reminded of anything, of course. He 
should have kept still until the speaker finished up the 
subject. But if he had to be reminded of something, logic 
would suggest it be about insurance, about the evils oi 
changing beneficiaries. But no! He listened to the first 
sentence and then caught the word "aunt." His mind ran 
ofi on a tangent. 

"Aunt Ella," he says blithely, "used to have a lot of pet 
chipmunks in a cage and one day a rattlesnake got into the 
garden and . . ." 

Enough! The interrupter never followed the conversa- 
tion at all. 

The active but undisciplined mind is constantly tempted 
to interrupt. Every word another man says suggests a 
witty reply, an allusion, an anecdote. He frames his sen- 
tences while the other man talks. 

The first step in listening is to clamp down the lips. This 
part is fairly easy. But to keep one faculty suppressed, the 
others alert, requires self-discipline. 

Once the habit is acquired, it pays immediate dividends. 
Good listeners pick up many a valuable or interesting piece 
of information. They learn something about human na- 
ture, human motives, human relations. Life for them is 

3 



CLAMPING DOWN THE LIPS 

more varied, more abundant, more colorful. They have the 
power to see life simultaneously from many angles. 

Good listeners are the only people who have real friends. 
They not only keep their friends but acquire new ones. 
Open, friendly eyes and appropriate answers are more po- 
tent social weapons than beauty or a scintillating flow of 
language. 

Those Who Won't 

Does the ability to listen indicate that one should always 
listen when someone else chooses to talk? It does not! A 
good listener retains full liberty to decide when, for whom 
and for how long he will open up his fcars. 

It is bad to get the reputation for being a sponge. Those 
who acquire such a reputation get no respect or considera- 
tion from the garrulous talker. 

Here again we should distinguish between friends and 
acquaintances. 

Our intimate friends have certain rights. If they chatter 
about intrinsically dull things such as their office routine, 
their golf scores, their bridge triumphs, we accept it and 
may even enjoy it because it fits into a pattern: we know 
their histories, their mentalities, their emotional reactions. 

If they are occasionally boring, we overlook it, knowing 
they will probably have similar occasions to forgive us. We 
cannot judge our friends as if they were radio entertainers. 

But we can and should exercise severer judgment on ac- 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

quaintances and strangers. We should never give them five- 
hour leases on our ears. 

How long we should listen to a stranger or acquaintance 
depends upon his attitude toward us. I we have listened and 
then discover when we open our mouth that the person 
opposite us drums his fingers on the table, interrupts, gazes 
into space, we know we have drawn a boor. 

There is only one thing to do : avoid the fellow, suppress 
him, treat him as rudely as possible. I we become the 
victim of boors and bores, we have only ourselves to blame. 

In conversation there is only one vice more degrading 
than talking toojnuch: it is listening too much. 

CASE HISTORY A 

Elinor M is a widow, aged 35. Her husband was a member 
of the U. S. consular service for twelve years. He had a 
small private income and so did Ehnor. But when they were 
living in Japan, Uruguay, Belgium and Gibraltar, they 
managed to spend everything they had. Elinor never re- 
gretted the splurging even when her husband died and 
she was obliged to find a job. She had seen many strange 
ports, learned to understand people, acquired an experience 
that was to be useful. 

She's now a travel adviser with an income that keeps her 
comfortably but not opulently in a Chicago apartment. 
She dresses well, finds money for going to the theater, 
buying books, entertaining her friends. 

Elinor is not beautiful. She's not a dazzling conversation- 
alist and if it were a question of finding arresting ideas, even 
her best friends would prefer a book by, say Dr. Alfred 



CLAMPING DOWN THE LIPS 

Rosenberg. But she has other attractions. In her ramblings 
around the world she has learned to spot people with 
spurious ideals and spurious enthusiasms. Her friends are 
a sturdy, comfortable lot, whose reactions are usually pre- 
dictable. They give life a certain solid aspect. 

While Elinor is never dazzling, she is never boring. Her 
topics are ordinary enough but she talks with quiet con- 
viction that implies she is sure of her audience. She is. 

She is my candidate for the world's best listener. Or, 
perhaps I should say, "selective listener." Although she 
spends more time in listening than talking, she refuses to 
put on the earphones for anyone who feels like babbling. 
Anyone who finds her a good audience has proved he is a 
good audience himself. 

In listening she doesn't strain her ears or eyes. She is 
quietly alert. She is sympathetic. A nervous speaker always 
finds reassurance in her eyes. Flighty people usually relax 
in her presence because her glance seems to say, "Take 
your time, I'll listen right up to the end." 

When she talks herself, Elinor always seems to pick a 
topic that will interest everyone present. Her glance travels 
from one person to another, lingering longest, perhaps, on 
the one who is likely to feel out of it. Moreover, her con- 
versation fits the mood of the majority. The Spanish war, 
for instance, happens to be her major interest at the mo- 
ment, but she would never dream of bringing it up unless 
the people around her had the leisure and the inclination 
for such a conversation. To tired, tense or scatterbrained 
people she might talk about silly advertising slogans or a 
college boy's ideas of seduction. 

Where did Elinor acquire this skill in making a con- 
versation fit any group, any mood? A matter of instinct? 
Someone asked her and got this answer: 

33 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

"It's not instinct at all just rudimentary observation. 
You can tell if your guests like your dinners by watching 
them. The same thing goes for conversation. I know more 
or less what my friends like to talk about. With strangers 
I dangle a number of subjects and wait to see which ones 
get bites." 

Elinor has such a long and exact memory that her friends 
don't take up much time with old prefaces to new stories. 
This memory of hers is one of the essential points of her 
friendships. Those who talk with her receive, consciously or 
unconsciously, a subtle sensation that life does have con- 
'tlmiity, that it is not a series of meaningless chats in smok- 
ing rooms or busses. 

If you see Elinor after a lapse of six months, she tells a 
great deal about what has happened to her. She expects 
you to do likewise. As a matter of fact, she helps it along 
with a series of questions: "Did you buy the car?" . . . 
"What happened to the stuttering gardener?" . . . "How 
did you like Alaska?'* 

You listen, she listens. Events and opinions are brought 
up to date. Life seems more supportable when it seems to 
have a pattern, 

CASE HISTORY B 

"Mary is such a marvelous conversationalist" 

A good many people say this and Mary A, herself, 
would agree. She trafficks in people and naturally con- 
versation is her chief stock-in-trade. 

Mary is now about forty. She has divorced one husband, 
got herself a good apartment in New York, equipped it 
with new-fashioned furniture and an old-fashioned cook, 
and has gone in for a career. 

34 



CLAMPING DOWN THE LIPS 

This career consists in introducing a certain kind of 
dress pattern, guaranteed to bring Paris fashions right into 
your own home. Merely lay out the tissue paper on a 
piece of cloth, snip, sew up the edges and you've got a 
Vionnet or Lanvin. Out of the proceeds Mary has bought 
an Utrillo, a gold canary cage and a mother-of-pearl tele- 
phone apparatus that pops out of the wall when you press 
a button. 

Mary is a dynamo of energy. She probably was a minor 
dynamo to begin with but people talked about it so much 
that her turbines are probably strong enough now to push 
the Queen Mary across the state of Wyoming, She uses 
her energy to run her business, drive a car, give dinners 
and cocktail parties, to dash (she never goes) to concerts 
and plays, to travel, to swim, to play bridge, to ride horses 
and to grind the pepper mill for those guests who don't 
know what it is.* On all her activities she has something 
to say. Too much, in fact. 

At one of the cocktail parties a dowager lorgnetted me 
into a corner and demanded in a peremptory tone, "Why 
do people come here?'* 

Bereft of my wits, forgetting to ask why she came, I 
stammered, "I think they like all the noise and confusion.'* 

The main point is that the customers are pretty numerous. 
They see a large living room, a dining room, and in sum- 
mer a terrace, all crowded with Mary's menagerie. There 
are usually minor prize fighters, rich loafers, newspaper 
people, an author or two, sleek young women who certainly 
never made their dresses with Mary's patterns, perhaps a 
fat bald-headed man who has made tubs of money intro- 
ducing a new kitchen gadget. 

* That's why she bought it. 

35 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

Mary receives at the door. If the guest is a woman, the 
greeting will be, "My dear, per-ect-ly ra-vish-ing! Where 
did you get it? It suits you mar-vel-ous-ly. Now come right 
over here. I want you to know . . ." 




"Why do people come here?" 



And if a man: "Darling! Where did you get that mar- 
vel-ous color? What, you haven't been away? It looks like 
months in Florida. Now right over here." 

If this were the end, all would be well. But it isn't. Mary 
runs her guests as if they were marionettes on wires. She 

36 



CLAMPING DOWN THE LIPS 

chatters to one, then to another. She breaks into all con- 
versations. She never listens to a single word. If two people 
off in a corner look content with each other's society, she 
separates them under her five-minute parking ordinance. 

She herself contributes tidbits about a new book, a new 
restaurant, what Lord Fulversham said at Cannes. Drinks 
are poured down unwilling throats, drinks are snatched 
from unwilling hands. Mary polices the parties with the 
ardor of a rookie cop. Everyone is befuddled, everyone in- 
clines to the notion he's having a howling good time. 

At her dinners Mary has an even better chance to keep 
everyone under her thumb. She calls it "keeping the ball 
rolling." This means chattering incessantly, interrupting 
others, and, of course, never listening. 

One of her avowed principles is, however: 

"Give everyone a chance to have his say." 

It works out like this: 

"Oh, I say, Marguerite, I hear you've signed a contract 
to make phonograph records . . ." 

Marguerite says, "Why, yes, I ..." 

Mary shuts off her current. "How wonderful! Congratu- 
lations. Now do look out for the royalties clause. Some- 
times they do you in. A friend of mine . . ." 

Marguerite has had her say. 

Mary turns to Captain Marchant. "I read your article in 
The Rostrum. You and Liddell Hart don't agree on de- 
fensive warfare. Now here's what I heard in England kst 
summer ..." 

It soon becomes apparent that Mary is no authority on 
infantry tactics, that the teacup tacticians in England were 
either pulling her leg, or were complete nitwits. Anyway, 
Captain Marchant has had his say. 

37 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

How, you may ask, does the woman escape being choked ? 

There are many reasons. 

Most of Mary's customers seem to assume, like Dr. John- 
son, that conversation is a conflict. The purpose is to keep 
talking and shut out the others. Mary wins and no one re- 
sents it. 

Mary is a ruthless egoist but shrewd enough to pay in 
some measure for what she gets. She provides good food 
and drink; most of the guests believe with Rose Macaulay 
that "an hour spent in consuming nourishment is seldom 
an hour wasted/' 

Mary often performs favors, bestows little gifts. 

She is an expert flatterer: "Alice, my dear, you've got 
a genius for discovering new perfumes." . . . "Allan's 
speaking voice reminds me of Leslie Howard's." 

The dupes, purring like cats over saucers of cream, never 
realize that the remarks were made merely to shut them 
up. 

Mary is invariably gay and radiant. This is genuine, not 
faked. It comes from a good digestion and a sated egoism. 
Her personality is probably a relief to many who spend 
their days with sneering bosses, sulky secretaries, over- 
bearing spouses. 

Sometimes there are deserters from the camp perverse 
people who feel that food is no compensation for a woman 
who never stops talking and has never been known to 
listen. Mary notices the desertions only briefly. 

There are plenty more coming up. Loads of people mean 
popularity. She refers to "my friends." She has no friends 
only a few hundred acquaintances who accept her invita- 
tions when they have nothing else to do. 

38 



CLAMPING DOWN THE LIPS 

CASE HISTORY C 

Philip R: "How are you?" 

Me: "Terrible! My mother-in-law burned down our 
house because I wouldn't buy Jimmy a pony. Jimmy is 
almost dead from scarlet fever. The mortgage people are 
foreclosing. The dentist says they'll all have to come out. 
The boss has been looking funny at me lately and to cap 
it all I just started making payments on an electric razor." 

Phil: "My God, that's tough, isn't it? I've had some 
tough luck lately, too. The maid walked on the fresh paint. 
But what the hell! You've got to take things in your stride. 
Say, what do you think, I started taking skating lessons 
from a pro/* 

This conversation never took place but it would if I ever 
told niy troubles to Phil. 

I've known him for ten years. We occasionally invite each 
other for dinner. I've spent week ends at his place in the 
country. I've never been bored for an instant. We have 
one thing in common : we both think Phil is devilishly en- 
tertaining. 

I know him better than Boswell knew Dr. Johnson. Not 
only the factual details of his biography but his whims, 
reactions, prejudices. Life has treated him well; he's usually 
gay and lighthearted. In moments of adversity he slumps 
into gloom but he's never sulky or disagreeable. 

Sometimes he says, "Blazes! I've been talking about my 
affairs for an hour and never asked you if you decided to 
go to China." 

He is referring to a critical decision in my life. My head 
is full of it and with any close friend I would want to dis- 
cuss it. But to Phil I say, "I haven't decided yet." He looks 
relieved that we're skipping my problems. 

39 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

I've watched Phil with other people. When they talk 
about themselves his eyes take on a misty, faraway look. 
He never even makes a pretense of listening but sometimes 
he smiles as if he's toying with his secret thoughts. At the 
first silence he takes the floor and talks about himself. 

Many are disgruntled with Phil. For myself, I have no 
complaint. He's made it clear that nothing I could say 
about myself could possibly interest him. We discuss his 
affairs or we find impersonal topics. This arrangement 
suits him and me. I have no desire to discuss my woes or 
triumphs. When I see Phil I expect to be amused. I am. 
No one else I have ever met can be so biographically en- 
tertaining. 

A room can hold, but one Kandinsky painting. A life 
can hold but one Phil. If I ever meet another 111 hold his 
head under water and recite "The Face on the Barroom 
Floor" one hundred times. 



40 



CHAPTER FOUR 



THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 

THE IDEA FOR A CONVERSATION CLINIC CAME, I THINK, FROM 
a certain advertisement that used to brighten up Ameri- 
can and English magazines* There was a picture of a man 
and woman, dressed in evening clothes, seated in the rear 
of a moving car. The man, middle-aged, something of the 
Sam Dodsworth type, looked bewildered and browbeaten. 
His wife, radiant and chiffony, was pouting. To find out 
what ailed her, you had to turn to the text. 

The first sentence told you they were returning from 
a dinner party where the conversation had turned on Balzac. 
You said to yourself, "Serves them right for going to din- 
ners where people talk about such things/' You made a 
movement to banish the page from your sight. But it was 
a good advertisement; the look of distress in the maa's 
eyes stayed your hand. You read on and discovered that 
the man was dejected because while all the others were 
contributing their bits on Balzac, he sat silent as a Trappist. 
He didn't know anything about Balzac. And now his wife 
was pouting because she had married a clod. 

The whole tragedy might have been averted, she was 
saying, if Jim had only bought Somebody-or-Other's Fifty- 

4* 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

Foot Shelf. Had he bought it and absorbed the contents, 
a few pages a night, instead o playing bridge or gabbling 
about golf, he might have been able to chirp up with the 
rest of them. 

Doubtless many readers were so impressed with the ad- 
vertisement that they filled in the coupon and prepared 
to leap into every breach in the conversation with un- 
digested facts about Balzac, the Hanging Gardens of 
Babylon, stained glass in Asturias, the boll weevil, Ma- 
havira's rule for dividing fractions, Louis XIV's mistresses, 
the annual rainfall of Bamaku, Catalonian primitives, the 
Gunz glaciation. 

The idea of all this erudition running around dinner 
tables is appalling, of course. It's enough to give you 105 
degrees of tizzy to reflect that even the veriest beginners 
with Somebody-or-Other's Fifty-Foot Shelf were expected 
to compass these subjects in a few nights of reading. The 
tougher customers were promised bigger triumphs. There 
are plenty of people ready to drag unsuitable subjects into 
conversation out of a genuine, if morbid, passion for 
schoolmastering; why encourage others to do so out of 
sheer bravado? This brings us to the subject of what to 
talk about. 

Finding a Subject 

Here are five suggestions for eliminating blank faces and 
muscle-bound smiles from all conversations: 



THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 

i. Adjust your topics to the people around you. 

A woman should not presume that her household prob- 
lems will interest a man. A man is not likely to interest a 
woman with his puts and calls. A non-bridge player is 
not likely to be enthralled by the epic of six clubs doubled 
and redoubled. It is .just likely that the chauffeur would 
be bored by a discussion of the Cezanne show. It takes the 
powers of a skilled novelist to entertain tonight's dinner 
party with tales of other days and other climes. 

Most conversations should start oS with a few casual re- 
marks. Make a few tentative comments, ask a few ques- 
tions and wait for the replies before committing yourself 
to any specific subject. The replies will not only indicate 
something of another's mental tone but will reveal his 
range of interests. 

More specific clues will be provided by his profession, 
the place of his origin, his present home, his social and 
economic status. These things will be revealed by direct 
statement or by implication. 

The speaker who thus learns something about the person 
opposite him will be able to find a subject of common in- 
terest. A speaker facing a general group will have only a 
general idea of his audience and will therefore find a more 
general subject. 

Just before dinner I find myself with a middle-aged man 
who suffers from shyness. His few words indicate that he 
comes from the South, that he is a person of some educa- 
tion. His clothes are of good quality, conservatively cut 

43 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

His gaze is fixed so intently on the Queen Anne table be- 
side him that I remark, "It's a good piece, isn't it?" He 
answers, "Yes, it's pretty but the varnish looks so old." I 
see that we are not going to talk about furniture since he 
knows nothing about it. I ask a few questions. He comes 
from Virginia. This is his first trip away from home in 
twenty years. I ask how New York impresses him. His 
reactions are dull. I mention the latest war scare and men- 
tion President Roosevelt's words on dictators. 

In rapid order, I learn that everything the President 
says is a monstrous error, that dictatorships are not so bad, 
that a modified dictatorship would be good for the United 
States. 

Here I have a ripe subject for conversation: a bitter 
argument with the man from Virginia who obviously in- 
herited his wealth and fears it may be taken from him. I 
deduce that the man got a good academic education and 
that it did him no good. He is but sketchily informed on 
the world's affairs. I wish by this time I could sprout 
wings and fly. In any case I don't see the purpose of a futile 
argument. 

I carry the subject back to OP Virginny. The man glows. 
Obviously nothing interests him but his home town. I ask 
a question and he says he is a tobacco planter. He shows 
a disposition to relate all the town tittle-tattle. A little of 
this satisfies me and I get him to talk about tobacco. 

I lead him away from the technical processes (which I 
could never hope to grasp) to different qualities of to- 

44 



THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 

bacco, how much it brings, why there is such a span 
between prices of raw and manufactured tobacco (Presi- 
dent Roosevelt, he indicates, is to blame for this), why 
English tobacco tastes different from American. Then of 
his own accord he launches into an amusing topic: the 
mythology of tobacco advertising. This keeps me interested 
till we go in to dinner. 

My dinner companion is a sprightly middle-aged woman. 
She looks alert and poised. I suspect she might be amus- 
ing. Lifting a glass I say, "What is this drink?" 

"That," she says, "is cranberry juice, the drink that 
ruined America. It's full of vitamins, and vitamins are the 
curse of the country. The people are floating in vitamins; 
that's what makes them so crazy." 

After the tobacco conversation, this dizzy chatter appeals 
to me. I say, "I always blamed our troubles on those break- 
fast foods rye thinsies, puffle-wuffles, and all those." 

"No, you're wrong, it's an excess of cranberry juice, 
prune juice, cucumber juice and all those . . ." 

I remember a wry comment made on American ap- 
petizers by a French woman writing about her first trip to 
America. I ask my partner if she has read the book. She 
has. We suddenly forget to be frivolous and settle down to 
a discussion on books about America by foreigners. Before 
we get through we're roundly denouncing the foreigners 
who sneer at the country after spending a fortnight in 
New York. My partner reveals that she is editing a series 
of regional guides to America and we're off! 

45 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

These two examples of conversation prove only one 
point: that it is sometimes necessary to prowl around a 
bit before finding a common subject of conversation. 

One should avoid specialized topics. Because I happen to 
pick up a lot of facts and fancies about El Gteco and his 
methods during a conversation with a group of painters, 
this does not mean I am free to introduce my information 
to a group that has no technical interest in painting. One 
little tidbit, however, might be of general interest. A Vien- 
nese critic maintains that El Greco's distortions were due 
to defective vision. I consider this balderdash but some 
weeks later I drag it out during a discussion on the de- 
ficiencies of great men* It creates more than a flicker of in- 
terest. 

In adjusting a topic to one's audience, one should remem- 
ber to reserve intimate conversation for intimate friends. 

2. Talk about the things you understand. 

Our work, social affairs, reading, give us a practically 
limitless choice of topics without pretending to a knowledge 
we do not possess. The businessman who thinks his knowl- 
edge of hides or sugar gives him the right to prate about 
international economy is tiresome at best, a nuisance at 
worst. A clubwoman who spouts pontifical opinions on 
books without giving credit to the review or lecture from 
which she pinched them is a comic spectacle. 

The husband in the advertisement may have been a gay, 
diverting fellow who preferred to talk about the things 



THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 

he understood. His foolish wife would have had him lap- 
ping up chunks of unrelated information and disgorging 
them to anyone who would have been ready to listen. 
The husband was quite right to keep still when Balzac was 
mentioned. Balzac had never been a part of his life or 
interests. Reading a few pages of Eugenie Grandet would 
not have given him anything to say. 

3. Drop a subject if it doesn't catch on. 

There were ten people in the room, none an enterprising 
conversationalist, and the host looked as if he were at his 
wits' end. He mentioned the latest front-page murder. 
No one seemed interested. He switched to a book he was 
reading, about fantastic searches for treasure in sunken 
ships. Result: one woman had an aunt who went down 
on the Lusitania with thirty thousand dollars' worth of 
jewels. (It was obviously the jewels and not the aunt that 
gave the speaker's voice its note of poignancy.) 

The host mentioned the New York World's Fair and 
tried to start a controversy by saying world's fairs were 
obsolete. This led to four dullish anecdotes on world's 
fairs of the past. The host, undaunted, switched from one 
thing to another and finally told a sprightly story about a 
time he was tempted to steal a Gideon Bible from a hotel. 
This caught on. It seemed that everyone there had been 
tempted to steal something from a hotel room and every- 
one wanted to talk about it. A flock of short incidents 
resulted and all were amusing. The conversational ma- 

47 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

chinery was now oiled up and proceeded on its own 
momentum. Much better things than pilfering from hotels 
developed before the evening was over but the point is, 
nothing would have developed if the host hadn't dropped 
the unsuitable subjects and fished around for new ones. 
One should never hesitate to drop a subject like a hot 
potato if it fails to arouse interest, if it threatens to become 
a bore or, worse, if it precipitates disagreeable arguments. 

4. Ask questions. 

For starting a conversation questions are absolutely 
necessary. Once the conversation is launched they serve 
other purposes. They help you to find out what you want 
to know. They act as a delicate brake on verbose talkers. 
They guide a talker into the phase of a subject that is 
most likely to interest his audience. Finally, questions are 
enormously flattering to a speaker. A brilliant conversa- 
tionalist performs better when he knows he has struck a 
responsive chord in an audience. 

Let no one quote Dr. Johnson to prove that asking ques- 
tions is unmannerly. Dr. Johnson hated questions because 
they slowed up his interminable discourses. Unless we give 
long discourses, we have an unalienable right to ask any 
questions we like except, of course, such matters as, "How 
much did you pay for your coat?" and "When did you 
stop taking dope?" 

5. Answer questions. 

This should be a superfluous comment but it is not. 



THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 

Many people try to avoid answering questions. Through 
heedlessness or perversity, they skip the subjects or the 
phases of subjects that would be most likely to interest 
their audiences. They talk to please themselves. 

The most perfect example of this trait I can recall oc- 
curred in a long windy story about a motor trip in the 
Alps. The speaker said, "Then we came to the summit and 
it was one of the most glorious views I have ever seen. I 
was driving myself because that was the day my chauffeur 
fell down the ledge and I lost my grip on him. But as I 
say, this view was tops. The sky that day was a . .** 

Torpid listeners came to life. There was a chorus of in- 
terruption: "What! Your chauffeur , . how did he . . . 
what did you do ... ?" 

The speaker looked annoyed. Why? Because he thought 
he had told about the chauffeur before and realized now 
that he had missed a good opportunity to tell a dramatic 
story? Oh, not at all! He was far less interested in the 
chauffeur than in the glorious view of the white clouds 
topping the saffron-colored sky. (It sounded like a descrip- 
tion of a lemon meringue.) Now he was forced to tell about 
the chauffeur. 

Detail after detail was dragged out of him. He said in a 
vexed tone, "Well, he slipped over a precipice, that's all 
He shouted and I ran. I caught hold of him but when I 
bent down to get a better grip he let go the ledge for some 
reason and crashed down below. Hundreds of feet. That's, 
all there is to it As I was saying about this view . . ."* 

49 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

All this we shall sum up with the mild observation that 
the questions put to us often indicate what people would 
like to hear from us. 

CASE HISTORY A ' 

Sven H is a lumberjack who started his career in Norway 
and is now pursuing it in the woods of northern Minnesota. 
Judging by his letters he might have spent eight months of 
his life in school and his mark must have been E minus. 
He has never read a book, never heard an opera, never 
bounced around a night club. 

Svcn is a great conversationalist. He talks with gusto 
about the things he knows. He knows the woods, the 
habits of plants and animals. He knows simple human 
beings who have always been chained to the soil. He has 
a sharp, naked gaze that reduces human problems to their 
simplest elements. 

Sometimes the simplicity of his mind makes his opinions, 
particularly on complex matters, quite useless. But again 
his remarks have the ring of profound, universal truth. 
What he says often sounds shocking to minds that have 
been made devious and complicated by book-fed reactions. 
Sven is guileless and open, yet his conversation is not 
without artifice. 

He takes good care to tell you what he thinks you would 
like to know. He usually guesses right. When you first 
meet him he is strictly impersonal. Later he will talk about 
himself. He insists you meet him on an equal plane by 
divulging some of your own opinions and experiences. 

CASE HISTORY B 

Long before you meet Howard G his friends will tell you, 

50 




Sv en is a great conversationalist. 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

"He deserves a lot of credit because he has practically edu- 
cated himself." 

After you meet him you say to yourself, "Would that 
he had let himself alone!" 

As a child Howard was bobbin boy or something of the 
sort in a New England textile mill. He pulled himself 
up to become head of the mortgage department in a New 
York bank. 

Howard is a specialist in people. When he talks about 
his personal experiences with men and women, you detect 
in him some of the qualities of a good novelist. He selects 
incidents and quotes words that make the characters come 
to life. In addition, he possesses an invincible sense of 
comedy. Anything he relates from his own observation 
makes life a more vivid spectacle. He has had many jobs, 
many ups and downs, met many kinds of people. He has 
acquired a certain basic wisdom about human affairs and 
he knows how to express his reactions in salty phrases. 

Unfortunately this does not satisfy him. He has heard 
about something he calls "culture" and he decided to get 
some. By "culture" he means all sorts of unrelated in- 
formation dragged into the conversation by the hair of 
its head. 

Up to now he hasn't bought Somebody-or-Other's Fifty- 
Foot Shelf but he buys "informative" books and maga- 
zines. "Informative" is the most overworked word in his 
vocabulary. "Culture" gushes out o him like vinegar out 
of "genuine 1840 cognac" bottles. If anyone so much as 
mentions the Declaration of Independence, he'll reel of! all 
the signers. If anyone asks him to step into an unfamiliar 
room he laughs and says, "Abandon hope all ye who enter 
here. That's Dante." At the drop of a hat he will outline 



THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 

the Seven Years' War, explain the Diesel engine or tdl 
the plot of // Trovatore. 

Those who hear him when he is talking naturally 
from his own experience conclude he is a shrewd and witty 
person. Those who see him when he's had a rush of culture 
to the head wonder if he is a boor or a jackass. 

Business Conversations 

This subject deserves extended treatment but someone will 
have to found a clinic to handle special research. We have 
time here for only a few phases of business conversations. 

Most business men may be divided into two classes, 
those who are very busy and those who are trying to look 
busy. 

In our practical dealings with them, the rest of us must 
try to believe they all belong to the first class. We must 
state our errand briefly and concisely, wait for a reply and 
know when to make for the door. 

But this must not be interpreted too literally. Business- 
men even those magnificoes who dwell In remote and 
polar regions, barricaded by telephones, push buttons and 
secretaries must not be considered robots. Even if the 
visitor were limited to two hundred words, he could devote 
a few of them to personal comment with an eye to starting 
or confirming friendly relations* 

Those who want something from a business executive, 
salesmen and jobseekers, for instance, are likely to make 
egregious blunders. Often their minds are too intent on 

53 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

their own purposes. They treat the man behind the desk 
as i he were a statue. It he looks grim and humorless, 
they are apt to make a wisecrack. If he looks tired or timid, 
they are likely to grow bold and blustering. They talk as 
i they were making a public address. 

Even in the briefest conversation there is time to adjust 
oneself to the business executive. The visitor should use 
his eyes. What sort of man is he dealing with? What sort 
of approach seems most suitable? Does the executive enjoy 
talking, showing off a bit? Then why not give him an 
opportunity? Is he nervous and fretful, eager to conclude 
the interview? If so, isn't he likely to feel kindly toward 
a visitor who will not linger unnecessarily? In any case 
the visitor should refrain from making a set speech. He 
should talk to one man. 

You will remember that Queen Victoria complained that 
Gkdstone treated her like a public meeting. He orated. 
Disraeli, arch-rival of Gladstone, treated the sovereign 
with more tactful deference. He made her feel not like 
a public meeting but like a woman of matchless charm 
and intelligence. If Queen Victoria needed bolstering up, 
what about the vice president of the Aluminum Cranberry 
Corporation? 



How Long to 

We all of us can remember good conversations that con- 
sisted of a genuine exchange of ideas. A tranquil room, 
comfortable chairs, drinks, a fire, perhaps, incited a group 

54 



THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 

to talk for hours. We were able to propose ideas, to de- 
velop them, to support them with examples,, even to toss 
in apposite anecdotes. 

One idea led to another ^a change of speakers. We en- 
joyed listening as much as talking. The conversation flowed 
on smoothly and there was no wild competition, no desire 
to shut off a man before he had finished. 

But such occasions are rare. In large groups, a conversa- 
tion of ideas is hard to sustain. It is sometimes hard in 
small groups whose members don't know each other well. 
In such circumstances, conversation should be a rapid 
give-and-take. One should avoid topics that take a long 
time to develop. Five minutes may be a short time for a 
man about to die, but for a man listening to a windy 
anecdote, it's an eternity. 

In general, how long should one talk at one time? 
Listen to the opinion of Dean Swift: 

"Take as many half-minutes as you can get but never 
talk more than half a minute without pausing and giving 
others an opportunity to strike in*" 

This, it must be admitted, is a counsel of perfection. It 
is a rule for the virtuoso. Few of us have enough dexterity 
with words to get very much said in half a minute. Why 
not, therefore, widen the time limit to two minutes? 

In his famous essay on conversation, Thomas De Quincey 
proposed two ideas for regulating the flow of conversation. 
In the first place he would appoint a "symposiarch," a 
censor or dictator, empowered to suppress the gabby or 

55 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

limit them to a given number of minutes. In the second, 
he would install a "clepsydra," a water timepiece, filled 
with colored liquids. 

At first glance the idea is attractive. It brings up a pic- 
ture of a benevolent tyrant sitting behind a row of vials 
filled with red and blue and amber fluids. From time to 
time the voice of the tyrant would boom forth: 

"Jones, you've babbled three clepsydras' worth on your 
hockey triumphs. Enough!" 

Or: 

"Mrs. Romagne, the purple vial has run out. The part 
about your third husband getting chased by the cheetah 
will be postponed till tomorrow." 

But De Quincey lived before Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin 
arrived to show how unbenevolent tyrants can be. Despotic 
control of conversation might function perfectly for a 
while but sooner or later the tyrant would substitute the 
whip and the castor-oil bottle for the harmless clepsydra. 
Eventually we would be out in the doghouse whispering, 
"Sh-sh! ... I don't want the people in the next house to 
report me for having an illegal conversation. I reported 
my radio out of order so I won't have to listen to the 
Grand Kleagle's speech tonight." 

De Quincey's idea, for all its fascinations, will have to 
be abandoned. While we are still free men we might im- 
pose a little discipline on ourselves. The clever might adopt 
Swift's suggestion. The rest of us might become two- 
minute men, never exceeding the maximum unless the 

56 



THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 

others in the company, by explicit words or eyes glowing 
with interest, ask for more* 

Transitions 

One of the most important elements in conversation is the 
matter of transition switching from subject to subject. 
Obviously a conversation cannot thrive on the same sub- 
ject hour after hour. Someone has to shift gears. One of 
the signs of the good talker is his dexterity in shift-ing. 

If a friend says to me, "I've been having more trouble 
with my stomach lately," I cannot say, "Do you rhmk 
America will lose the Davis Cup this year?" The rules of 
the game forbid any such rude change of subject. All the 
same, I am fed up with listening to talk about his ail- 
ments, I am convinced that talking about them is bad for 
him, I feel that a bit of chatter about the Davis Cup 
would be pleasant for both of us. 

So, what to do? Offhand I can think of two things: 

One, I can make a polite comment and then keep still, 
hoping that my friend will change the subject himself or 
fall into silence, allowing me, after a decent kpse of time, 
to introduce a new topic. 

Two, I can make one comment on the stomach trouble, 
another on illness in general, express the opinion that a 
lot of minor ailments are due to a lack of exercise, tell about 
Jimmy who cured himself of a nervous disorder by play- 
ing tennis, quote someone's opinion that the quality of 
tennis in America is constantly improving. Then I can 

57 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

say, "Do you tfank America will lose the Davis Cup this 
year?" 

This, of course, is a far-fetched case, implying that I am 
hell-bent on bridging the gap between two widely dis- 
parate subjects. It also implies that I had to achieve a 
transition without assistance. It is more likely that the 
transition would work out like this: 

I would make a sympathetic response. My friend would 
mention a trip to the doctor where he met our friend 
Christopher* And I would say, grasping at a straw, "What's 
new with Christopher?" 

Before leaving the subject let us look at a conversation 
that actually took place. I do not intend to scour my mem- 
ory for the most brilliant conversation I ever heard. Some- 
thing simple and casual will serve the purpose. So, why 
not last night's dinner chatter? 

In setting down a skeletonized version of the talk, it 
should be emphasized that conversation and literature are 
two different things. Conversations when written out ex- 
actly as they took place lose their spontaneity. Their special 
atmosphere derives from tones of voice, glances, gestures, 
silences. The best dialogue in plays and novels is not, para- 
doxically, natural dialogue. It has been doctored up to 
make it sound natural. A conversation taken down on a 
dictaphone and introduced into a play or novel would have 
the audience murmuring, "But people don't talk that way!" 

We take a risk, then, in setting down a conversation 
without editing. But for a book on conversation that is 



THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 

the only thing to do. We are dealing with a conversation 
that actually took place, not an amalgam of every clever 
thing the writer could pick up over a period o weeks. 

The dinner guests were Beatrice D, a bridge expert, 
Hubert M, a commercial artist, Alice A, librarian of a 
private collection. They had never seen each other before. 
Thus one staple of conversation gossip about common 
friends and experiences was missing. 

While the drinks were being passed, there was a bit of 
random, fragmentary chitchat. The host, by asking a num- 
ber of questions, by referring to each one's activities, hoped 
to get them all orientated in short order. 

It was at the table that the conversation really got 
started. Someone mentioned "the week-end habit" and Bea- 
trice said, "You mean the week-end vice. As a prominent 
victim of the vice I say it's the worst time-killer and de- 
moralizer I know. Your brain is in a state of confusion all 
summer long. You look up trains. You wire the hour of 
your arrival. You wonder if the host will send a car or if 
you will have to take a bus. You pack. I've got lists made 
for every kind of place the golfing places, the dress-up 
places, the undress places all neatly pasted on the closet 
door, and still I always pack the wrong things. Then you 
buy a gift for the hostess. There is the business of getting 
yourself adjusted to different houses, stiff ones, formal 
ones, slovenly ones. You always get too much sun, too 
much rain, too much exercise ... by September you're 
a wreck. I forgot to say that on Monday mornings you 

59 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

always have to write saying you left your fountain pen or 
your walking shoes and will they please send them. Leav- 
ing things is the most demoralizing part of it, isn't it?" 

Hubert: "It is for me. Last week end I left a pair of Bur- 
mese ivory bowls in the bathroom and I've been brooding 
about it all week." 

Beatrice: "But why take Burmese ivory bowls on week 
ends?" 

Hubert: "I didn't take them, I left them. They belonged 
to the host. It's the same every week end. I sit around 
eyeing the things I have to leave such as a Swedish barom- 
eter, or a painted Italian cigarette box. I picked up a lot of 
Calvinistic superstitions about other people's property from 
my mother and I've never been able to get over them." 

(Transition) Alice: "My objection to the week-end vice, 
as you call it, is the expense. I've been saving up my 
money for a shopping orgy in Europe, so I didn't go out 
of town all slimmer. But after this noble self-control I 
couldn't get away from the library for a six weeks' vaca- 
tion, so I had to cancel the reservation." She revealed quite 
incidentally that the steamship companies were swamped 
with applications and thus touched on something every- 
one seemed to want to talk about: the rush to Europe, 
When this wore thin it looked as if the talk would turn to 
the unsettled state of Europe a discussion of international 
politics. But Hubert said: 

(Transition) "All the companies seem to be getting a 
record load of non-paying passengers." He talked about 

60 



THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 

the epidemic of stowaways. He had one short anecdote 
with plenty of suspense and dramatic interest that would 
(one of the listeners decided) serve as an excellent plot 
for a short story. After this there were a few casual obser- 
vations on stowaways. 

(Transition) Beatrice: "Has anyone read Conrad's The 
Secret Sharer'} That's the best stowaway story I know.'* 
Alice: "I read it, but it's the only stowaway story I know." 
Beatrice: "It's the only one I know, too." 
(Transition) Alice: "One of the most interesting things 
about the tale was the smooth way Conrad explained the 
character of the murderer. He hardly spoke a word in 
self-defense but you knew he was justified." It looked as 
if this might become a tedious talk on Conrad so ... 

(Transition) The host dwelt on the character of the 
murdered man,, exposed so deftly and devastatingly by 
Conrad. "It's the same theme Borgese elaborated in Goliath 
the man who exults in evil for evil's sake, who commits 
wrong without plausible motive. When you meet the type 
in a book you always set it down as grandiose fiction. But 
when you come right down to it, we meet the type, built 
on a smaller scale, right in our own daily lives." 

(Transition) Beatrice: "I know what you mean." She 
related an incident that befell her when she hired a man 
to row her across a lake at night. "He was recommended by 
the hotel so I didn't feel I was taking a* risk. He looked 
harmless, too, and I imagine any court would pronounce 
him sane . . . but oh, my God, the night of horror! . . . 

61 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

Yet he never once laid a hand on me * . . just those eyes 
. . , that leer ... I never thought Fd come out of it alive 
and he simply glutted himself on my terror." 

(Transition) Alice: "He must have been temporarily 
mad. I had a similar experience . . ." This is a bad sort 
of transition because it either misses the point or shifts 
the point of what went before. Moreover, it usually leads 
to a profusion of personal experiences. But Alice's story 
(about being caught in the same room with a madman) 
was too gripping to encourage others to match it. If she 
were put on trial for a conversational misdemeanor, she 
could point out that the others urged her on by demanding 
details. At the end there was a lot of miscellaneous chatter 
about the impulses of madmen. 

(Transition) Beatrice: **A Russian novelist used a scene 
like Alice's experience to build up a whole book . . ." 
Beatrice's comments were interesting but she had no busi- 
ness bringing up the book when she couldn't remember 
the author or tide, which was precisely what everyone 
wanted to know. Hubert almost had it, then lost it. 

(Transition) Hubert: "Oh well, don't expect anything 
of me. I'm illiterate. The movies and the picture maga- 
zines are responsible. Sad, too, I was such a bright boy. 
At sixteen I was simply wallowing in Dostoievsky and 
Kuprin. At eighteen I was knee-deep in Bloomsbury poets. 
At twenty I had a nervous breakdown from discovering 
'significant younger novelists/ Then it was Wodehouse, 
then Mary Pickford's theological discoveries, then . . ." 

62 



THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 

The host: "And what is it now?" 

(Transition) Hubert: "Mystery stories!" 

Alice: "You have gone to the dogs. Reading those things 
is the most boring occupation I know. I'd rather read the 
Shanghai telephone directory." 

(Transition) No one agreed with Alice. She was con- 
fronted with three mystery-story addicts who plunged into 
an argument about the best writers of the tales, the best 
trick endings. No one, fortunately, told the plot of a mys- 
tery but various comments were made on the character 
of famous detectives, unfair solutions, difficulties in recall- 
ing mysteries once they are laid aside, etc. This kind of 
conversation has a great advantage: everyone must rack 
his brains to find illustrations and examples. The talk is 
pleasantly jagged and haphazard. Everyone gets his say. In 
this instance even Alice did. She told how her employer 
kept important callers waiting- till he could finish a chapter 
in a mystery. 

At this point the host went out to mix drinks. When 
he returned he heard: 

(Transition) Alice: "Oh yes, I've heard all this talk 
about 'getting away from it all.' I was c away from it all' 
one whole year when I taught school in Bolivia. In the 
end I made up my mind that in the future I would find 
out where 'it* all was and stay there." 

(Transition) Beatrice: "Oh yes> this unlimited leisure 
stuff is all illusion. We all of us just love being flurried. 
Nothing makes us happier than romping to the telephone, 

63 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

dashing to cocktail parties, trying to fit seventeen engage- 
ments into twelve hours. Complaining about a lack of time 
is usually the sign of a happy man or woman." 

(Transition) Host to Hubert: "By the way, how's your 
behavior holding up while your wife's in the country?" 

Hubert: "Why bring that up? I had planned for a grand 
debauch lasting seven days. After that I was going to spend 
seven days at home, absolutely alone, doing chores and read- 
ing. Well, the first week I moped and the second I seem 
to be going in for quiet little dinners." 

The host: "I'm sorry, but i you wanted a Saturnalia 
you might have let me know in advance. I used up my 
last opium last night and all my fast women I let off for 
the evening to attend a strawberry sociable." 

Hubert: "My own fault. Or rather the fault of the 
preachers. In my youth they had me thinking life would 
be a constant series of temptations. Occasions of sin dan- 
gling from every bough. Nothing but wassail and love 
nests." 

Beatrice: "And it hasn't turned out that way?" 

Hubert: "Not at all! You have to fight for your tempta- 
tions in this world. If you relax for a moment you find 
yourself mired in virtue. That's what I'm in now. Too 
tired to go out and drum up a little sin. It's turned into 
slippers and radio and my mother-in-law who's coming 
tomorrow." 

The host had to answer the telephone and when he re- 
turned, Hubert was finishing up some remarks about his 



THE ANATOMY OF CONVERSATION 

mother-in-law. "She snoops into closets and cupboards. 
She's sure the Mexican stuff is out of place in the living 
room. She spends hours fluffing pillows. She's one of the 
most distinguished pillow-fluffers of this generation. She 
meanders around feeling radiators. They're always too hot 
or too cold. She runs her hands over the table covers and 
sheets to see if they're good silk or linen." 

The host: "In short, one of those women who run around 
feeling everything." 

Hubert (simulating resentment) : "Well, she always spoke 
very well of you." 

(Transition) Alice to Beatrice: "I don't know how you 
feel, but I'd feel like a hussy if I were responsible for keep- 
ing this man out late. Let's get going so he can be fresh 
for his mother-in-law tomorrow." 

There was a movement to get under way, carried out 
with decent dispatch. But in leaving Hubert pointed to a 
Tibetan thang^a. "I love that Chinese wall hanging, is it 
Chinese?" 

The host: "This is not a week end!" 

In setting down this whole conversation I purposely re- 
frain from improving it. It would look better if it were 
lengthened with some of the wisecracks made at various 
stages of the talk. It would look better still if it were doc- 
tored up to give it a more sprightly air. But do not forget 
that the pace of the talk is set by gestures, glances, laughter, 
which cannot be parsed and diagrammed. 

The main point is that three people who had never met 

65 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

before had a good time in a general, more or less imper- 
sonal conversation. The transitions, all natural, unforced, 
helped to swing it along. 

Transitions should be made with the eyes wide open. 
To switch subjects needlessly is one of the signs of an un- 
civilized mind. It shows that the switcher cannot follow a 
train of thought, that his mind has no continuity. When 
the speaker has a legitimate topic, by no means exhausted, 
still capable of interesting others in the company, it is rude 
and inconsiderate to shift. 

But let us say that the topic is exhausted and the ma- 
jority would like a change. Then let the shifter shift de- 
liberately. If he can do it by gradual steps so much the 
better. If not, let him do it abruptly. One of the best con- 
versationalists on the planet has a habit of saying when 
the subject seems worn out and everyone else seems power- 
less to change it, "Well, not to change the subject or any- 
thing . . ." With this, he changes boldly from the Tos- 
canini broadcasts to the explosion in the next block. 



66 



CHAPTER FIVE 



THOSE WHO KNOW HOW 

KBERT W IS A LAWYER, 34 YEARS OLD, MARRIED, TWO 
children. His interests: his wife, his children, his 
law practice, golf, bridge, European politics, Marcel Proust, 
wines and cocktails, Handel's music, finding a shower cur- 
tain that won't rip or rust after three months. 
^Sin^he s^J^-J^ to ten hours a day with praecipes, 
replevins and wives whose husbands don't understand 
them, he gets, I daresay, a chance to roll off fifty thousand 
words a day. But instead of letting this whet his appetite 
for more, he behaves, when he emerges at the dose of the 
day, as if he were content to let others do the talking. 

No one has ever said, "He tells one screaming story after 
another." (This would be untrue.) 

No one ever said, "He's a marvelous raconteur." (This 
would be untrue.) 

No one ever said, "He's so witty." (This would be un- 
true. He has a good sense of humor, nothing more.) 

But scores say, "Oh, please drop in to my party if only 
for a few minutes." 

And I say, "He*s the best conversationalist I ever met." 

Why? 

67 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

His conversation is easy, varied, casual. He rarely talks 
for more than two minutes at a time unless others ask ques- 
tions to keep him going. Even when he has an audience 
that would be glad to listen indefinitely, he shrewdly begins 
asking questions himself. 

He suits his topics to his audiences. He does not drag 
out personal affairs or his innermost convictions for casual 
acquaintances. 

With them he can keep up a perfectly satisfactory con- 
versation about the weather, life in trailers, yesterday's 
front-page murder. He'll talk about bridge only to those 
who play bridge, about a new play to those who have seen 
the play or manifestly want to find out about it. 

He reserves intimate conversation for intimate friends. 
When he tells you something, you have a feeling he 
thought it would interest you, not that he wanted to tell 
it to someone. When an intimate friend is talking to him, 
he listens with wholehearted attention. If he doesn't quite 
follow, he interrupts gently, "But I don't understand why 
you did that." Again he is silent and his smile or his look 
of dismay indicates the warmth of the devotion he bestows 
on friends. 

In general gatherings he is often silent for long periods 
of time but sometimes his attentive silence seems the only 
cohesive element in the conversation. If any speaker gets 
off a good giddy wisecrack or a subtle observation, Bob's 
face expresses applause. 

68 



THOSE WHO KNOW HOW 

When he breaks into speech, his phrases are crisp, his 
remarks have a beginning, an end and no rambling bypaths. 

It is not easy to put a finger on his success. But this you 
know: when you have said good-by, you know you have 
had a good time. You are not tired or nervous. You never 
leave his house with a worse opinion o yourself than when 
you entered. From him you get no insight into your faults^ 
your ignorance. If you made a number of idiotic remarks 
during the talk about Italian submarines, youVe almost 
sure he didn't hear. But you did get off one first-class re- 
m^rk and you won't forget the way his face lighted up. 
*if he wants to disagree with you, even to point out that 
he considers some of your opinions crackpot, he does so 
in forthright fashion without sniggling sneers or sarcasm. 

He admits his own errors freely and apologizes prompdy 
when the occasion calls for it. What's more, he admits his 
foibles. His wife said to him on one occasion, "If it was 
such a mysterious noise, why didn't you go down and 
investigate?" 

He replied with utter seriousness, "I was afraid." 

She was taken back. "But you went down that other 
night when / heard sounds in the basement." 

"I had to be brave in front of you.'* 

This was not persiflage. It was easy to see that Bob was 
not too curious about strange noises in the night. 

When you talk about Bob, few wisecracks cling to your 
memory. You laughed when he said to the too-fertile 
woman novelist, "Good God, dear lady, are you with book 

69 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

again?" And his answer when someone suggested slyly 
that he was on too friendly terms with a movie actress for 




"Good God, dear lady, are you with boo\ again? 



whom he was trying to obtain a divorce: "It's all very flat- 
tering, but we're strictly perpendicular friends." 

You laugh frequently, as a matter of fact, but the re- 
marks always fit specific occasions. There is nothing to lift , 

70 



THOSE WHO KNOW HOW 

from its context and quote by way of embellishing another 
conversation. 

When I hold up Robert W as the perfect conversation- 
alist I realize that few will be able to check my accuracy. 
He is known to a large number of clients, a small number 
of friends. It is unlikely he will take to broadcasting on 
the radio or appearing on night-club programs as "the per- 
fect conversationalist." 

I should like, therefore, to mention a few others who 
have a wider audience. I shall make go attempt to list 
the ten best conversationalists or anything of the sort- 
merely to mention at random a few people, living or dead, 
who are known to all readers of newspapers and who are 
for me, recollections of good conversations. 

Mary Garden. A ^waiter said, "The dessert this evening 
is PSche Mary Garden.'* Miss Garden eyed the dish re- 
flectively, "When they start naming fruit after you, you 
know you're famous or finished." She has her wisecracks 
and she has a certain electric quality that would lend in- 
terest to anything she cared to say. But she does not depend 
too much on her natural advantages. She knows her audi- 
ences, whether it's one person, a dozen, or three thousand. 
Possessing a many-sided personality, she turns on the facet 
that appeals most to any audience at any given moment. 
This is not insincerity; it is highcourtesy and at times it 
requires sharp self-discipline. More limited personalities 
who make no concessions to their audiences could learn 
a few things from Mary Garden* 

7* 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

Babe Ruth. He is included here to illustrate an impor- 
tant point. He has been a great potentate in a certain 
realm. If he cared to pose as a great authority in fields 
foreign to his knowledge he would always have an audi- 
ence. But Babe Ruth knows what he knows; his talk is 
simple and appealing because it is drawn from his own 
experience and conviction. What's more, it is always di- 
rected at a particular audience. 

Edith Wharton. A stylized conversation. Everything she 
had to say was as aptly phrased, as economically worded, 
as if she were putting it into a boolptfhe had a certain 
stately gesture raising the right arm with hieratically out- 
stretched fingers that marked her opening sentence. While 
she was talking, the fingers remained taut. When she had 
finished, the fingers relaxed and the arm sank. It empha- 
sized the precision of her speech. She rarely talked about 
herseOHers was a conversation of ideas, bulwarked by 
wide knowledge and individual interpretation. This kind 
o talk came natural to her. She was brittle, lucid, learned; 
deficient, perhaps, in humor. Listening to her brought this 
conclusion: that all conversation of this type should be 
limited to those with Edith Wharton's endowments. 

Senator James Hamilton Lewis. A florid style of con- 
versation that seems tiresome until it becomes clear that 
it is entirely natural. Senator Lewis has a florid mind. His 
bizarre dothes, his fantastically elegant gestures, deserve 
another setting such as Bath under the Regency or the 
Tuileries under the Second Empire* Because he is unique 

72 



THOSE WHO KNOW HOW 

in our day, his style is amusing. He is not only florid but 
prolix, full of resounding periods. In commenting on the 
weather he sometimes sounds like Edmund Burke begin- 
ning a thunderous oration on the French Revolution. His 
conversation is effective because it fits his character* If all 
the people who go in for grandiose conversation could be 
induced to adopt certain Lewis specialties his exquisite 
manners, his pink whiskers, his mustard-colored vests 
grandiose conversation would be less of a strain on the 
rest of us. 

William S. Pcdey. Most big business executives talk so 
much that others cannot even slip in a question. The head 
of the Columbia Broadcasting System talks clearly and to 
the point. Then he waits for a comment or question. He 
does not fake knowledge he does not possess. No matter 
how rushed, he conveys the idea that he has nothing to 
do but finish the conversation in hand if it takes all day. 
He doesn't fidget or rustle papers. Because he is cool and 
unflurried, because he punctuates his talk with silence, he 
makes five minutes seem like a long, leisurely interview. 

Sophie Tucker. All Americans who strive to acquire the 
suave, vacuous quality of English upper-class conversation 
could learn a lesson or two from Sophie Tucker. Nature 
gave her a husky voice, a bumptious, raffish wit* Her every 
word, every gesture, is stamped "Broadway.** She is one of 
London's great favorites. Did Sophie show her gratitude 
by conforming to English modes of speech? Did any Eng- 
lishman ever say to her, "One would never believe you 

73 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

are an American"? Not on your tintype! In conversation, 
as on the stage, Sophie is triumphant without the loss o 
a single vowel. 

Uam O'Flaherty* One o his typical conversations lasted 
four hours. He interrupted himself only to signal to a 
waiter and light cigarettes. He had an interested audience 
for his monologue on the American character, life on ship- 
board, the Gaelic language, travels in Spain, Hitlerism, life 
versus art, a score of other topics. He rattled on and on, 
making it clear that he welcomed no competition. There 
are probably no more than five people on the planet with 
Liam O'Flaherty's dazzling conversation.* 

Gertrude Stein. She has more minority opinions than 
any Supreme Court justice since the Whisky Insurrection. 
She expresses them in lucid phrases that are disconcerting 
to those who expect her to talk as she writes. Argumenta- 
tive people are usually conversational pests. But Miss Stein 
is not an arguer. She says so herself. "I never argue, be- 
cause it's a waste of time. I simply state what I know to 
be the truth.*' Lest other arguers adopt this formula let us 
hasten to add that she does not argue for the sake of argu- 
ing. Her mind is constructed according to an original pat- 
tern and she expresses herself with so much persuasion and 
color that she is a great conversationalist Query to all, 
arguers: have you an original mind or aboriginal manners? 

George Arlzss. He understands the use of the period bet- 
ter than any talker I have ever heard. His reputation for 



Quite 

74 



THOSE WHO KNOW HOW 

cleverness is overrated, but he does have something to say. 
He says it and down comes the period! It descends so 
swiftly that no one else has a remark handy. But Mr. Arliss 
remains alertly silent while the others fumble for a re- 
joinder. This makes for a pleasantly disjointed and im- 
promptu conversation. Mr. Arliss is caustic, thin-lipped, 
parsimonious with words. It is always difficult to tell 
whether Arliss the actor imitates Arliss the man or vice 
versa. 

William Bullitt. The American ambassador to France is 
unambassadorish* Meaning that he doesn't mind talking to 
the point. If anyone in the world has the right to carry 
on a stuffed-shirt conversation it is an ambassador; he can 
always excuse himself on the ground that plain words 
might endanger international amity. Mr. Bullitt has no 
necessity to avail himself of the excuse. When he is willing 
to talk he uses clear words. When talk would be tactless 
he simply keeps still. This simple formula can be recom- 
mended to all government employees, industrial leaders, 
movie stars. 

Ganna Walsfyt. This is for women only. Suppose you 
have an exotic type of beauty, an exotic taste in clothes, 
perfumes, jewelry, interior decoration. What are you going 
to do about your conversation develop some exotic taste 
here, too? Many women, unfortunately, shout "yesl" Ganna 
Walska has another answer. Her looks, her gowns, her 
jewels, her houses, even her gardens, are in a class apart. 
She might have finished it off with a sort of Iris March 

75 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

conversation- But she did nothing of the sort. Her conver- 
sation is artless simplicity; she doesn't even mind saying 
naive things* Instead of putting her down as a naive woman, 
the listener is likely to mutter, "J ust what I'd say if I had 
the nerve." The contrast between her appearance and her 
speech is one of her chief charms. 

Clarence Darrow. He was one of the greatest conversa- 
tionalists in the world. His manner was benign and mel- 
low, his subjects were infinitely varied, drawn from his 
vast knowledge, his rich experience. Many of his graces 
were peculiar to him, not easily imitated. We shall, there- 
fore, segregate one little trait, not common but easily culti- 
vated: his compassion for all human beings made him turn 
his attention to the timid, the least articulate members of 
any group. Without lowering the level of the conversation 
he placed everyone on terms of equality. Not only did the 
underdog thank him but the brilliant ones got their divi- 
dends in more receptive audiences. 

& (George Russell). Let us look at a bad situation. Sup- 
pose a man has a large, round, ebullient mind full of wit, 
wisdom, imagination, information, opinions. He has tre- 
mendous gusto, power to impose his will on others. He 
likes to talk and nothing can stop him* The best he can 
do, I think, is to follow the methods of M 9 who is now 
probably telling anecdotes to the seraphim. ^32 was one 
of those natural, buoyant, overwhelming raconteurs you 
meet every now and then. He had a special technique for 
dominating a conversation. In the first pkce his voice was 



THOSE WHO KNOW HOW 

always changing pitch and tempo, lending variety to his 
anecdotes. In the second place, he involved every listener 
in his tales by asking questions, demanding opinions, ex- 
acting attention with his eyes. As a result the listeners 
thought they had got in more words than they actually 
had. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and if all the 
people addicted to long discourses could say the same, the 
neurologists could spend more time on the golf links. 

Yvonne Printtmps. Singers are by nature migratory 
birds but actors, due to the limitations o language, are 
usually confined to their own bailiwicks. Madame Prin- 
temps is one of the few actresses who are at home in Paris, 
London and New York, playing in two languages. Most 
women of her advantages and versatility would acquire 
an artificial personality seventeen inches deep. She has re- 
mained devoted to simplicity and truth-telling. However, 
she is mentioned here for a special reason, one of her un- 
conscious tricks. She has a way of asking questions as if 
they were preludes to anecdotes. You know the type of 
question: "Have you ever been to the top of the Empire 
State Building?" . . . "Do you think Budge could beat 
Perry?" Such questions usually mean, "I don't care what 
your response may be, 7 have a few tidbits on these matters 
and I propose to tell about them the minute you shut up.*' 
Well, Madame Printemps asks questions of this sort. You 
answer and then wait for her to open up. But imagine your 
surprise when it develops she has never been to the top 
of the Empire State Building and has no opinions on the 

77 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

relative merits of the tennis stars. She was merely asking 
you. This is super flattery, 

Emma Eames. "You have no idea how beautiful my 
voice was." Very stately, still beautiful for all her seventy- 
some years, she turned from the railing of the liner and 
regarded the other half of the conversation. "No phono- 
graph records could do justice to my voice. A v^oriderful; 
thing I had for a little while and then it was gone." Never 
confusing candor with bragging, she succeeds in being so 
straight and honest that her conversation has a unique 
quality. Somerset Maugham immortalized this quality in 
"Jane." 

Nathan Leopold. With so many worthies, there ought 
to be at least one criminal. But the great fact about crimi- 
nals as conversationalists is this: they are willing to discuss 
anything under the sun but their own specialty. You would 
expect a violinist to mention music, a hairdresser per- 
manents, a king to mention the prime minister's mean 
disposition. And they do. But all the criminals I have met 
and I have met many prefer to talk about their bridge- 
work or their dahlias. One of my duties as a young re- 
porter was to see Nathan Leopold every afternoon and 
make a story out of his chatter. Bars between us, we used 
to gabble between four and five every day. He talked of 
his crime, the crimes of others, questions o technique, the 
different modes of capital punishment. The lethal chamber, 
he had almost decided, was his favorite. And, he added 



THOSE WHO KNOW HOW 

with a laugh, "J ust like me to favor something they don't 
have in the state of Illinois," Now and then he greeted 
me with: "And what have you been doing?** I modestly 
turned this aside, feeling that nothing I had been doing 
could match what he had been doing. 



CHAPTER SIX 



WALLFLOWERS 

Silence and modesty are very valuable 
qualities in conversation. MONTAIGNE. 

IN NEARLY EVERY GATHERING YOU SEE FIGURES THAT LOOK 
like dummies planted in chairs by the hostess to fool 
the other guests. If you look closely, you see that the dum- 
mies are really human beings who wet their lips, squirm, 
watch the others with exaggerated attention. If you address 
them, they turn pale and then produce a few stifled phrases. 

The sufferings of the tongue-tied are unending: they 
never know when they will be called upon to speak. Those 
who are at ease with their intimate friends are often ren- 
dered speechless by the presence of a single stranger. In 
large groups they are lost and terrified. Secretly they com- 
pare themselves with glib talkers. The objects of their ad- 
miration and envy are usually the worst bores of the party. 

Before the wallflowers finish reading this chapter they 
will probably decide that their situation is not so bad as it 
seems. But this is not a pep talk. There is no sure-fire 
method for turning frightened rabbits into saber-toothed 
tigers. Most tongue-tied people were probably not created 

80 



WALLFLOWERS 

by nature to be brilliant conversationalists. All the same, 
there are ways by which they can overcome their handicap 
and turn themselves into acceptable conversationalists. 




Figures that loo\ li\e dummies -planted in chairs by the 
hostess to fool the other guests . . . 

Before we go into this matter, glib talkers will probably 
want to leave the room. They will be excused because 
there is nothing for them here. They can return for the 
next chapter which deals with problems peculiar to 
them. 

81 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

To the Timid 
You say: 

"I shut up like a dam in general company. I'm too 
timid to open my mouth." 

Very well, why don't you capitalize on your handicap? 
Timidity may be a decorative quality rather than a fault. 
The fault consists in concealing timidity. This is what 
makes boors of us all at times. When we are flustered we 
force ourselves to become aggressive. Hoping to overcome 
a blush, we try a pop-eyed Mussolini glare. In moments 
of panic we storm around in a way that would scare off 
Genghis Khan. We would be fortunate if everyone said, 
"The poor sap's putting on an act to cover up his stage 
fright." But we usually cover up so well that the verdict 
is, "Better not ask that fellow again, he acts like the head 
of the Storm Troopers." 

Relax. Go right on being timid. You might even confess 
it aloud occasionally. There is only one danger to this: if 
you avow it openly you might lose your timidity and thus 
lose one of your most attractive qualities. 

Here is an example of a young man who capitalized on 
his timidity. He was a rewrite man on a newspaper and 
he wrote this note to the city editor, "When you talk to 
me in front of all the others, you get me nervous and 
flustered. Could I persuade you to write down your criti- 
cisms and instructions, at least for a few months? I could 
do better work. When I get used to the office, I'll get over 
this." 

82 



WALLFLOWERS 

Was he thrown out on his ear? This, admittedly, was 
the first inclination o the city editor. He showed the note 
to the managing editor, saying, "This note came from a 
newspaperman. Did you ever see anything to beat it, a 
newspaperman too shy to talk?" 

The managing editor laughed. "Well, there's something 
new, I should think you'd be glad to have one silent one. 
You've got such a hoot-owl atmosphere out there now. Is 
Mr. Shy good?" 

"Sure, he's good, he'll be a star in a year but imagine 
having to write notes." 

*Td rather write notes than have to bellow to make 
myself heard." 

The city editor scribbled this note: 

"For three months I'll write notes. After that you will 
be required to speak three or four sentences every day." 

By the end of three months the timid rewrite man was 
a star performer on the typewriter. He was also contribut- 
ing his full share of the spoken word. He was timid at 
first and the city editor later regretted he hadn't remained 
timid for the rest of his life. For it took only six months 
to turn htm into a full-fledged hoot owl. 

One consolation to the timid was pointed out by 
Nietzsche: 

"If you want to prejudice a man in your favor you must 
become embarrassed before him." 

Another was pointed out by Harold Nicolson: 

"A man who is not shy before thirty will be a crashing 
bore before forty.** 

83 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

In response to all this you say: 

"But I don't want to sit like a dummy in all conver- 
sations." 

Of course not. You want a little fling at expressing your- 
self. Then start in by revising your general attitude. You 
cannot do this if you sit fidgeting in your chair trying to 
get up enough nerve to talk. Resolve, therefore, in advance, 
that in your next five conversations you will say no more 
than politeness requires. Say to yourself, at the beginning, 
"I have no intention of talking. No matter how much I 
feel like it I will keep still." 

Now then. Instead of fretting at your own shyness, you 
will be free to listen to others. How can you listen when 
your ears are clogged with your own unspoken thoughts? 
Listen and watch! 

You will discover that others show traces of timidity. 
Those who seem boldest have chinks in their armor. The 
gustiest talker present may by his very welter of words be 
concealing his lack of poise. You will discover that silence 
requires poise, too. The long-winded talker is not so ad- 
mirable after all, is he? The others don't look enchanted 
as he races on for ten straight minutes with his tale of 
deep-sea fishing. The best talkers are often silent for long 
periods of time. You will discover that you are not an 
isolated case. 

This leads to a definite attitude on conversation. When 
you yearn to become a good talker, why do you become 
too ambitious? You dream of turning overnight from a 



WALLFLOWERS 

timid person to a bold swashbuckler who will knock them 
over with brilliant anecdotes, witty retorts. You dream of 
dominating conversations, of holding large groups spell- 
bound. Perhaps you have been reading "success" books. 
Perhaps you have been seeing too many Noel Coward 
comedies or again reading books such as My Flurried Years 
by Daisy, Duchess of Snaffleshire, wherein all the charac- 
ters flare up like Roman candles. (Don't forget that Daisy 
had years to imagine all those witty conversations.) 

Bring your ambitions down to earth. Resolve to con- 
tribute a few well placed remarks, to tell an occasional lit- 
tle story when it fits into the general conversation. 

But for the time being you are still in the listening 
stage. Make your listening count. Go back to Chapter Three. 
Concentrate on others and forget yourself for the time 
being. 

When the five listening sessions are over, start to talk 
with single words. Expand the single words into phrases, 
then into sentences. They should deal entirely with what 
others, are saying . . . "Where did you see the bull fight?" 
. , "What language were they speaking while all this 
was going on?" ... "You said her dress was fantastic, 
what was it like?" 

You can become so adroit at leading others that they 
will talk for your benefit. By imperceptible degrees your 
remarks will expand into a flow of sentences. If you re- 
nounce all grandiose ideas of conversation and set a rea- 
sonable goal for yourself, you will graduate, without no- 

85 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

ticing it, from a commentator on the conversation of others 
to a conversationalist in your own right. 

If you dread the ordeal of entertaining, eschew such forms 
of hospitality as dinners. They require a more rigid con- 
versational pattern. Try cocktail parties or invite swarms 
of people in for bridge or other games. On such occasions 
the conversation is more helter-skelter and imposes less 
of a strain on the host. 

But there is one more objection: 

*Tm often silent because I don't know what people are 
talking about. Fve had a sketchy education and ... as a 
matter of fact I feel like an ignoramus." 

You are probably imagining things. A genuine ignoramus 
is usually not self-conscious* He is usually most eloquent 
on the subjects he knows least 

But suppose there are deficiencies in your education and 
you fed handicapped in conversation. This is certainly no 
anti-education tract and not a voice will be raised if you 
decide to fill in some of the blank spaces. 

But whatever you do, do not drag your new-found learn- 
ing into the conversation. It is only a background. Don't 
mention anything you have picked up until it's been in 
your head a long time. When you do use it, be sure it fits 
into the conversation. And be careful of the stilted phrases 
in "Better Speech" books. Better a thousand grammatical 
mistakes than one "genteel** phrase. Keep on being your- 
self even if you are a mastodon of learning. 

86 



WALLFLOWERS 

In Defense of Ignorance 

Only an intelligent man can enjoy the pleasures of igno- 
rance. Faced with the fact that he cannot possibly compass 
all the world's learning, he accepts it with easy grace. Cer- 
tain subjects he must know well to make a living. Others 
he pursues as avocations. He reads to keep himself in- 
formed on the background of the planet, human history, 
contemporary developments. But no matter how much he 
reads there are vast departments closed to him. 

The intelligent man knows there are few pleasures like 
the pleasure of not having an opinion. Opinions require 
knowledge, specific data. When these are lacking, the in- 
telligent man knows he can relax and let others parade 
their knowledge, real or fraudulent. 

If, when he returns from South America, someone asks 
for "the real low-down on the Brazilian coffee situation," 
he is not ashamed to reply, "I don't know anything about 
coffee and I didn't look into it in Brazil. I was too busy 
toasting my toes on the beach." 

Or, if someone asks his opinion of the latest "cancer 
cure*" he will say, "I haven't any opinion. I know nothing 
about medicine." 

But all of us are not intelligent. We are not satisfied with 
showing our legitimate knowledge. Perhaps we could be 
fairly entertaining on Washington gossip, horticulture 
or card sharks on ocean liners. But because we know these 
subjects we may consider them dull 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

We insist on spreading out, expressing opinions on mat- 
ters o which we are totally ignorant. We would go to any 
ends to avoid saying, "Sorry but I know nothing about it. I 
have no opinion at all." 

The man who got muddled on Balzac took the wrong 
tack. Instead of submitting to his wife's nagging he should 
have said, "Tootsie, I know nothing about Balzac except 
twenty lines I read in an encyclopedia. What's more, that's 
all I intend to know. There are plenty of things that in- 
terest me more* I think your friends are feather-brains for 
cluttering up an hour with a subject that really doesn't in- 
terest any of them." 

Classroom recitations have no place in adult conversa- 
tion. If a group of specialists in French literature want to 
talk about Balzac for an hour they probably do it because 
the subject is dose to their hearts. When a general group, 
equipped with the dim memory of certain Balzac novels 
read in translation and a few tidbits picked up here and 
there, harps on Balzac for an hour under the notion the 
conversation is being conducted "on a really serious plane" 
the members of the group are probably very serious asses. 

Informative conversation is usually a bore. It usually turns 
into a series of lectures. An egregious example was the 
woman who related in minute detail the contents of a 
biography of Marie Antoinette. She left off abruptly at the 
point where the Queen entered the Conciergerie. "Simply 
fascinating," she said, "I simply can't wait to find out how 
it is going to come out." 

88 



WALLFLOWERS 

The only acceptable kind of informative conversation 
comes from those who possess original information or 
have a novel interpretation of known facts. And only when 
the other members of the party have shown a disposition to 
listen! 



CASE HISTORY A 

Monsieur N was a diplomat stationed for twenty years in 
The Hague. At a dinner party in London someone asked 
him a simple question about the Netherlands. He could 
have answered in fifteen words. 

Instead he gave a lecture on the Netherlands, its fight 
to maintain democracy, its currency crises, its land reclama- 
tion projects, the position of the crown. This took twenty 
minutes. 

Everything he had to say could have been fished out 
of an encyclopedia, supplemented by a magazine article 
that had appeared that very week. 

If Monsieur N had to talk for twenty minutes on the 
Netherlands he might have filled up the time with gossip 
of the Dutch court, or any subject matter his listeners 
could not have got out of books. In twenty years he must 
have picked up something original and interesting. 

While he was talking all the listeners looked as if they 
were thinking about cats smothering babies. But few would 
have admitted, even to themselves, that they were bored. 
Later they would say, "Oh, I say, he's frightfully int-restin'. 
You really learn something when he talks.* 5 Afterward they 
would avoid Monsieur N as if he had been a typhoid car- 
rier. 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

CASE HISTORY B 

Charles D spent two years writing a history of the Opera. 
Everyone who met him during- this time got caught in a 
flood of anecdotes. His friends went ga-ga with stories 
of Mozart and Maria Theresa, Nordica's thousand re- 
hearsals for Tristan and Isolde, Oscar Hammerstein's rows. 
Charles introduced all sorts of minutiae and related it with 
gusto, with sweeping gestures. 

Finally the book appeared. The victims solemnly swore 
never to read it. One who received a free copy broke the 
resolution: "I was running to catch a train and I grabbed 
it up by mistake for the new Wodehouse. I had nothing 
else to read. But you know, it's marvelous. Entertaining 
from first page to last." 

"Impossible!" exclaimed the others in chorus. 

The other victims broke down and read it. All agreed 
it was lucid, shrewd, entertaining. 

Charles had made a pest of himself because he imagined 
that material suitable for a book was suitable for conversa- 
tion. 

Conversation and writing are worlds apart. The story or 
the exposition that makes a bright corner in conversation 
may be utterly useless in writing. Writers may instruct, 
but conversationalists never, 

Virgin Tracts 

I advocate a policy of aggressive ignorance. Instead of 
sitting meekly and letting the mind be stuffed with all 
sorts of data on subjects one has no mind to master, why 
not declare one's ignorance boldly and then stick to the 
program? 

Someone must make a start so I shall compose mine: 

90 



WALLFLOWERS 

"I am determined to maintain a dense, unshakable ig- 
norance on the subject of horse racing, mathematics, aero- 
nautics records, movie scandals, systems for beating rou- 
lette, the novels of Kathleen Norris, the doings of the 
Honorable Unity Valkyrie Freeman Mitford, 'the Aryan 
blonde.* 

"I shan't carry it to extremes. There is a little room in 
my head for miscellaneous information. I'm willing to listen 
to a few tittles on puma hunting, stamp collecting, city 
planning, incunabula or batik work. But when a conversa- 
tional marauder tries to hold me up for an hour's lecture, 
I draw the line!" 

Everyone who doesn't want to be bored could make out 
a similar proclamation of ignorance. Thousands of Ameri- 
can tourists who trot through the galleries of Europe every 
summer could say, "I never go to the galleries at home and 
I don't intend to here. And no talk about it, either!" 

Thousands of concert-goers could announce definitely 
and flatly, "I loathe music. I won't talk about it and not 
wild horses will ever drag me to another concert." 

Millions of women could say to their husbands, "You 
remember how Queen Victoria felt about dirty jokes? 
That's how I feel about business." 

And a million husbands could rejoin, "Just how I feel 
about bridge and your battles with the cook." 

No personality would be any the worse, I imagine, for 
preserving a few virgin tracts in the mind. 

If the timid and "the ignorant" now feel better about 
things, the glib talkers may come back into the room. 

9* 



CHAPTER SEVEN 



THE QUEEN PASSED THE SUGAR 

THE HAJctSHEST WORDS EVER SPOKEN ON THE SUBJECT OF 
anecdotes were spoken by Thomas De Quincey. "Of all 
bores whom man in his folly hesitates to hang," he said, 
"and heaven in its mysterious wisdom suffers to propagate 
their species, the most insufferable is 'the teller of good 
stories* a nuisance that should be put down by cudgelling, 
by submersion in horse ponds or any other mode of abate- 
ment, as summarily as men would combine to suffocate 
a vampyre or mad dog." 

Obviously De Quincey's words had not the slightest ef- 
fect on his contemporaries or on succeeding generations. 
Anecdotage is still a common malady. If it were confined 
to dolts and dullards, the remedy would be simple: To 
avoid the dolts and dullards. But it afflicts the wise, the 
clever, the intelligent. The autobiographical strain is strong 
within all of us. There's no hope of suppressing the urge 
to tell anecdotes. Our only hope lies in curtailed produc- 
tion. 

An anecdote is generally a little splinter of autobiography. 
It interests the teller because he sees it in relation to the 
general contour of his life. It bores the rest of us because 
it has no relation to the rest of the conversation. 

92 



THE QUEEN PASSED THE SUGAR 

One of the peculiarities of anecdotes is their static qual- 
ity. They are like recitations, committed to memory, and 
discharged whenever the occasion arises. If you watch the 
most gifted anecdotist of your acquaintance you will dis- 
cover that he has a static repertoire, that the phrases are set, 
the sequence of sentences seldom varies. The anecdotes 
are fixed between two tightly wound springs in his mind. 
Any good jar is enough to make them come popping out. 

The confirmed anecdotist seems to have his whole auto- 
biography compressed into these set stories. Even in cases 
where his repertoire is large, fifty or a hundred stories, you 
wonder how his life could have been so barren. Did noth- 
ing ever happen to him but the incidents embalmed in 
his anecdotes? The answer is, doubtless, "yes" but he has 
such an inelastic mind that he cannot find topics for con- 
versation on the spur of the moment. He merely listens 
till something in the talk reminds him of one of his stories. 
Then he lets fly. 

The man who has neither opinions, nor repartee, nor 
objective observations but only an infernal series of set 
pieces . . . "The time I shook hands with President Mc- 
Kinley , . ." "The time I won at Monte Carlo," etc. de- 
serves De Quincey's opprobrium. 

One can always avoid the chronic anecdotist but the 
periodical anecdotist is a wily fellow. He goes for days 
without dragging in long stories. The customers feel he is 
cured. Then suddenly he goes berserk. He spins them out, 
one after another. His best friends are sure to hear his 
whole repertoire. 

93 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

There ought to be a special clinic for anecdotists. Even 
when they are fundamentally hopeless, something could 
be done to curtail their distribution. The worst cases could 
be instructed on how to keep a notebook wherein they 
could mark down past and potential victims. A sample page 
would read something like this: 

My story about Charlie McQuiggle and the mongoose: 
Already told to: Michael, Parson S trunk, the wall- 
eyed man at the garage, Aunt Harriet, five hoboes. 

Impending victims: The Good Humors man, the 
rector of the Fourth Congregational, Nicholas Murray 
Butler. 

The anecdotist by improving his distribution methods 
would be less of an annoyance. The victims would breath 
easier if they felt sure they would hear each anecdote only 
once, 

Anecdotage is an infectious disease. The best-behaved 
will suddenly develop an urge for telling stories when 
others start it. We all of us have our blowsy moments and 
a blowsy audience sets us off. 

"Did I ever tell you about the time the cook quit on me 
just before my dinner for the bishop?" someone says. 
Just let someone make a remark of this sort and we know 
the open season for anecdotes is upon us. Everyone has a 
cook or knows someone else's cook. If these cooks didn't 
quit two hours before a dinner for a bishop, they indulged 
an other quaint pranks. Everyone knows a bishop or knows 
someone who knows a bishop. Or perhaps there was a 

94 



THE QUEEN PASSED THE SUGAR 

shocking story about a bishop in last week's American 
Weekly* Half an hour after the first remark you open 
your eyes and hear someone drooling, "Now the only 
bishop / ever knew . . ." 

That night you'll dream about a cook chasing a bishop 
down the transept of a sausage machine. 

One should think thrice before committing an anecdote, 
Does it have any relation to the general thread o the talk? 
Is it likely to interest others? Has any of the company 
heard it before? Will it help the conversation along or 
thrust it into a maze? 

Let us suppose I am seized with a desire to tell the story 
about the time I talked for twenty minutes with the 
Queen of Denmark at a lunch counter. At a litde wayside 
station in Germany I was perched on the stool next to the 
Queen's* I asked her to pass the sugar. She passed it. She 
made a remark about the weather. This started our twenty- 
minute gabble. The Queen didn't know I had penetrated 
her incognito. 

God only knows why I insist on telling this story. IVe 
told it a dozen times already. Nothing in it shows I am 
witty, dever or subde. It does not indicate I move in ex- 
alted circles because the Queen would never have started 
it in the first place if she hadn't believed her incognito was 
perfect. 

But anyway the people around me are talking about 
Denmark. The springs in my head holding that particular 
story have come loose and nothing short of an apoplectic 

95 




1 tdJpd for twenty minutes to the Queen of DenmarJ( at a 
lunch counter. 



THE QUEEN PASSED THE SUGAR 

stroke can stop me. The least I can do is to think thrice. 
Have I ever told it before to anyone in this group? Answer 
"no." 

While I was mulling it over the subject slipped around 
to Danish co-operatives. To drag the Queen of Denmark 
into the co-operatives would be like shouting "I like Turk- 
ish baths, too" when the preacher finished his sermon. So 
I wait, wondering how to wangle it. (This illustrates fairly, 
I think, the tricky mental processes of the anecdote addict.) 

The talk shifts to the Danish government and finally the 
position of the monarchy. I could leap in here with, "Talk- 
ing about the monarchy reminds me that . . ." 

But after all I'm not with nitwits. The people around 
me have some sense of conversational propriety. Another 
minute goes by. Someone mentions the Silver Jubilee cere- 
monies in Copenhagen. While I am trying to tie this up 
with my incident, someone remarks, "It's really the most 
democratic court in Europe." 

I am not sure if this is exact but I am sure it is my mo- 
ment. I leap in. *TI1 tell you something about the Queen 
of Denmark that illustrates . . ." 

The most I had a right to expect was some show of in- 
terest. This I get. I take five minutes to tell my tale and 
realize I threw in too much dialogue. Then I toss the 
conversational ball back to the person who mentioned the 
Jubilee, "I didn't see the films of it," I say, a Did you?" 

So, I have told my story again. My only excuse is that I 
conformed to the rules of fair play. 

97 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

In finishing off his subject let us admit that there are 
exceptions. We all of us have heard amusing anecdotes, 
some being recounted without rhyme or reason. We have 
not only been amused but we have added to our knowledge 
o human nature, strange places, alien customs. 

But on the whole, telling anecdotes is a tiresome habit. 
It usually brands a man as a bore. If anecdotes must be 
told, the least the teller can do is make them brief, night 
letter length if possible. They should also be dated as re- 
cently as possible because for some inscrutable reason we 
are much more interested in what happened last night 
around the corner than what happened three years ago in 
Samarkand. 

Finally, anecdotes should come singly, never in series. It 
is a conversational felony to say: 

1. "Two funny things happened to me at the ranch. The 
first . . ." (No one will pay much attention to the first.) 

2. "And then I had another experience." (Study the 
changing facial expressions around you; observe the 
watches coming out, the imaginary specks of dust being 
removed from sleeves.) 



CHAPTER EIGHT 



BORES: THEIR CAUSE AND CURE 

THE DICTIONARY, PUSSYFOOTING AS USUAL, DEFINES BORES 
as "tiresome persons; annoyances." 

This is as inconclusive as a Japanese definition of "de- 
fensive warfare*'* If we defined bores as instruments of 
torture, menaces to society, parasites and egomaniacs, we 
might be nearer the truth. 

The first quality of bores is, of course, talking too much. 
Usually their conversation turns on themselves, their his- 
tory and adventures. The most trivial aspects of their ex- 
istence, they are convinced, are certain to entertain others. 

Grade A bores never listen to others. Grade B bores 
sometimes feign to listen. Both are incapable of interesting 
themselves in other human beings. 

Then there are the less virulent types that become ad- 
dicted to telling long stories, interrupting others, specializ- 
ing in certain kinds of jokes, giving skits* Many of these 
can behave if they wish to. 

In our gallery of bores we will look at many types. Not 
only the major types who are beyond hope but the part- 
time bores for whom first-aid remedies are suggested. 

We shall start off with the lesser offenders: 

99 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

Temporary bores. Those who have completed a trip 
around the world, won the golf championship of Algon- 
quin County, been victimized by counterfeiters. The remedy 
is to hear them out once and then say next time, "You told 
me that." In due time they'll recover. 

Favorite Subject bores. Those addicted to raising chickens, 
attending first nights in the theater, turning in their cars 
every few months, etc., etc. Many with a minor activity, 
too intensely cultivated, fit into this category. There are 
also parents with their first-born (bright sayings, photo- 
graphs etc.), social climbers, land sailors, Savile Row en- 
thusiasts. The listener must remain constantly alert to steer 
the conversation away from the favorite subject. 

"Dynamic" bores. These are strictly self-made bores. God 
made them shrinking and reticent. The high-powered sales- 
manship and personality books gave them an urge to be- 
come "dynamic." They address you with a kind of phony 
fervor as if they were selling wheat thinsies and you were 
showing "consumer resistance." 

"Dynamic" bores at first acquaintance are usually as 
funny as Fanny Brice. Later they are only as funny as Dr. 
Goebbels. 

If you fix them with your evil eye and say, "Relax!" they 
think you have been reading another kind of success book 
How to Mesmerize the Dynamic Personality. If this fails 
I can only recommend two parts egg yolk, one part tomato 
catsup with a touch of arsenic, shaken well. 

Mimicry bores. Their admirers say something like this, 

100 



BORES: THEIR CAUSE AND CURE 

"Helen is simply killing when she takes to telling coon 
stories. She's got hundreds of them." Try telling a few 
coon stories yourself until Helen loses her .appetite for 
them* 

Interrupting bores. They can't think up much for them- 
selves so they break in when others are talking. If you say, 
"I was with a man named John Smith who lives in San 
Francisco/' they say, "What! Not John Smith! Has he got 
red hair, a sort of small guy, wears a gray hat? . . . No? 
. . . Course, I haven't seen him in fifteen years.*' If you 
say, "The airplane flew over Tombstone, Arizona, on its 
way to Kansas City," the LB. blurts out, "Oh, how was 
Tombstone? My cousin used to live there." 

The remedy is a flinty look, no spoken response. 

Still Water bores. They would have been normal if they 
hadn't heard the one about still water running deep. They 
put on a smirking, superior smile and listen industriously. 
The speaker is thrown off balance, sometimes, fay the sight 
of the superior smile,. 

Ignore them. Remember this: to keep a superior smile 
going for hours on end requires so much current that it 
blows a fuse in the region above the eyes, 

Irrelevant fact bores. They get so fascinated by the minor 
details in their own stories that you think you'll never hear 
if the wolf ate Uncle Oscar. 

The remedy for these bores is to help them along: "What 
did the wolf do then?" . . . "I'm getting anxious to hear 

101 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

about Uncle Oscar." They're usually flattered into speed; 
eventually they get to the end. 

Mysterious bores. By dropping their eyes and lowering 
their voices they create the impression that Hider told 
them all about the new tanks. They need only a litde per- 
suasion to pass the all on to you. 

Find a greasy spot in the wallpaper and think about be- 
gonias. 

Subtle Jo\e bores. The kind who pause at odd corners in 
their stories to create the impression they have arrived at 
something inexpressibly delicate and comic. A few nervous 
listeners laugh because they're sure they missed something. 
Then at the end of the story, the story-teller lowers his 
voice and says in an offhand manner, "So Martin never 
came back." 

Speak up loudly and say, "What was that joke all 
about?" The reply will be, "Oh, are you one of those people 
who have to have jokes diagrammed?" A few feeble souls 
will giggle. Reply, "Yes, please diagram it for me. No one 
here has the foggiest idea what it's all about." 

Miscellaneous bores. They are always unpredictable, the 
kind that can be vasdy entertaining on one occasion, stifling 
the next. For dealing with them, these suggestions: 

Cultivate lisdessness. Fail to meet the bore's eye when 
he comes to the climax of his speech. 

Learn the key words of his favorite stories and keep the 
conversation away from the key words. (See Case History 
2 below.) 

102 



BORES: THEIR CAUSE AND CURE 

Ask a lot of questions. Break in sharply with irrelevant 
comment. 

Lead him down some by-way of his own narrative. 

Interrupt. Tell stories yourself in such an aggressive man- 
ner he is forced to listen. 

If these fail, create outside diversions. Drop things, go 
to the telephone. Make the dog bark. Get up and walk 
around. Fetch Junior's new mechanical kangaroo. The 
bore may get the idea you're too fidgety to make a good 
listener. He will probably save his own efforts for others 
and favor you with some of his lighter and more interest- 
ing pieces. 

If one happens to be studying a foreign language, a bore 
can be a useful helper. While he is talking, translate his 
speech into Spanish, Finnish, Choctaw, as the case may 
be. With an interesting talker you could never keep your 
mind on the mechanics of speech. With a bore you can 
translate for long periods without having the foggiest idea 
of what lies behind the words. A college student took this 
suggestion with such reprehensible seriousness that he re- 
ported at the end of the year he had learned more Spanish 
in chapel than in the Spanish class. 

So much for the less noxious types of bores. We come 
now to some grim cases: 

CASE HISTORY I (GRADE A BORE) 

The Princesse de L comes from an old American family, 
wealthy and influential ever since the railroads began gash- 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

ing the western prairies with steel rails. The men in the 
family have not only turned the trick in Wall street but 
have been keen politicians. A few blundered off the main 
track into education and literature. The women have al- 
ways been flighty and "brilliant/' addicted to writing novels 
and memoirs, and fancying themselves as patronesses of 
the arts. 

The Princesse's mother and father kept open house for 
all visiting celebrities. A much more difficult feat, they even 
trapped native specimens. The children of the family saw 
eminent scientists, surgeons, statesmen, men of letters, at 
close range, as other children see the butcher, the baker 
and the radio repair man. They got plenty of material for 
stories, skits, anecdotes. Conversation in the family circle 
was fuE of erratic allusions, weird phrases, elliptical stories. 
After an hour of this "brilliant" conversation, the ordinary 
mortal would have felt the air was saturated with mustard 
gas. 

The youngest daughter married a German baron, di- 
vorced him and went to live in England where she culti- 
vated "the right set." She was decorous, unostentatious, 
imperious to the point of rudeness. "The right set** approved 
of her and she had several chances for good marriages. But 
she preferred the Prince de L. She transferred her head- 
quarters to Paris. 

Now, at the age of forty, she knows New York, Lon- 
don, Berlin and Paris upside down. She can be boring with 
equal facility in three languages. 

She has a sharp tongue, an eye that misses nothing, a 
seventh sense for perceiving the weak points in the armor 
of others. She is destitute of loyalty, she has no charity, she 
is convinced that good manners arc suitable for peasants. 

104 



BORES: THEIR CAUSE AND CURE 

Finally she is one of the most ruthless egoists that ever 
inhabited the planet. 

Nothing interests the Princesse except herself and the 
persons and things that reflect her personality. She talks in- 
cessantly, not only anecdotes of which she has an inex- 
haustible supply, but opinions, ideas, scandals, jokes, 
disquisitions on historical topics, anything that pops into 
her head. A great deal pops into her head. 

Handsome, well-dressed, she commands attention. She is 
determined to keep it. It must be one of her innermost 
persuasions that people attend her parties and dinners just 
to hear her gabble. Her "brilliance" runs away with her 
so her eyes sparkle, her face becomes flushed, her head 
tilts in a pose she probably learned from Marlene Dietrich. 

It is not always easy to understand what she is talking 
about because she cultivates a kind of throaty inarticulation 
she acquired in England. She tosses in French and German 
words, she makes mysterious allusions to persons and events, 
assuming that all will understand, hoping that no one will. 
The listener must strain his ears to get the wit, the mot 
juste, the spicy revelation. There are plenty of people who 
rebel at the strain and so avoid her. 

She doesn't mind because her houses in Paris and London, 
her good food, her flocks of celebrities, lure new customers. 
Her soirees are as popular as the late Daddy Browning's 
adoption parties. 

The Princesse is so clever she sometimes starts a story 
right in the middle: 

"Most extraordinary it was! When I spied the moth- 
eaten creature right at my own table I wondered how he 
had got there. It was too thick! When he made the remark 
about Anthony Eden I knew I was in the pttrin. So ..." 

105 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

The Princesse often tells stories just as confusing; I 
quote and cherish this one because it was one of the few 
times she got caught by the heels. A testy old general put 
up his hand and said, in a voice he had probably once used 
to "squads right": "Princesse, what are you talking about? 
What was extraordinary? Who was at your table? Why 
was he moth-eaten? What did he say about Anthony Eden? 
What does pStrin mean?" 

Unabashed, still sprightly and radiant, the Princesse threw 
her gears into reverse, tossed ofl a few explanations, and 
then plunged ahead. 

She didn't stop for half an hour. A rough inventory at 
the end indicated she had told four screaming stories (I 
didn't know the people she was talking about and so didn't 
scream), referred to the Maharajah of Nepal, Mussolini, 
and Milan Stoyadinovitch with an air that implied she 
knew all their secrets, quoted Voltaire and James Russell 
Lowell, made brief excursions into Chinese painting, wom- 
en's hats, chess, Moorish architecture. She ended up by 
reading three paragraphs from an article she had written 
for an English magazine, the article being excavated from 
the depths of her handbag. 

When she talks, the Princesse's eyes sweep the faces of 
her audience like anti-aircraft beacons. If she sees one pair 
of dull or wandering eyes, she concentrates on them like 
a sorceress. If the eyes don't respond she treats their pos- 
sessor with studied rudeness during the rest of the eve- 
ning. 

When someone else talks the Princesse looks into space 
and drums on the arms of her chair. Sometimes she coughs. 
If there is a moment's silence, she tries to crash in with 
something of her own. If the devices fail they often do 

106 




, what arc you tdtyng about?' 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

she assumes an injured expression and meditates on some- 
thing far away. She has the air of a woman in a trance, 

CASE HISTORY 2 (GRADE B BORE) 

"Did I ever tell you the story about the wrist watch?" 

It was four in the morning, the hour when the energies 
reach their lowest depths. I hadn't the spirit to put up a 
fight. 

I looked over at Harcourt who had taken the last tele- 
phone call from Marseilles and was stretching himself with 
one foot on his desk preparatory to a long bout of talking. 
His face was hidden by a green lamp shade. I could see only 
his parted lips. 

This was in Paris as you can guess. If Paris for you means 
the Ritz bar, the Champs-Elysees on a golden day in sum- 
mer, the American Express, the Louvre, the rose windows 
of Notre Dame, you have no idea what Paris can be like 
when you work from midnight till eight in the morning 
through the dreary, dripping days of winter. 

All night the telephone buzzed from Rome, Madrid, 
Berlin, Belgrade, Warsaw, Brussels. Greta Garbo had been 
seen skating in Zurich, baking biscuits in Stockholm at 
the same hour. (It would be definitely established later 
that she was making a picture in Hollywood.) A French 
peasant had kept his wife and two servants chained up in a 
dog house. King Peter of Jugoslavia got a teddy bear for 
Christmas. Mussolini was putting on another of his "I 
love Peace but . . ." skits. Americans insisted on having 
these tidbits with their morning prune juice. 

The business had a certain comic value but it was can- 
celed by Harcourt who was one of God's prime bores. 

His idea of conversation was a series of anecdotes told by 

108 



BORES: THEIR CAUSE AND CURE 

himself. He parceled out his whole forty-three years into 
anecdotes. "Did I tell you about the spy in Cairo?" . . . 
"Did I tell you about the time I met King Albert?" . . . 
"Did you hear about the shirt studs in Melbourne?" 

He had been in the British Navy during the war and 
this provided the bulk of his stories. 

His voice sounded again, timidly insistent "I don't think 
I ever told you about the wrist watch." 

Looking back I couldn't remember anything about a 
wrist watch. "I don't think so/' I said, resigned to hearing 
it out. 

"Well, in 1917 our outfit was stationed near Falmouth. 
One night . . ." 

I remembered it! Furtively I took a card out of my 
drawer. It told me that Harcourt had told me that story 
eleven times and was now on the twelfth performance. 
The story was simply this: Harcourt was on a torpedoed 
convoy ship. He found himself in the water and by means 
of a raft and a buoy had kept afloat for six hours till an- 
other ship picked him up. In one version he had slept, in 
another he had fainted. 

Each time it began difierendy. "Did I tell you about the 
torpedo?" . . . "Did I tell you about my experience in Fal- 
mouth?" 

And now the twelfth version began with a wrist watch. 
The watch had never stopped while he was in the water. 
He still wore it. 

I learned that there were certain key words that could 
get him going* "Torpedo," of course, was one. "Shipwreck" 
was another. It became a game to deflect him when he ap- 
proached one of the incendiary words. Although I had 
deflected hi a score of times> had told him curdy that I 

109 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

knew the story, had left the room abruptly, I heard every 
story in his repertoire at least four times, 

In talking about Harcourt I don't want to exaggerate* 
He was a decent human being with all sorts of attractive 
qualities* I would rather have the memory of an amicable 
association with him than nine-tenths of all the "clever" 
conversation I have swallowed. But no instinct of charity 
could gloss over the fact he was a major bore. Some of 
his greatest exploits of story-telling brought physical misery 
to his hearers. 

I used to wonder how he could have compressed his 
whole life story into a score of anecdotes. One explanation 
was that he had a lazy mind and a poor memory. When he 
returned from a trip he had many little tidbits about his 
adventures. But as the days went by he would forget some 
and then reduce the rest of the crop to two or three. Finally 
it would decline to one not necessarily the best, or, from 
his point of view, the most glamorous. It was as if his 
subconscious mind had said, "I shall let this story about the 
toothpick and the policeman stand for the first six months 
of the year. It was undoubtedly the outstanding event of 
this period." 

CASE HISTORY 3 (GRADE B BORE) 

Very often on meeting Harvey G people remark, "That's 
the most interesting man I ever met. I hope to see him 
again." 

There's every reason in the world why Harvey G should 
be an interesting conversationalist. His profession of min- 
ing engineer has taken him all over the world, not only 
the centers of population, but outlandish spots no one else 
ever heard about. He has used his eyes and stocked his 

no 



BORES: THEIR CAUSE AND CURE 

brain. He can jump from Jainism to Mayan architecture, 
from bacteriology to British social security schemes, with- 
out batting an eyelash. 

His job has given him plenty of time for thinking and 
reading. He is in the habit of saying, "The great triumph 
of my life was to be satisfied with my own company.** 
Why he ever strayed away from anything ite likes so much 
is a question that must beset every listener after the first 
half hour. 

Harvey's conversation technique is simple. He may have 
picked it up from reading about French salons. "Sit down," 
he says. "Let me pour you a drink. And have a cigar, I 
get them from Havana. A friend has them made specially 
for me." 

A few hours later you look at the empty glass and the 
cigar stub and think of the offerings the ancient Egyptians 
used to put in the coffins of their honored dead. 

Harvey prides himself on his fairness, so more than likely 
he will ask you a few questions. "Did you make money 
out of that Paramount stock?" . . . "How's that friend 
of yours . . . the one from Louisville?" Or, if there is 
nothing of more recent interest he will ask you if you 
like L'ducation Sentimentale as well as Of Human 
Bondage. 

That's the end for you. You have had your drink, your 
cigar, your fifty or sixty words. 

Harvey stretches himself in his comfortable chair, dears 
his throat, looks at the ceiling and lets the clutch out 

Harvey's programs are varied. If you get a little on Boliv- 
ian birds at the beginning, you aren't surprised to have the 
same program contain something on Ford Madox Ford, 
Danish food, anesthetics, frauds in the fur business, double- 

in 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE . 

entry bookkeeping, Ming vases and somebody's concerto 
for ocarina and five saucepans. 

Harvey likes instructive conversation. Rarely does he 
mention himself.. 

A dose business associate of his said, "If I were forced 
to write his obituary, I could be sure of only three things, 
that he was born in Batavia, Illinois, that he had hives 
once from eating artichokes, that he flunked geometry in 
high school*" 

Coda 

In describing the last three bores I have no intention of 
putting them down as representative types. They are merely 
given as individuals, extraordinarily gifted in their specialty. 
Each has the power and intensity of five or six minor 
bores rolled into one. 

To understand a type, one should examine the best ex- 
amples. Greek architecture is much clearer after one has 
seen the Parthenon. 

The three combine the chief qualities of the breed. They 
all refuse to listen genuinely listen. The two men some- 
times make a pretense (hence their rating as Grade B 
bores); the Princesse never does. All are too egocentric to 
be interested in the affairs of others. 

Two are mild-mannered, the third is ruthless and some- 
times rude. 

They are, all three, addicted to telling stories. 

Is this kind of bore beyond redemption? 

The sad answer is: usually yes. 

112 



BORES: THEIR CAUSE AND CURE 

The problem for the rest of us is not how to save them 
but how to save ourselves from the damaging effects of 
being treated like pieces of blotting paper. 

So, unless we happen to be tied to such a bore through 
marriage, business, safe-cracking or other circumstances be- 
yond our control, the only solution is to chuck the fellow 
finally, definitely, brutally and think no more about it. 



CHAPTER NINE 



THE PIG'S TAIL AND OTHER MATTERS 

CORAL'S CLEVER BUT i ALWAYS COME AWAY FEELING LIKE 
a worm." 

This sentence, spoken in a plaintive voice, floated out of 
a stateroom on the Broadway Limited. I didn't see the 
speaker and I heard no more about Coral* But I could 
imagine the whole story. So can you. 

Conversation is one of our chief weapons in the world 
but unfortunately many use it like a bayonet or worse, like 
a bludgeon. You know the people addicted to such remarks 
as "Believe me, / showed her up!" ... "I laid him out in 
lavender." ... "I didn't let them think they were putting 
anything over on me." Fearful of being done in, pretending 
to be very bold, they run around stabbing and cudgeling, 
leaving a trail of enemies behind them, wondering in the 
end how they could be so disliked. 

Only a superheterodyne optimist could say that we should 
always be kind and considerate to our fellow men. Some- 
times it is necessary to fight, to injure, to be rude and in- 
sulting* But we should never do these things except with 
our eyes wide open. It makes it easier to bear the conse- 
quences of our acts. 

114 



THE PIG'S TAIL AND OTHER MATTERS 

A clever man with a bayonet tongue should realize that 
he, too, is a good target. If he has a tough skin, so much 
the better. If a tender one, he shouldn't be surprised if he 
has to carry his vanity around in a sling for days at a time. 

A man with a bayonet tongue usually fancies himself 
as a cynic. In reality he is usually the most innocent sort 
of optimist. He feels sure that his thrusts will alter the 
character of friends and enemies. The reformer's spirit is so 
strong within him that he cannot resist the opportunity 
to expose humbug, track down errors in logic, correct gram- 
matical mistakes, trap others in their lies. 

If the lies, errors, grammatical mistakes and humbug did 
any harm he would have a right to intervene. But when 
they are harmless, as they often are, the reformer offends 
others merely to satisfy his own petty vanity. The least he 
can do is to refrain from whining when he gets what is 
coming to him. 

So much for the deliberate aggressor. Let us turn to the 
inept conversationalist who offends others without intend- 
ing it. When he makes acrid remarks about certain races, 
he never dreams, of course, that there may be members of 
such races in the room. He may express the opinion that 
all actors are crackpots and then turn to the beautiful 
woman across the table for support. He finds it an amazing 
coincidence that she is an actress. 

With his own friends the inept conversationalist is only 
a little better. He avoids gross insults of course, but he 
offends in small and subtle ways. One woman still smarts 

"5 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

from his remarks on thick ankles. Another woman re- 
members a year afterwards how scathingly he showed up 
her stupidity at bridge. A none-too-prosperous male friend 
tries to forget certain stinging comments on "those who buy 
cheap liquor." 

Inept conversationalists not infrequently confess their 
fault. "Oh," they say, *Tm always putting my foot in it.'* 
Do they say this with humility, with contrition? Do they 
show any inclination to reform? Oh never! They say it with 
a fat, self-satisfied smile. They pamper their little vice. 
Until inept conversationalists leave off their Cheshire-cat 
confessions, there is not much hope for them. 

If they have the will to reform they ought to take a 
holiday from reckless chatter and study the sensibilities of 
others. It needs no profound study, merely a glance at the 
surface of human behavior, to know what is likely to offend 
others. When the glib talker has learned his lesson he 
should stop and reflect before perpetrating his "witty sal- 
lies," particularly all those sentences beginning, "Well, to 
be quite frank with you . . ." 

Candor 

Clumsy conversationalists often defend themselves by boast- 
ing of their candor. You have met the man who says, 
"Well, you know me, I just out with it without thinking." 
Or, "I can't be bothered covering up my opinions, I be- 
lieve in frankness." 

Anyone afflicted with this gift of candor has no reason 

116 



THE PIG'S TAIL AND OTHER MATTERS 

to boast. It reveals the clodhopper mind. There are many 
times when candor is called for, but many more 
when silence is infinitely the greater virtue. 




Encourage her to enter into her next hat-buying expedition 
in a more reflective spirit. 

If your wife buys an atrocious hat and asks your opinion, 
you might conceivably do her a good turn by saying that 
feathers aren't for her. Or, more ruthlessly (if she happens 

117 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

to be an obdurate, perverse woman) that feathers make 
her look like a hag. It might encourage her to enter into 
her next hat-buying expedition in a more reflective spirit. 
In any case, if you are obliged to be seen in public with 
the offending hat, you have some rights in the matter. 

But suppose a stranger at a party asks your opinion of 
her new hat. To your shocked gaze it looks like a pancake 
griddle garnished with shaving brushes. But the stranger 
is fishing for a compliment. Why make an enemy? You 
have probably no chance of reforming her and no one will 
blame you for her eccentric tastes. 

If people tell harmless lies to bolster up their own ego 
why expose them? You can learn as much about another 
man from listening to his lies as to his truths. If you really 
have a shrewd and penetrating mind, you won't care if a 
liar takes you for a gullible person. If you have an inno- 
cent mind, and are trying to conceal it, by all means ex- 
pose the liars. Only the smart ones will know why you do it. 

Candid people often endow themselves with a certain 
Galahad quality. They cannot tell a lie. Tell a secret to a 
Galahad and he will proceed to divulge it His defense 
will be, "I can't lie and besides it was so silly concealing 
a little thing like that." 

It was silly to him but a matter of vital importance to 
you! Galahads usually have a rush of honesty to the head 
when someone else's welfare is concerned. In their own 
affairs they manage to reconcile discretion and honor. 

118 



THE PIG'S TAIL AND OTHER MATTERS 

Sarcasm 

Another trait of the clumsy conversationalist is sarcasm. 
This again betrays a maladroit mind. The man who habit- 
ually deals in sarcasm cannot cope with a situation or 
argument as a whole; he always fastens on a single phase. 

For sarcasm is usually a little fragment of the truth re- 
moved from its setting to incite sharp and immediate re- 
action. It amuses us in the same way as those scenes in the 
animated cartoons wherein the pig's tail leaves the pig and 
leaps into the air to thrash a big, bad wolf. There was noth- 
ing funny about the pig's tail while it stayed where it 
belonged. There was nothing funny about the remark that 
incited the sarcasm until it was snatched from its context 
and held up to isolated inspection. 

Sarcasm is sometimes justified because it really does 
clarify an idea by removing it from useless wrappings. 
Sometimes a booby's speech doesn't deserve consideration 
as a whole. One sarcastic jibe at its most ludicrous phase 
does the trick. 

But on the whole, sarcasm means taking a cheap ad- 
vantage. 



119 



CHAPTER TEN 



MONKEY WRENCHES IN THE MACHINERY 

IN OTHER CHAPTERS WE HAVE DEALT WITH BORES, ANEO 
dotards, culture fiends and others who do not merely 
interfere with a conversation but blow it to smithereens. 

This chapter deals wtih lesser offenders. Many conversa- 
tionalists combine great virtues with petty but annoying 
faults. Their eccentricities, mannerisms, affectations are an 
irritation to others. Clumsy rather than perverse, they de- 
flect a conversation from its natural channel, they change 
its tone, they slow it up. They are the monkey-wrench 
throwers. 

Monkey-wrench throwers are usually amenable to reason. 
But no one applies reason. Their friends don't feel like 
saying, "Charlie, you're perfect until you start on those 
Chinese stories." . . . "Susie, if you keep on saying, 'now 
another thing' there's going to be a divorce in your family." 

Let us get down to some varieties of monkey-wrench 
throwing: 

Dialogue 

**So he said, 'Come along.* " 
"And I said, *I simply can V " 

120 



MONKEY WRENCHES IN THE MACHINERY 

"And he said, 'Why not?' " 

"'Why?' I said, "because I made a date with Louella.*" 

Those who use too much dialogue are among the most 
tiresome talkers on the planet. Constant reiteration o "I 
said'* and "he said" leaves the listener too befuddled to 
follow the thought. The above sentences could better be 
put into narrative: 

"He urged me to come but I explained I had an engage- 
ment." 

Here is another example: 

"So Jim said, 'No, let me pay for it' and then Joe said, 
*No, you paid for it the last time' and then Jim began to 
sulk and said, 'You're always making the same remark. 
Now let it go and I'll take care of it.* Then Joe tried to 
catch the waiter's eye and he said, 'Absolutely not. This 
one's on me.' Right here Jim got raving. TouVe got the 
manners of a peasant/ he said." 

Why not this way: 

"Joe and Jim had a wrangle about who should pay for 
lunch check. It ended with Joe shouting, TouVe got the 
manners of a peasant.' ** 

It takes seventy-six words to tell it in dialogue, twenty- 
five in narrative. The narrative is much clearer. Only one 
sentence is quoted verbatim and that because it reveals 
something about the speaker. 

Edith Wharton made the observation that good novelists 
use dialogue sparingly only when it is desirable to tell the 

121 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

exact words spoken by a character. The same holds for 
conversation. 

Mimicry 

Mimicry bores have already been mentioned. Under this 
heading we include the minor mimicry addicts who are 
never boring but mildly pathetic. 

The ability to imitate is a delightful asset to a conversa- 
tion. Those who can tell what the janitor said to the washer- 
woman with all the inflections of Negro and Swedish ac- 
cents know how to make a story swim better, I they can 
recreate Jewish pants merchants, Irish ward heelers, Italian 
fish peddlers they can entertain people with the flimsiest 
little incidents. 

But if they do it to excess, they will get the reputation 
for being entertainers. People will begin saying, "He's 
marvelous. We'll have him to the big party. But as for this 
little dinner tonight . . no, I don't feel up to skits." 

Conversation should never sound like paid, professional 
entertainment. 

Dragging a Red-Haired Harridan Across the Trail 
"I got into New York and then this man took me to dinner 
at the Gallon." 

Well, what man? 

Some conversationalists have a perfect mani? for mys- 
tery and anonymity. Instead of being forthright about it 
they compromise by using, "this man," "this certain per~ 

122 



MONKEY WRENCHES IN THE MACHINERY 

son," "these people," "somebody I know." The illiterates 
say, "I heard it from a certain party." 

If the story is long there is usually a confusion of pro- 
nouns. To avoid saying "he" or "she" the speaker says, "So 
this friend telephoned me and said . . . they said they 
couldn't go and so of course I had to phone to someone 
else and this other person I phoned said that . . ." 

You, the listener, can't tell if its Shirley Temple, the 
Duke of Windsor or the Sing-Sing baseball team. What's 
more, you don't care. 

Then there is the opposite side of the picture, the speaker 
who insists on identifying each minor character in his 
adventures. You get something like this: 

"I was going to the bank when who should I meet but 
Marty Harrison. You've heard me mention Marty. Used 
to be at Gimcracks when I was there. Marty's always got 
the latest news* Got a sort of nose for news if you get 
what I mean. Sort of runs in the family. His two halfc 
brothers, Joe and Sylvester, are reporters. Anyway, Marty, 
he's Barbara's cousin by the way, told me that Blue Baboon 
Pretzel debentures are due for a rise." 

Nothing would have been lost if the speaker had kept 
Marty out of the conversation. This would have covered it: 

"On my way to the bank I met a friend who told me 
Blue Baboon Pretzel debentures are due for a rise." 

The New Testament is full of parables that describe the 
characters simply as the Poor Man, the Sinner, the Good 

123 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

Samaritan. The Good Samaritan, described by Marty's 
friend, would probably come out like this: 

"Did I ever tell you about Smnlkins Ike Smulkins? 
Never heard o him? The one they call the Good Samari- 
tan? Well, listen, last week he hops into his Studebaker, 
Ike did, all set to get to Jericho by seven. He had a date 
with Ethel Olson, you know her, don't you? God, you 
don't know anybody! Ethel used to sing over MGYR, 
torch songs and all that. Well anyways, Smulkins gets a 
blowout, see, and has to stop at a garage. The guy that 
runs it ... what was his name? . . . funny, it was right 
on the tip of my tongue . . . wait a minute! Hank Bas- 
com, that's it. Hank tells Smulkins there's a guy in the 
back room that got banged up by a coupk thugs. So 
Smulkins goes into the back room and comes out again. 
'That guy needs more'n a rest,' says he. ^Here's a fiver. 
Send the mug to the hospital and I'll foot the bill.*" 

There are two ways to introduce characters into conver- 
sation. One is to be crisply anonymous: "A friend of mine 
told me that . . ." "A red-headed harridan I met on the 
bus . - ." If for any reason you see fit to withhold names, 
be bold about it. It's the evasive phrases that irritate your 
listener. 

But suppose you wish to identify the characters in your 
tale. Don't begin, 'This man that took me to lunch." Start 
right off at the beginning: 

"I had a letter to a man named George Redwood in 
Cleveland. He is a lawyer, writes articles for law journals 

124 



MONKEY WRENCHES IN THE MACHINERY 

and he's something of a golf expert. He's about thirty-five, 
not married* When I got to Cleveland, I sent the letter. 




"A red-headed harridan I met on the Bus . . /' 

The next morning he telephoned and asked me to lunch 
and then to play golf." (A woman, of course, is telling 
this.) 

125 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

Or: 

"You've heard me mention Tony Gorham who was my 
classmate in college. He has just busted into the movies. 
When I was in Hollywood I phoned him. He was having 
a party and invited me over. That's how I met William 
Powell and Lily Pons ."* 

Whatever you intend to tell about George Redwood or 
Tony Gorham, your audience will have some notion of 
what it's all about. 

When should characters be unidentified? When should 
you mention their names and give a brief account of their 
works and pomps? 

In general, characters entering the conversation briefly 
and casually should be left nameless: "A friend of mine 
told me the other day . . ." "The butcher says that , . ." 

If the speaker intends to refer to the characters again 
and again, or if the incident is important, they should be 
identified at the offset. 

But suppose you want to relate an incident involving 
constant references to a man whose name you do not wish 
to reveal, Then be forthright about it. Don't hedge. Don't 
say, "This man . . ." Say, "This involves a man whose 
name I can't reveal. I'll call him Jimmy to keep things 
straight'* 

*This is a lic^ of course. The speaker saw William Powell and Lily 
Poos at the Brown Derby. But even lies can be arranged in workmanlike 
older* 

126 



MONKEY WRENCHES IN THE MACHINERY 

"Now Another Thing" 

Clarence has just told Maudie he will have no more burnt 
toast for breakfast. It makes him sick to his stomach. His 
nerves cannot stand the sound of the morning scraping. 
He paid ten dollars for a toaster that rings a warning bell 
but Maudie lets it go on ringing as if it were the Fuller 
Brush man at the front door. His mother never let toast 
burn. It's all disgusting. 

These are fighting words but Maudie might have ab- 
sorbed them to her own benefit. She might have been 
frightened into a reform. 

But Clarence goes on to say, "Now another thing. I'm 
sick of picking up after you. You're too slatternly. You 
spill powder all over the bathroom floor. You let the cat 
play with my shirts. I could swear you use my razor for 
sharpening pencils." 

Clarence has covered too much groundaat one session. 
Maudie merely concludes he's peevish, that his various 
complaints spring from last night's highballs. She there- 
upon ignores all the complaints, including the one on 
ebony toast 

e *Now another thing" is a favorite expression with peo-, 
pie caught in intense situations. They ought to remember 
that the moment they wander away from the central theme 
of the conversation, they are losing ground and flirting 
with defeat. 

127 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

Affectations 

You have met people who, after spending a summer in 
Europe, a guidebook in one hand, a phrasebook in the 
other, return to America and shower the landscape with 
foreign words and phrases. They suffer from Weltschmerz^ 
they adore Wicncr^affcc, they yearn for dolcc far niente. 

Most o them get over it but those who persist might 
reflect on the following: 

Peppering the speech with foreign words and phrases is 
one of the marks of a conversation snob. 

Good linguists can usually keep their languages apart. 

In America few people can get the sense of a sentence 
that contains such words as corrida, Weltanschauung, b&- 
guin, oi sunetoi. 

Listeners are usually more irritated than impressed. 

"But," someone remonstrates, "there are certain words 
in foreign languages that have no English equivalents." 

There are. If you are talking about cantes flamencos, 
hors d'oeuvres, or tre ore, you must use these words. They 
are standard labels for unique things. 

Certain other words such as putsch, simpdtico, laissez- 
faire have crept into English usage. Anyone has a right 
to use them and those who are too lazy to consult the dic- 
tionary have no right to complain. 

There are plenty of words possessing subtle nuances that 
cannot be translated (abruU and chftif are examples from 
French, gemutHchJ(eit and Uebenswwrdig from German), 

128 



MONKEY WRENCHES IN THE MACHINERY 

Does this mean we have an excuse to drag them into Eng- 
lish speech? 

It does not. Leave them where they belong and find 
cruder English equivalents. There's always this consolation, 
that for every word that cannot be translated from French 
to English, there are a dozen that cannot be translated 
from English to French. With German the ratio is even 
higher. English is an incredibly rich language. Those who 
speak it have no more right to begrudge other languages 
their niceties than a millionaire has a right to begrudge a 
factory worker his 1930 Ford. 

When we must use foreign words how shall we pro- 
nounce them? As they are pronounced in the land of their 
origin? If we do, we shall be accused of putting on airs. 
Shall we anglicize them completely? Then we shall be 
accused of ignorance. In discussing French words which 
provide the major migration' into English, H. W. Fowler 
recommends a compromise. He points out, and quite righdy, 
that to toss a French word or phrase into an English 
sentence, pronouncing it as the French do, means a com- 
plete readjustment of the throat muscles. 

Few can slip from one accent to another; the French 
words affect the English intonation and vice versa. Fow- 
ler's solution is, therefore, to make acknowledgement to 
the foreign language by an approximately correct pro- 
nunciation without disturbing the flow of words. 

This seems a good solution for all foreign words, no mat- 
ter what the language, entering into English speech. Pro- 

129 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

nounce them as correctly as possible without spraining the 
tongue and throat muscles. But the problem should not come 
up too often. 

Other Affectations 

Many people make exhibitions of themselves without the 
help of a foreign language. They achieve it by mangling 
English words and adopting eccentric pronunciations. 

A short stay in England is a snare for many Americans. 
They like to say "goods van" for freight car, "wireless" 
for radio, "geyser" (pronounced geezer) for hot-water 
heater. They pronounce "trait" as "tray" and give an sh 
instead of s\ sound to "ski** and "schedule." 

A schoolteacher I once knew cultivated a speech that 
sounded like a bassoon in a chicken coop. Her natural form 
of expression was flat middle western. Into this she kneaded 
a number of expressions she must have picked out of Scot- 
tish novels such as "It will be no amiss to ask you a few 
questions." She pronounced down as "doon" and dead as 
"day-ed," And of course she trotted out all the subjunctives 
in her grammar: "If he be all right . . ." "If Robert arrive 
on time." 

These were only a few of her caprices with words. No 
one had the foggiest idea of what she was talking about; 
everyone's attention was focused on her syntax and pro- 
nunciation. People listened with the same astonishment they 
would have shown if the duchess had appeared in the 
opera's diamond horseshoe clad in a pink bathing suit. 

130 



MONKEY WRENCHES IN THE MACHINERY 

Misplaced pedantry isn't the only form of conversation 
snobbery. A young man who probably did very well in 
Professor Perkins' English IV likes to say "I ain't," "I 
knowed him," "them things," "I went for to see him." 
These expressions, he thinks, sound virile and picturesque 
when spoken by a rustic. 

Some forms of speech like some vintages of wine don't 
travel well. 

Another misguided soul, a frisky business man, special- 
ized in mispronunciations. He said "Mininapolis," "mizzled" 
for misled, "proo-ins" for prunes. When it became fairly 
certain that he was doing it not from ignorance but from 
coyness, I asked him why. 

"I like to make people laugh," he said. 

That being the case, I laughed. 

Still another sinner cultivated an eccentric vocabulary. 
In a ten-minute conversation he got off "variet," "streel," 
"glowpering/* "rubescent." Some of his words were obsolete, 
some "literary,*' and some he confected himself. 

Good conversationalists, on the whole, prefer to be in- 
teresting for what they say rather than how they say it. 
Their style is effective but not obtrusive. This does not 
mean that picturesque expressions, new slang, invented 
words, are not desirable. Very often they contribute to a 
good style. 

But if the audience is kept so busy remarking one's af- 
fectations, outlandish phrases, eccentric syntax, it is certain 
that the speaker's remarks won't make any impression. An 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

eccentric conversationalist has the same charm as a host 
who puts firecrackers under the table to stir things up. 
Once is enough. 

General and Specific 

Some conversations are by nature casual, random gossipy 
affairs that deal with personalities and specific incidents. 
Others deal with ideas, abstractions, general observations. 

There is no reason why a conversation shouldn't be a 
little of each, no reason why one kind of conversation 
shouldn't switch over to the other kind. But people who 
habitually change the tone of a conversation ought to think 
twice before attempting it. 

Why? Because people engaged in random gossip don't 
usually welcome a flood of big ideas. Because people deal- 
ing with ideas usually resent a flood of small talk. 

Let us take an example of a specific conversation. Several 
amateur photographers are exchanging notes on their ex- 
periences, on types of cameras, cost of enlargements, tricks 
o technique. They seem to be enjoying themselves. But 
one man breaks in with, "Well, photography has a long 
way to go before it can be considered a fine art.'* He gives 
his reasons, compares photography with painting and then 
plunges into a monologue on aesthetics. 

No one said, of course, that photography was a fine art. 
The speakers merely wanted to be left in peace to discuss 
Leicas and ways of sneaking up on Baltimore Orioles. But 
one man insists on switching the conversation from the 



MONKEY WRENCHES IN THE MACHINERY 

specific to the general. The others don't welcome the change. 
They behave as if a croquet player had invaded a golf 
course shouting, "I don't want you to play this game any 
more. You must come and play mine." 

And now an example of general conversation. A biologist, 
a physician and four kymen are discussing multiple births. 
The ratio of twins to normal births is such and such. The 
ratio of triplets is ... Multiple births have a tendency to 
run in families. Women may take out twin insurance. A 
department store advertises to women: "Buy your layette 
from us in advance and if it's twins, we will present you 
with another outfit." And so on. The conversation is all 
impersonal. The participants are inevitably reminded of 
anecdotes but they realize the subject is not dealing with 
individual cases. So anecdotes are suppressed. One woman 
is the mother of twins but nobly holds her peace. Another 
woman has less sense. Her attention wanders. "Oh, did I 
tell you my janitor's wife had twins last week? They're 
darling!" This silly interruption has changed the tone of 
the conversation. No one wanted to hear about the jani- 
tor's twins but four people wanted to hear what the 
biologist was going to say on types of twins. 

This business of distinguishing between the general and 
the specific may be the most subtle trap of conversation. 
Many who are keen enough to avoid every other blunder 
seem perfectly capable of dragging pointless anecdotes into 
general discussions or of turning pleasant gossip sessions 
into philosophic inquiries. 

133 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

CASE HISTORY A 

Claire G, wife of a professor, is a pleasant, attractive woman 
of forty, who has been a great aid to her husband because 
of her ability to get on with people of all ages and classes. 
She has a radiant line of chatter that is particularly effective 
in large, disjointed affairs such as cocktail parties. Her 
dinners, however, are another matter. Her husband has 
taught himself not to wince when she throws a monkey 
wrench into the conversation. 

Here is one of her typical performances: 

Ten guests sat down to Claire's table. Two had just re- 
turned from Sweden and the professor questioned them 
on their impressions. These evolved into a general discus- 
sion of Swedish social progress, eight of the guests taking 
part* 

Suddenly one guest remarked, "I'm sick of hearing 
Sweden held up as a Utopia. To me the Swedes are a 
complacent, sterile people. Their sense of security deadens 
their senses. They're only half alive!" 

At this, a vigorous, passionate discussion broke loose. 
The man who made the incendiary statement was chal- 
lenged right and left. 

During a momentary lull, Claire chirped up. "Yes > in- 
deed, the Swedes are a very curious people. . . ." 

Everyone turned to her expectandy. That is, everyone 
except her husband who became suddenly engrossed in a 
pear salad. How would Claire amplify her statement that 
the Swedes are a curious people? By showing that Swedes 
have traits found in no other people? By proving, for in- 
stance, that all Swedes smash their coffee cups after drink- 
ing from them, that their trains have no roofs, that they 

134 



MONKEY WRENCHES IN THE MACHINERY 

never wash behind their ears on Thursdays, that they teach 
their cats to roller skate? 

With eight pairs o eyes fastened on her (the professor 
by this time was trying to scratch the satsuma pattern off 
the salad plates) Claire smiled brightly and repeated, "Yes, 
indeed, the Swedes are a curious people. Now you take 
my maid, for instance. She does the most fantastic things." 

She recounted five incidents in the life of the maid. One 
was calling the telephone company to demand bells that 
sounded like chimes. 

Claire seemed surprised that the guests lost all interest 
in their discussion on Sweden. 

CASE HISTORY B 

Agatha D must have received many compliments during 
her thirty-four years, but the only one that went to her head 
was "she never discusses personalities, even herself." 

Long before this remark was passed on to her, Agatha 
probably had inclinations toward abstract conversations. 
She is as cold as Craig's wife and her various avocations 
such as horses, Mexican pottery, ski-ing in fashionable re- 
sorts, luring men on and freezing them away, are enough 
to exhaust her passions. She keeps a glacial gulf between 
herself and all other human beings. It is explicable that dis- 
cussions about personalities don't interest her. But until the 
fatal "compliment*' her conversation was at least free from 
pose. 

Now she strains to raise the conversation to rare and 
bleak levels. Say that Mrs. So and So has turned out to be 
a cross-grained old hag and Agatha has the answer. First 
she makes a grimace to indicate her displeasure. Then she 
murmurs, "Some women yield so easily to advancing years." 

135 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

Agatha then wangles the talk around to a discussion on 
methods of "deferring old age." She tosses in a few re- 
marks about cosmetics, about some new pseudoscientific 
book. Before you realize it, you're knee-deep in chatter 
about women in general, what Schopenhauer said about 
them, their economic position in modern times, their fu- 
ture. And all this because you said Mrs. So and So is a 
cross-grained old hag. 

If you say that Emma has a new string of pearls, Agatha 
translates it into "why women wear jewels." Someone's 
hankering after peanut butter leads, with her zeal for 
refined abstractions, into "nourishing foods." 

Since she heard the "compliment" three years ago, it is 
doubtful if she has talked about herself a dozen times. 
This seems to be carrying self-control too far. 

Reducing a juicy bit of gossip to vague generalities is like 
pouring buttermilk into a Manhattan cocktail. 



CHAPTER ELEVEN 



THREE SPADES AND BACH FUGUES 

A CERTAIN TIMES THERE SHOULD BE NO CONVERSATION AT 
aU. 

Everyone will concur in this but not everyone will accept 
it as a guide to behavior. Many fluent conversationalists 
evidently believe at the bottom of their hearts that the occa- 
sion never existed that could not be improved with a little 
bright chatter. 

Let us name a few occasions when bright chatter is a 
scourge to the listener: 

People in pain or grief often crave silence. People in a 
variety of other states often crave silence. When people 
show no inclination to talk, whatever the reason, their 
wishes should be respected. From these occasions, that are 
not always predictable, let us continue with some that are: 

At bridge games. The game doesn't require that the 
players keep stilL But it does require that the talk be con- 
fined to casual remarks. Sustained conversation of all 
kinds, particularly anecdotes, are a nuisance. Women arc 
prone to this sort of thing: 

*T>idIteUyouIranintoHalIiday? . . . Well,Idid. . . . 
Who dealt? . , . He had an awful tale of woe ... it 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

seems his mother-in-law . . . oh, sorry! I didn't realize you 
were waiting for me ... two clubs ... his mother-in-law 
is giving away . . . can I review the bidding . . . well, Fll 
say three spades . . . she's giving away all her money to 
Negro charities . . . my lead ... in the south . . ." 

This is neither bridge nor conversation. Those who can't 
keep still at bridge or any other game requiring concentra- 
tion should withdraw. 

On commuting trains. Ask any commuter to define a 
bore and he will reply, "People who want to talk to me 
when I want to read the paper. It's the only hour I get 
for reading the whole day. And there are always buzzards 
cruising up and down the aisles looking for victims." 

In art galleries. Occasionally yes (when it's about the ex- 
hibits, when you know what you're talking about and the 
others look as if they want to hear you) but mostly no. 
Babbling destroys anyone's response to a work of art. 

In reading rooms. Many conversationalists become sud- 
denly inspired when they see a roomful of silent, absorbed 
people. They ought to buy themselves a bag of gumdrops 
equipped with Maxim, silencers. Incidentally, the sight of 
a person reading a book in a park, at home, anywhere, 
seems to provide a challenge to the garrulous. Chatty wives 
are often inspired to eloquence by the sight of their hus- 
bands looking content with a page of printed matter. 

At the theater, the opera, the movies. Why do people 
pay good money to chatter in the dark when they might 

I3 8 



THREE SPADES AND BACH FUGUES 

do it with the lights on at home? Whatever the answer, 
theater gabblers are among the most trying barbarians left 
in the world. 




Babbling destroys anyone's response to a 



of art. 



At concerts. Concert gabblers deserve special treatment. 
They are far more noxious than the gabblers who infest 
plays, operas, movies. Since the stage holds visual as well 
as vocal entertainment, the eye can absorb something while 
the ear is occupied with a chatterbox. But concerts require 

139 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

the undivided attention of the ears. To get pleasure out 
of a concert, the listener must be relaxed, free to concentrate 
on sound, safe from interruption* He pays for the privilege. 
This amounts to saying that the person who cannot keep 
still at concerts deprives others of their rights. 

No soloist or symphony concert ever set out to provide 
an obbligato for babblers. Their best efforts demand silence. 

Why do people talk at concerts? Are they bored? If so, 
why don't they stay at home and save money? Are they the 
victims of faulty glands? Why not spend the money on a 
doctor? Are they by any chance habitually silent people 
who require some particular stimulus such as a Bach fugue 
to bring them out? Finding the answers to these questions 
would require sustained research. Some student ought to 
use the subject for a thesis. 

Have you ever wondered what people whisper about 
at concerts? What subjects, what specific observations are 
so important that they cannot be deferred to the inter- 
mission? What sudden discoveries justify the buzz-buzz 
that disturbs the paying customers on every side? Here are 
six authentic, whispered remarks that spoiled great mo- 
ments for scores of people. They are an eloquent com- 
mentary on concert gabblers: 

1. "That coughing is annoying/* Made by fat woman to 
another fat woman while Lottc Lehmann was singing 
"Allerseelen" 

2. "What was that you said about Katie's hat?" Made 

140 



THREE SPADES AND BACH FUGUES 

by college boy to his girl while Toscanini was giving the 
signal to the chorus in Beethoven's Ninth. 

3. "I just happened to think , . . that man's name was 
Bertie." Made by horn-rimmed young man of type cari- 
caturists call "intellectual" to young woman of same type 
while Marian Anderson was singing Schubert's "Ave 
Maria." 

4. "I wished we'd bought the salted pecans, these things 
are too rich." Made by dowager who had studied pictures of 
Queen Mary's hats to another dowager still living under 
Clara Bow influence, while Artur Schnabel was getting into 
the second movement of Beethoven's Opus 53. 

5. "It started ofi .like The Isle of Capri.' " Made by 
man with ear trumpet addressing the first fifteen rows 
while Kreisler was playing Paganini's 24th Caprice. 

6. "Listen, is my face red?" Made by pretty girl to an- 
other pretty girl while Wanda Landowska was playing the 
larghetto movement of Mozart's D-Major Concerto. 

Listening to these thrilling revelations what would you 
say about concert conversationalists? "Thoughtless" might 
be the word if you are excessively charitable. If you go in 
for more accurate diagnosis you might experience some 
difficulty in picking between "oafs," "louts" and "boors." 

Are there no occasions when one is justified in speaking 
up at a concert? Yes, let us be fair. There are such occa- 
sions. When the remark is of vital importance, when 
deferring it would spoil the effect. For instance: 

141 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

"I just happened to remember I put Junior in the oven 
and turned on the gas." 

"Will you marry me?" 

"I forgot to tell you the police want you to drop into the 
Morgue. They've got a new stiff they think may be your 
Aunt Clementine.'* 

"That man back of me just pinched my pocketbook." 

"Did I tell you the lottery people called up to say you 
won the Irish sweepstakes?" 

If you find anything as urgent as these remarks coming 
into your head at a concert, by all means whisper or even 
shout. Otherwise, silence. Absolute silence! 



142 



CHAPTER TWELVE 



THE ART OF SAYING GOOD-BY 

A FRENCH MARQUISE IN THE REIGN OF LOUIS XVI WAS CON- 
sidered a great authority on the art of entering a 
room. Asked for her secret she replied, "I enter every room 
as if I owned it." 

Contemporary authorities on entering a room are more 
reticent about divulging their secrets but many of the 
socially successful believe, if one may judge from their be- 
havior, that the proper way to arrive at a dinner or party 
is to storm in as if they intended to demolish the piano 
with a machete. 

Through the ages a great deal has been spoken and 
written on the art of entering a room how to produce 
a good first impression. It is a pity that more attention has 
not been paid to the art of leaving a room. It is the last 
impression that counts. 

Playwrights and novelists spend as much time thinking 
up appropriate exits as entrances. Characters that hang on 
too long ruin plays and novels. Shakespeare was so eager 
to get them off the stage that he sometimes used poisons 
and daggers. Modern craftsmen are more deft. Guy de 
Maupassant, for example, could polish them off in one 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

smashing sentence. Virginia Woolf killed off one character 
in a parenthesis. 

Characters in real life, however, think only of entrances. 
They rarely know when to speak the last line and make 
for the door. 

Agnes Rcpplier has a story in one of her essays about a 
girl who put on her hat, buttoned her coat, put her hands 
in her muff, took them out, picked up a parcel, laid it 
down, shifted from one foot to the other and then said, 
"There was something I meant to say but I've forgotten.*' 

Miss Repplier replied, "Perhaps, my dear, it was good-by." 

We all of us have wished at times we had the courage 
to say the same. 

Rare is the man, rarer the woman, who doesn't under- 
stand the art of effective entrances. Some enter as the 
marquise did. Some (particularly those making the rounds 
of cocktail parries) rush in as if they were being pursued 
by a three-toed sloth bear. Others sidle in, slither in, mope 
in. Once established, they relax. They soak up drinks. 
They splash the air with anecdotes. Never a thought do 
they give to the all-important business of getting out. Rare 
is the man, rarer the woman, who does not act as if the 
threshold were covered with tanglefoot. 

Business executives deal with the problem in summary 
fashion. Once the interview is over and a visitor lingers, 
the business executive rises, moves toward the door. Into 
the executive eyes, glittering a few moments before with 
interest and admiration, comes a dull, brooding look. If 

144 



THE ART OF SAYING GOOD-BY 

the visitor doesn't step on the starter, telephones and 
buzzers shatter the air. In thirty seconds a handsome secre- 
tary breaks in, "Mr. Chuckle-Muckie, sorry to disturb you 
but Mr. O'Moriarity is calling from San Francisco. I put 
it in the outside booth." 

Transferring the machinery for this sort o thing from 
office to home would present stupendous problems. The 
average guest finds life easier at social affairs. 

When the time comes to say good-by the average guest 
does something like this: He announces halfheartedly, 
"Well, I must be going." No one pays any attention. The 
guest doesn't stir. At the next pause in the conversation he 
says, developing signs of firmness, "Really, I must be go- 
ing." The pause lengthens and the speaker slides toward 
the front of the chair. 

But this is only the beginning. Intermittently the con- 
versation is broken up with, "Oh, really, I can't stay an- 
other minute." At length the other guests realize that some- 
one is leaving. They stop talking. The departing guest 
rises, shakes hands, makes individual speeches of farewell 
"So long, Tommy, nice to see you again." . . . "Don't 
forget, Hortense, Thursday under the big clock, five 
o'clock." He then assures the host several times it has been 
a big success. He moves slowly toward the door. 

If the house is big and the host skillful, this is the end 
for the departing guest. He feels a friendly arm, he is 
piloted toward staircase or elevator. The stay-ons breathe 
a sigh of relief and resume the conversation* 

145 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

But most houses and apartments in this era are, un- 
fortunately, small. The departure can be prolonged in- 
definitely while the guest puts on clothes, loses and recovers 
a muffler and, in the case o women, applies make-up. 
Fifteen minutes is a conservative estimate for this stage 
of saying good-by. 

Just why visitors get wound up when they reach the 
door is a matter we shall leave to the psychiatrists. Let us 
confine ourselves to this observation: conversation that 
begins with farewell speeches is more inept than a letter 
that drools off into postscripts. The time to get things said 
is when one is a member of the party not when the nooby 
and fascinator have been tied and the host is shifting from 
one foot to the other. 

Something happens to our motor responses when a visi- 
tor says he is leaving. No matter how pleasant the visit, 
how we wish it might have been prolonged, our nerves 
shift gears when the word "go" is mentioned. 

Conversation is x suspended while a guest is preparing to 
depart. Prolonged good-bys destroy all continuity in the 
talk. The host is obliged to let the rest of the guests go 
hang while he is occupied with the good-by sayer. Some- 
times he is forced to stand in a blast from the open door 
while the guest, clothed for the outside, rakes up a few 
more anecdotes. 

Mention of the word "go" should be followed by a rea- 
sonably speedy passage to the door. 

Those who achieve the reasonably speedy passage and 

146 



THE ART OF SAYING GOOD-BY 

then remain on the threshold for twenty minutes adding 
footnotes to the conversation ought to send their self-starters 
to the garage for repairs. 

The art of saying good-by is so wantonly neglected that 
all schools should place it in the curriculum even if it 
means sacrificing raffia-weaving or egg-boiling. 

Getting in is easy but getting out requires finesse. Ask 
any chipmunk. 

CASE HISTORY A 

Mrs. McQ is, at sixty, one of the most gifted good-by 
sayers now extant on the planet. She has plenty of chance 
to perform, too, because her 250 pounds don't stop her 
from being an indomitable party girL 

One of her best performances took place at a reception 
given in the Ritz in Paris by a famous opera singer. Mrs. 
McQ flounced in with the air of an elephant that had just 
felt the first touch of spring in the air. Her spectacular 
entrance was aided by a rich booming voice and a bizarre 
dress, compounded of two parts lace, one part chiffon and 
one part ostrich feathers. Down the front there was a splash 
of sequins and brilliants as if the big diamond pin on her 
bosom had sprung a leak. 

Her arms were laden with handbag, umbrella, lorgnette 
and packages. *Tve just been shopping," she said. Rich 
enough to hire an army of stevedores, she insisted on 
carrying the packages herself. 

The opera singer, her butler and a check-room flunky 
arrived on the hop. It took the three of them to divest Mrs. 
McQ of her packages. For fifteen minutes she behaved 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

herself. Then she sent for the check-room flunky and said 
to the hostess, "You'll have to excuse me, I never stay at 
receptions more than twenty minutes." 

It seemed set point. Then Mrs. McQ broke loose. Sud- 
denly, explosively, without warning or provocation she 
broke into a Bach fugue monologue four levels of mono- 
logue all at once* 

"Next time I see you I must tell you about the ghastly 
scandal . . . that silly little countess, what's her name . . . 
here, here! hand me the gloves last ... the big box first 
. . mon Dieu, what a clod! ... the big box has the 
handkerchiefs ... the most ridiculous bargains at the 
Galeries Lafayette . . . oh, how are you, Senor . . . oh, you 
precious scalawag! * . . funny I didn't see you before, say 
by the way who is that creature over there that looks like 
a giraffe? ... no, the one eating the pickle . . . who? . . . 
that reminds me I heard today why Queen Wallie didn't go 
to the gala . . . course, she looks like a giraffe! ... I al- 
ways say that all people look like some kind of animal . . . 
giraffes, pumas . . . cougars, everything . . non, non, les 
gants apr&s! . . . what scandal? ... oh yes, tell me her 
name and 111 tdl you the rest. Where's the senor? ... I 
had a few things to tell . . . oh, there you are, you rascal! 
. . . about the Germans in Cadiz. Don't lie to me! . . . 
course, Fm antifascist but what's that got to do with 
it ... ?" 

It sounded insane, this contrapuntal monologue, but it 
really had a complicated and integrated design. Those who 
listened carefully saw that the sentences in the fugue led, 
eventually, to a definite finale. They heard about the 
scandal, die bargains in the shops, the gala, the Germans in 
Cadiz. 




"/ never stay at receptions more than twenty minutes? 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

This had taken twenty minutes. "Am I still here? And to 
think I just dropped in for twenty minutes. I must go." 

Another story occurred to her. She leaned over the back 
of a chair. At this moment she observed that sandwiches 
were floating about. She made a lunge at a tray, took a bite 
and boomed, "Cucumbers! The person who thought of 
putting cucumbers in sandwiches should be shot. Give me 
one of those. They're better. Yes, one more cocktail. I never 
stay at receptions more than twenty minutes." 

Half an hour later they got her to the door. The hostess, 
detained on the threshold for fifteen minutes more, came 
back looking as if she had just opened up her first-of-the 
month mail. 

Mrs. McQ flits from country to country, from capital to 
capital, giving these performances. Once, in New York, 
she began her farewells at seven and drove off in a taxi at 
ten. "Her farewells," said the catty hostess, "are as long as 
Sarah BernhardtV 

CASE HISTORY B 

Allison V, 27, advertising copy writer, is runner-up to 
Mrs. McQ as good-by sayer. Thin and tall, he enters a room 
as furtively as a weaseL He flattens himself out against the 
first chair he sees and looks gloomily preoccupied. He 
looks, to be accurate about it, as dejected as a sandman in 
a night dub. 

At an after-dinner gathering of eight or ten people, he 
sat silent for two hours. Then he rose and said in a loud, ag- 
gressive tone, "I'll have to go." 

The other guests who evidently hadn't noticed him 
looked as startled as if the coffee table had spoken up to 
say it was going back to Grand Rapids. 

150 



THE ART OF SAYING GQOD-BY 

Midway between chair and door Allison paused. "I was 
just reminded when you were all talking about Hitler . . ." 
A friend of his had just returned from Germany and it 
took Allison ten minutes to relay the friend's story to a 
group that had long since abandoned Hitler for a more 
cheerful topic. 

"I'll cure him of that," the host said afterward. "He 
never talks till he gets to the door. Then he makes speeches." 

Next time Allison remained silent for two hours and 
again started orating at the door, the host led him back to 
his chair, insisted he remove his coat. Without the stimulus 
of coat and open door, he faltered and fell into silence. 
Nothing could loosen his tongue, it appeared, but the ex- 
citement of getting away. 



CHAPTER THIRTEEN 



MOTH-BALL VOCABULARY 

IT'S SO STIMULATING," SHE SAID, STANDING IN THE MIDDLE 
of the floor, indicating a painting with the handle of 
her umbrella. "Most stimulating indeed." 

Those around her nodded solemn assent. A person who 
didn't know English would have assumed that final judg- 
ment on the canvas had been pronounced. She cut quite a 
figure. Her manner was easy and self-possessed, her accent 
was good, her clothes came from someone who knew what 
to do for women of her age and size. 

But her vocabulary smelled of camphor and moth balls. 
What did she mean by saying the painting was "stimulat- 
ing"? Did it affect her like a dill pickle held before the 
nose? Was she thinking of the gadgets the hairdressers 
rubbed over her scalp that morning? None of her listeners 
could have said exactly what she meant by the word* Doubt- 
less she didn't know herself. She had a flock of such words, 
cut and dried for all occasions. They saved her from think- 
ing. 

The word "stimulating" has had a long and on the whole 
an honorable role in the English language. But shortly 
before the war it was adopted by "the smart set" In one 



MOTH-BALL VOCABULARY 

hour it was snatched from its quiet niche in the dictionary 
to become a shining synonym for brilliant, clever, attrac- 
tive, pleasing and then fair, tolerable and so-so. It was 
the word of the day. Preachers, lecturers, actors, journalists 
and the boys working their way through college by selling 
magazine subscriptions found everything "stimulating." 
The laity found itself stimulated by books, pictures, hail- 
storms, lemon pies and balky billy goats. 

The word was mauled around until it lost its sheen and 
its plumage. Finally, a battered old wreck, bereft of all 
color and character, it crawled back into the dictionary and 
no one in the year 1939 except a dowager trying to describe 
a painting would have the heart to drag it out. 

Other words have had the same fate as "stimulating." 
In the years before the war severe maulings were meted out 
to "comprehensive," "cute," "cunning" and "ghastly." The 
war brought hundreds of new word casualties including the 
famous "camouflage," borrowed from France and returned 
to the French Academy in a shattered condition. The big 
word of 1919 was "intriguing" (in the sense of "interest- 
ing"). A few years later "gesture" was relieved of its normal 
functions and assigned to heavy duty in such sentences as 
"Well, between you and I and the gatepost I think she 
could of at least made a gesture." 

At one time or another we have mistreated "psychologi- 
cal moment," "dynamic," "significant" and "exciting." Right 
now we are doing some pretty morbid things to "allergic." 

We have no time in a book on conversation to tell the 

153 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

strange things that have happened to decent, honest words, 
how they have been debased, mutilated, caricatured, how 
many have died after a good pummeling. You will find 
the dead words in the dictionary marked "obs." It might 
stand equally for "obsolete" and "obsequies." Dead words 
should be left in the morgue. Overworked words should 
be given a chance to recuperate. 

Words and syntax have entered very slightly into our 
discussion of conversation. The reason has already been ex- 
plained. A speaker's manner and what he has to say count 
for more than the actual mechanics of expression. Some 
of the best conversationalists mangle the English language. 
Some of those who use it with finicking precision are arch 
bores* 

But there are many ways of mangling the English lan- 
guage, and using vogue words is one of the most lamentable. 
Why? Because ready-made labels don't express a speaker's 
thoughts. They are only substitutes for more expressive 
words the speaker wouldn't take the trouble to fish out of 
his vocabulary. Vogue words fill up silences but do not 
create communication between people. If I say, "I am 
allergic to drafts,'* I give only an approximate idea of 
what's in my mind. "Drafts give me colds" is more definite. 
If I can't stand plain speech I can say, "Every time I sit 
in a draft I feel as if a potato bug were running up and 
down my spine*" 

People with some education are the biggest customers 
for vogue words. The illiterate don't seem to hear all the 

154 



MOTH-BALL VOCABULARY 

smart patter, so they express themselves in cruder but quite 
effective speech. 

The use o vogue words when they are actually in vogue 
indicates a lazy, foggy mind. Using them when their 
vogue has passed puts a date on the lazy, foggy mind. 
Fumes of camphor and moth balls get into the conversa- 
tion. 

While we are on the subject of words and their abuse we 
might point out that vogue words are not the only way we 
can make our conversation colorless or conspicuous in the 
wrong way. Most of us have stored away in our attics a 
collection of trite expressions that belong in the trash bin. 
We have genteel phrases, overstuffed sentences, shopworn 
quotations and silly errors. We can hardly point out too 
often that one of the purposes of conversation is to express 
our own personality. Using someone else's outmoded and 
incorrect phrases does not help matters along. Not to be 
too vague about the matter, here are a few samples (let 
everyone look into his own attic) of the sort of thing that 
would do well in the trash bin. 

i. "Personally I think smallpox is a horrible disease." 

Why personally? Does the speaker mean he wouldn't like 
to have smallpox himself but considers it suitable for Mr. 
Bogash or Mrs. Whortleberry? 

"Personally I never eat lobster." 

Officially he eats it every day? 

The word "personally" in nine cases out of ten makes 
no sense. The word implies a comparison with "officially,** 

155 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

"speaking for my family** or something of the sort. Where 
no comparison is implied the word should be shunned. 

2. "I was literally dead before the day was over.'* 
Since the speaker is alive at the end of the arduous day, 

one assumes he means "figuratively/* not "literally ." 

3. "He was clever to the nth degree." 

If the speaker means "to an unknown degree," "to an 
undetermined degree," the expression will hold. But most 
people use it incorrectly to mean "to the highest degree." 

4. "Like Topsy she just growed." 

Is this the most common and tiresome quotation in the 
English language? Or is it, "A thing of beauty is a joy 
forever'*? Whatever the answer, they're both so mildewed 
that the League of Nations ought to take sanctions against 
them. (It would be fun hearing about sanctions again.) 

5. "I perspire so terribly." 

Why not "sweat"? It is difficult to find an excuse for 
such genteelisms as perspire, expectorate, retire (for go 
to bed), attack (for rape), stomach (for belly). Americans 
who like euphemisms had better make up their minds 
that they cannot hope to compete with the English who 
are out in front with such fancy inventions as "lady help," 
"paying guests," "serviette," "ladies' cloak room." 

6. "Just a nominal sum." 

It has no sense when used for "a very small sum," "an 
infinitesimal sum." 

7. "She's a comparatively attractive girl." 
Compared with what? Horses, alligators? Or compared 

196 




/ am about to sac{ my Lithuanian coo{ for putting paprika 
in the lemon pie. 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

with other girls. If the last, why not, "she's a rather at- 
tractive girl"? 

8. "The exception proves the rule.'* 

Someone says all Lithuanians are good cooks. I am 
about to sack my Lithuanian cook for putting paprika in 
the lemon pie for the fifth time. Does the exception prove 
the rule? It does nothing of the sort. It challenges the rule. 
If I can produce a few more examples of Lithuanian aberra- 
tions in the kitchen I'll prove there is no rule. 

Day after day this lunatic expression is heard in ordinary 
conversation. It usually proves the contrary of what the 
speaker intends. 

The original sense of "prove" in English was "test." So, 
the exception tests the rule. 

9. "Are you going back to the States?" 

Why on earth do Americans, once beyond the three-mile 
limit, acquire a mad desire to refer to their country as 
"the States"? If the people of other countries like the ex- 
pression that is their privilege. But on the lips of Americans 
it sounds silly as silly as "Britishers" would sound on the 
lips of Englishmen if they ever condescended to use our 
word for them. 

Americans who have traveled much or lived abroad 
never say "the States." It is the exclusive property of those 
who have just broken loose and are trying to acquire a lit- 
tle cosmopolitan patter. 



CHAPTER FOURTEEN 



MORTAL SINS 

i. "So THEN Groucho walked in with the duck it was per- 
fectly screaming. But in the meanwhile, Harpo had been 
talking to the Armenian rug salesman." 

There must be a special compartment in hell for people 
who relate the plots of movies, plays, novels. 

2. "You tell it, Angela." 

"No, you tell it so much better." 

"No, it's your story and you tell it." 

"But I've forgotten the details and . . ." 

Husbands and wives are particularly addicted to this 
sort of performance. If they think their dispute is a good 
curtain-raiser, they're wrong. By the time Angela gets 
around to telling it, everyone in the audience is yearning to 
send them spinning out the front door. 

Some husbands and wives are unable to get oflf five re- 
marks without collaboration "It was five dollars he paid 
for it, wasn't it, dear?" . . . "No, wait a minute, honey, 
you're getting that mixed up." For most of us, tandem 
anecdotes are an ordeal. Husbands and wives ought to per- 
form singly.* 

3. "My life would make a book." 

*In public, that is. 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

Well, why not write it? 

4."She's my best friend and I wouldn't say a word against 
her but . . ." 

And then starts the music. People addicted to these 
dangling little buts give themselves away before they've 
begun. The tight-lipped dowager who sits in the corner 
saying, "Of course, Fm broad-minded but . . ." and the 
well-fed businessman who says, "I'm not denying Roosevelt 
has done good things but . . ." don't fool anyone. 

5. "Escargots snails to you, dearie." 

This was probably very funny the first time it was ut- 
tered. 

6. "Dick, Dick, look at the woman in the pink hat." 
Fidgety women are often guilty of an offense that con- 
sists in whispering their way into conversations. Instead of 
waiting their turn and breaking in boldly, they cultivate 
minor distractions. When they divert Dick's attention from 
the conversation they whisper to someone else. And so on 
till there is no conversation. The speaker ought to stop and 
bellow: "Not only Dick but the rest of us will take two 
minutes out to look at the woman in the pink hat." 

7. "Do you get the point?" 

There's only one proper reply to people who say, "Do 
you get the point?" "Do you follow?" "Sure you under- 
stand what I mean?" It is: "I doubt if there is any point but 
in any case I don't follow and of course I don't understand." 

8. "How high did you say the Washington Monument 
is?" 

166 







"Of course, I'm broad-minded but * * 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

Baiters are always on the alert to correct little errors 
of fact, particularly when the error has no importance 
in the conversation. If you say, "It was something like the 
Vilma Strunk murder," they'll remind you it was the 
Zelma Strunk murder. If you say "Dickens' Henry Es- 
mond" the baiters will set you right although everyone 
present, including yourself, knows who wrote Henry Es- 
mond. It was no error of fact but a slip of the tongue. 
Baiters are usually encyclopedias of misinformation. 

If the baiters survive the poison cup they usually be- 
come arguers. Genuine arguers indulge in the sport for its 
own sake and they are usually equipped to take either side 
of a question. A man's intelligence can usually be judged 
in inverse ratio to his capacity for argumentation. 

9. "I put my hand in my pocket and took out a ..." 

"A penknife!" 

It wasn't a penknife at all, Mrs. Clucker. I have half a 
mind to strangle you for finishing up my sentences for me. 
This is an old habit of yours. When your husband tells 
a joke you rush in just before the end with your own tag 
,line and all the guests blink because the joke is ruined. 
When your guests talk you try to snatch their words out of 
their mouths. Everything gets boggled up. Why do you do 
it? Are you afraid the speaker will have a lapse of memory 
before he gets to the end? Do you fed you know his mind 
better than he does? Could you be induced to carry on 
your favorite pastime in private? Get yourself a volume o 

162 



MORTAL SINS 

Wordsworth's sonnets. Try changing the last word in every 
line. 

10. "My cooking is simply hopeless.** 
"Well, you said it!" 

Two simple sentences like this have resulted in many a 
ruptured friendship. There may be no flare-up, the evi- 
dence of annoyance may be well-concealed. But the sting 
remains and presently some more plausible excuse comes 
up for starting a row. 

Anyone who deprecates himself has, of course, no ex- 
cuse for objecting when another agrees with him. Those 
who don't want to be insulted should not leave openings. 

At the same time the author of the second sentence might 
have contemplated one of the basic facts of human vanity: 
self-depreciation does not seek corroboration. 

11. "Is that the doorbell?" 

Some people have a gift for hearing imaginary door- 
bells, noises in the cellar, etc., when others are talking. 
The same people usually find a multitude of other excuses 
for interrupting. The least they can do is to say, as they 
settle down again, "Now before I interrupted you, you were 
saying that Mabel tickled her husband with a guinea-hen 
feather." Giving the speaker a chance to finish up after an 
interruption ought to be one of the elementary rules of con- 
versation. If the interrupter neglects this, someone else 
ought to do it for him. Unless, of course, the speaker is a 
Grade A or Grade B bore. 



163 



CHAPTER FIFTEEN 



VENIAL SINS 

r. "Now what was that man's name? . . . wait a minute, 
it's right on the tip of my tongue/' 

I it's the name of the man who sells ten-dollar gold pieces 
for five dollars, everyone will listen patiently until it comes 
off the tongue into the air. But if it's the name of the man 
who sold a lopsided lollipop to Cousin Sylvester's boy three 
years agp come Michaelmas, the company will turn to 
thoughts of arsenic. 

A finicky passion for details leads many a conversational- 
ist, otherwise well-behaved, to stop at intervals and paw the 
air for names of people, heights of mountains, quotations 
from books, etc., none of them necessary to the story. 

Those afflicted with this conversational tic ought to say, 
"The name escapes me now" and go on. The rest of us 
will invent names and other immaterial data. 

2. "So I got off the train and looked at the sign, if you 
know what I mean." 

I know what you mean* I grasp the idea not only in its 
fundamental details but its subtlest implications: you got 
off the train and looked at the sign. 

Under mortal sins we mentioned the fellow who is fearful 

164 



VENIAL SINS 

you don't know what he means because his ideas might 
tax your intelligence. Here, under venial sins, we refer to 
the nervous talker who uses the phrase as a breather allow- 
ing him to collect his thoughts. There is nothing much to 
do about it except to utter a silent prayer to Yahveh that 
nervous talkers will stop saying, "You know what I mean,** 

3, "What? . . . the Encyclopedia . . . you know, of 
course, what Aldous Huxley said. . . ." 

When Aldous Huxley in an ill-advised moment told his 
readers he was in the habit of taking a volume of the 
Encyclopedia Britannica along on trips and had a howling 
rime, he provided several hundred conversationalists with 
their favorite allusion and anecdote. No remark since 
Aristotle's notion about "catharsis" has so caught popular 
fancy, it would seem. 

If this story were an isolated incident, it wouldn't be 
listed under venial sins. It becomes a sin through rcpiti- 
tion. Many people pick up one little tidbit of this type and 
repeat it scores of times till all their friends arc heartily 
sick of it. 

4. "Wasn't that litde man in the tea shop funny . . . 
and do you remember the old castle just outside Edin- 
burgh?" 

Friends like to recapitulate the incidents of pleasant, 
eventful days spent together. Very well, let them do it; it's 
an accepted form of indoor sport But not in front o 
others who were not present and don't give a hoot in hell 
for the little man in the tea shop or the castle near Edin- 

165 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

burgh. These cozy reminiscences that exclude the outsider 
are downright rude. 

5. "Now this one will slay you." 

Overselling a joke is bad tactics* The listeners subcon- 
sciously resent having their reaction dictated in advance. 
The result is thin laughter. 

6. "Words simply cannot describe it." 

Chances are, words can describe it. You can do wonderful 
things with words. Look at Shakespeare. Look at Kathleen 
Norris. 

Let us suppose, however, that you have something too 
subtle for words. Try putting it into a symphonic poem 
for oboes and bassoons or else cackle like a hen using an 
egg beater obbligato. But for the love of God, don't put it 
into conversation! 

7. "Of course you know the story about the parrot that 
hiccoughed," 

Well, if I know it, why do you insist on telling it to 
me? 

8. "Funnily enough the clothesline came down." 

The author of this sentence must have repeated "funnily" 
sixty times a day. It was her pet word. People with pet 
words shake them around like dogs with a bone. With 
one it is "divine," with another "disquieting." The more 
ambitious sling around "intransigeant" and "ideology." 
Those addicted to this practice of using one word con- 
stantly seem to weave their thoughts in patterns that will 

166 



VENIAL SINS 

permit use of the word. Dogs sometimes bury their bones. 
Would that people with pet words would do likewise! 

An aggravated case: An actress discovered "weird." She 
used it at first for "striking" or "unusual." "What a 




The spectacle of George Bernard Shaw eating a cannibal . . 

weird hat," "They invite such weird people to their parties." 
Now she carries on with, "Oh, you wouldn't say she was 
exactly weird but attractive enough" ... "I didn't have a 
weird time at all ... I was bored/* 

9. "Fra not boring you, am I?" 

What does the speaker expect? What would he do if 

167 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

he got a truthful answer? The very suspicion that one is 
boring another ought to freeze the tongue. 

But sometimes a speaker will say, "I'm not boring you, 
am I?" when he knows very well he's interesting everyone 
in earshot. The reason is nervousness, or a mistaken idea 
of making a dramatic pause. 

It provides a second good reason for not asking people 
if you are boring them. In every company there are anemic 
creatures waiting for the opportunity to be bored. The 
very word "boring 5 * makes them yawn with satisfaction. 
They are the kind who would be bored by the spectacle of 
George Bernard Shaw eating a cannibal. 



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CHAPTER SIXTEEN 



TARNISHED GOLD 

THE AVERAGE MAN HAS HEARD ONE THING SAID ABOUT CON- 
versation that he likes to repeat at the slightest provoca- 
tion. It is this: "Conversation is a dead art." 

This is nonsense, twaddle and balderdash. Not one of 
the thousands who parrot this remark has ever brought 
up any evidence to support it. 

The idea that conversation is a dead art is not peculiar 
to our era. Men of all eras have damned their contem- 
poraries and glorified the conversation of their predecessors 
on the planet. The Greeks envied the Egyptians. The Ro- 
mans envied the Greeks. Epictetus, for instance, felt sure 
that the conversation of his age the age of Nero had 
gone to the dogs. He found many Romans to agree with 
him. 

Swift thought he had fallen on a barren era and he liked 
to think about the age of Charles L French royalists were 
certain that the Revolution had destroyed conversation 
as an art. One could multiply the examples endlessly. 

But looking back today we should ask ourselves: if con- 
versation is dead, when was it alive? Can any man who 
deprecates the conversation of today produce proof that it 

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CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

was once better? Many, o course, have tried to do so. 
Many a book has raced along blithely for hundreds of pages 
showing how conversation flourished in this or that "golden 
age." Often it makes interesting reading. But on close in- 
spection one sees that the books are less about conversation 
than about literature, public discourse, wit, humor, social 
customs. And these are not conversation. 

As a matter of fact we possess very little accurate informa- 
tion about the earlier "golden ages of conversation." We 
have no idea how the Egyptians talked, and attempts to re- 
create Egyptian conversation from a few scattered remarks 
of Ptah Hotep are pedantry, pure and simple. 

We know a great deal about Greek drama, poetry, his- 
tory and philosophy but we have only sketchy ideas of 
Greek conversation. The various discourses and dialogues 
that have survived do not classify as real conversation. 
In any case they convey no hint that the quality of the 
talk was particularly high. The words of Socrates are often 
used to show how dazzling was conversation in Athens 
and how dull, in comparison, is the conversation of Duluth, 
Minnesota, or Wichita, Kansas. But taken as conversation, 
some of Socrates' verbal meanderings sound like a cantan- 
kerous, argumentative garage hand who has just got hold 
>f Robert Ingersoll. 

How the Romans disported themselves in conversation 
s another mystery. We have seen that Epictetus, the alien, 
bought that conversation in the reign of Nero was pretty 
bin stuff. We might be willing to take his word for it, if 

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TARNISHED GOLD 

he hadn't let the cat out of the bag. The cat came out in 
one of his famous counsels: "Take care not to provoke 
laughter for this is a slippery way toward vulgar habits 
and it is also adapted to diminish the respect of your 
neighbor." 

It seems not unlikely, then, that Epictetus thought there 
was too much levity in Neronian conversation. Perhaps 
there was. But this remark of the philosopher's suggests, 
somehow, that his own conversation was a bit on the grim 
side. Reading his words must have been a lot more fun 
than spending an evening in his company. 

Some of the authors of fanciful books on conversation 
believe that conversation languished in the Dark Ages and 
then came to life with a bang during the Renaissance. To 
this we can only reply: this is an interesting opinion but 
show us proof. 

It does not prove the point to say that the men of the 
Dark Ages were held down by penury, hardship, discom- 
fort, superstition. No age has a monopoly on these com- 
modities and conversation seems to flourish in spite of them. 
And it proves no more to say that because the Renaissance 
was a period of brilliant achievement in the arts and hu- 
manities, that it was high in conversation. The only way 
to prove that conversation was brilliant in some particular 
era is to show samples of it. 

We do possess samples of two "golden ages of conversa- 
tion," so let us look at them. 

The French salons of the seventeenth and eighteenth 

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CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

centuries have come to be a symbol of good conversation. 
Gossipy chroniclers have created in our minds pictures of 
such leaders as Mme. du Deffand, Mme. Geoffrin, Mme. 
de Tencin, Mme. d'Epinay and Mile, de Lespinasse waving 
their wands and evoking glorious floods of talk. We see 
the women in their billowing gowns, the men in powdered 
wigs, sitting in the light of many candles. We hear voices 
raised in polished, witty discourse. The forms of Mme. de 
Sevigne, Condorcet, Voltaire, flit before our eyes. 

The salons frowned on nookish litde conversations be- 
tween two people. They did not permit the guests to talk 
all at once as they do at modern cocktail parties. Everyone 
had to speak his mind out in the open. There is no deny- 
ing, therefore, that the salons did some good. 

But it was not all beer and skittles in the salons. The tone 
and tempo of the conversation were so well regulated by 
the leader that it took on the quality of a dress rehearsal. 
The speakers were judged like actors and if they failed to 
play their parts well they were banished. By the time Mile, 
de Lespinasse arrived on the scene the salons had become 
formidable affairs and spontaneity had vanished. Conversa- 
tion, a pretty simple pleasure, began to take on sacerdotal 
airs. 

In dwelling on the brilliance of the salons, historians 
like to repeat some of the jokes. One of the most famous 
was made by Mme. Geoffrin when her guest asked her, 
"What happened to that little old man who used to sit at 

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TARNISHED GOLD 

the end of the table and never say a word?'* She replied, 
"That was my husband. He is dead." 

More famous still is the crack of Mme. du DeSand when 
the guests were discussing the feat of Saint-Denis who, 
after being decapitated on Montmartre, simply picked up 
his head and walked four miles north to the town since 
named for him. 

"Four miles with his head in his hands!" said the teller 
of the story. 

"In matters of that sort,** said Mme. du Deffand, "it is 
only the first step that comes hard." 

Whether you laugh or whether you think of the one 
Mrs. Schlaumberger pulled when the butcher tried to sell 
her a duck for a goose, you will admit that a few jokes 
don't make a whole conversation. 

The salons that developed conversation into a series of 
arranged monologues also developed another quality that 
was described by La Bruyfcre: 

"When anything is said that is scarce understood, it is 
followed by something still more obscure. Then they im- 
prove on this by downright enigmas which are always 
followed by a long clapping of hands." 

The salon idea is still not dead. Dark rumors creep up 
from time to time that they are flourishing in Moscow, 
London, New York, Oshkosh or What Cheer, Iowa. 
Whether they actually exist or whether it's a gross libel on 
these cities I have no idea. 

But one thing is certain. Many a woman still harbors 



CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

the idea of forming a salon. The idea that conversation 
can be harnessed like water power seems to be an imperish- 
able illusion. The would-be salon leaders maneuver their 




" just informal gatherings of interesting people." 

victims into a corner and say in a purring tone, "Do come 
on Tuesday evening . . . we'll have some madrigals and 
good conversation. I'm planning something for every Tues- 
day evening just informal gatherings of interesting peo- 
ple, artists, writers, etc." 
Seventy-five per cent of the victims are tempted to say, 

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TARNISHED GOLD 

"Just what makes you think, madam, that writers and 
artists are interesting people? And if you're hell-bent on 
reviving part of the past, why don't you restore something 
really useful, such as the ducking stool?" 

Instead they say, "Sure, I'll be there." But when Tuesday 
comes all the "interesting people" are at the movies, at 
beer gardens or at home painting the kitchen sink. It looks 
as if we are pretty safe from the salon menace. 

Another "golden age" of conversation began in the Lon- 
don coffee shops of Queen Anne's day and continued into 
the 1780'$. This age was practically synonymous with Dr. 
Johnson. The ponderous, pontifical doctor worked out a 
system of monologues that would have floored even the 
customers of the French salons. 

The idea was to get into the pulpit and stay there till the 
breath gave out. When the good doctor launched into one 
of those non-stop sentences of his beginning, "Well sir . . ." 
the listeners knew it would be several hours before the first 
intermission. 

This sort of thing might have ended with Dr. Johnson's 
death if it hadn't been for Boswell whose fame lies in 
saddling posterity with a monumental bore. 

The Johnsonian tradition lasted a long time in England. 
Coleridge took up the monologue idea and made many 
improvements. Whereas Dr. Johnson would permit an in- 
terruption if it gave him an excuse to continue on for 
another hour, Coleridge permitted none at all. It was under- 
stood ia advance that everyone would keep still in his 

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CONVERSATION, PLEASE 

presence. One of the few men who ever broke the rule 
was Charles Lamb. When Coleridge asked him, "Did you 
ever hear me preach?" Lamb sneaked in with seven words, 
"I never heard you do anything else." 

Coleridge was equipped with a self-starter, a perfect 
motor and no brakes and windshield wiper. 

The pace for succeeding decades was set by such prodi- 
gious talkers as Macaulay and Gladstone. Queen Victoria's 
comment on Gkdstone's conversational tactics is eloquent 
indeed, because her own dear Albert was not behind the 
door when the tongues were given out. Victorian dinner 
tables were strewn with monstrous talkers. 

Where the idea ever got started that quantity production 
makes good conversation it is difficult to say. Yet those who 
believe that conversation is a dead art hanker after the 
Johnsonian and Victorian eras quite as much as the artificial 
era of the salons. 

About some "golden ages of conversation," as we have 
seen, we know nothing. About others we know too much. 
There is no sane reason for lament. 

In repudiating the spurious claims of the past we need 
not exaggerate the merits of modern conversation. The 
main thing is that it suits our mental climate. All the 
laments for the past would probably cease if the lamenters 
could be sentenced to spend one day with the ghosts of Dr. 
Johnson and Mme. Geoffrin. 

All complaints about today's conversation include re- 
marks about "the machine age the speed with which we 

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TARNISHED GOLD 

live.*' But isn't quick tempo one of the attributes of good 
conversation? Isn't piecework another? When we come 
right down to it, are limited leisure and a limited set of 
activities any boon to conversation? The jagged rhythm 
of our talk today reflects the prevailing tension, to say 
nothing of our gluttonous appetite for amusement. If we 
were discussing economics or social customs we would find 
plenty to deplore, but as far as conversation goes, we have 
suffered no calamity. We have no time for instructive dis- 
courses or sermons disguised as conversation. But what 
harm? There is a tendency to be quick, brittle and pointed. 
But if we cease our ranting about "the lost art of conversa- 
tion" on the one hand and "I'm just rushed off my feet" 
on the other, we will admit that there is plenty of time 
for saying everything worth saying, 

Conversation would be better off, probably, if the word 
"art" were detached from it. Never will it conform to the 
principles that animate literature, music and the plastic 
arts. Every attempt to make it conform to such principles 
has ended in one of those self-conscious developments 
known as a "golden age." Such a label will certainly never 
be tacked on our era. This is all for the best. For happy 
conversations, like happy nations, leave no history. 



IKE