Manners and social usages,

CHAPTER XXXVIII.THE SMALL-TALK OF SOCIETY.


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One of the cleverest questions asked lately is,” What shall I talk about at a dinner-party?” Now if there is a woman in the world who does not know what to talk about, is it not a very difficult thing to tell her? One can almost as well answer such a question as, “What shall I see out of my eyes ?”

Yet our young lady is not the first person who has dilated of late years upon the “decay of conversation,” nor the only one who has sometimes felt the heaviness of silence descend upon her at a modern dinner. No doubt this same great and unanswerable question has been asked by many a traveller who, for the first time, has sat next an Englishman of good family (perhaps even with a handle to his name), who has answered all remarks by the proverbial but unsympathetic “Oh!” Indeed, it is to be feared that it is a fashion for young men nowadays to appear listless, to conceal what ideas they may happen to have, to try to appear stupid, if they are not so, throwing all the burden of the conversation on the lively, vivacious, good-humored girl, or the more accomplished married woman, who may be the next neighbor. Women’s wits are proverbially quick, they talk readily, they read and think more than the average young

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man of fashion is prone to do; the result is a quick and a ready tongue. Yet the art of keeping up a flow of agreeable and incessant small-talk, not too heavy, not pretentious or egotistical, not scandalous, and not commonplace, is an art that is rare, and hardly to be prized too highly.

It has been well said that there is a great difference between a brilliant conversationalist and a ready small-talker. The former is apt to be feared, and to produce a silence around him. We all remember Macaulay and “his brilliant flashes of silence.” We all know that there are talkers so distinguished that you must not ask both of them to dinner on the same day lest they silence each other, while we know others who bring to us just an average amount of tact, facility of expression, geniality, and a pleasant gift at a quotation, a bit of repartee; such a person we call a ready small-talker, a “most agreeable person,” one who frightens nobody and who has a great popularity. Such a one has plenty of small change, very useful, and more easy to handle than the very large cheek of the conversationalist, who is a millionaire as to his memory, learning, and power of rhetoric, but who cannot and will not indulge in small-talk. We respect the one; we like the other. The first point to be considered, if one has no inspiration in regard to small-talk, would seem to be this; try to consider what subject would most interest the person next to you. There are people who have no other talent, whom we never call clever, but who do possess this instinct, and who can talk most sympathetically, while knowing scarcely anything about the individual addressed.
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There are others who are deficient in this gift, who can only say “Really” and “Indeed.” These “Really” and “Indeed” and “Oh” people are the despair of the dinner-giver. The gay, chatty, light-hearted people who can glide into a conversation easily, are the best of dinner-table companions, even if they do sometimes talk too much about the weather and such commonplaces.

It is a good plan for a shy young person, who has no confidence in her own powers of conversation, to fortify herself with several topics of general interest, such as the last new novel, the last opera, the best and newest gallery of pictures, or the flower in fashion; and to invent a formula, if words are wanting in her organization, as to how these subjects should be introduced and handled. Many ideas will occur to her, and she can silently arrange them. Then she may keep these as a reserve force, using them only when the conversation drops, or she is unexpectedly brought to the necessity of keeping up the ball alone. Some people use this power rather unfairly, leading the conversation up to the point where they wish to enter; but these are not the people who need help–they can take care of themselves. After talking awhile in a perfunctory manner, many a shy young person has been astonished by a sudden rush of brilliant ideas, and finds herself talking naturally and well without effort. It is like the launching of a ship; certain blocks of shyness and habits of mental reserve are knocked away, and the brave frigate Small-Talk takes the water like a thing of life.

It demands much tact and cleverness to touch upon

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the ordinary events of the day at a mixed dinner, because, in the first place, nothing should be said which can hurt any one’s feelings politics, religion, and the stock market being generally ruled out; nor should one talk about that which everybody knows, for such small-talk is impertinent and irritating. No one wishes to be told that which he already understands better, perhaps, than we do. Nor are matters of too private a nature, such as one’s health, or one’s servants, or one’s disappointments, still less one’s good deeds, to be talked about.

Commonplace people also sometimes try society very much by their own inane and wholly useless criticisms. Supposing we take up music, it is far more agreeable to hear a person say, “How do you like Nilsson?” than to hear him say, “I like Nilsson, and I have these reasons for liking her.” Let that come afterwards. When a person really qualified to discuss artists, or literary people, or artistic points, talks sensibly and in a chatty, easy way about them, it is the perfection of conversation; but when one wholly and utterly incompetent to do so lays down the law on such subjects he or she becomes a bore. But if the young person who does not know how to talk treats these questions interrogatively, ten chances to one, unless she is seated next an imbecile, she will get some very good and light small-talk out of her next neighbor. She may give a modest personal opinion, or narrate her own sensations at the opera, if she can do so without egotism, and she should always show a desire to be answered. If music and literature fail, let her try the subjects of dancing, polo-playing, and

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lawn-tennis. A very good story was told of a bright New York girl and a very haw–haw–stupid Englishman at a Newport dinner. The Englishman had said “Oh,” and “Really,” and “Quite so,” to everything which this bright girl had asked him, when finally, very tired and very angry, she said, “Were you ever thrown in the hunting-field, and was your head hurt ?” The man turned and gazed admiringly. “Now you’ve got me,” was the reply. And he talked all the rest of the dinner of his croppers. Perhaps it may not be necessary or useful often to unlock so rich a répertoire as this; but it was a very welcome relief to this young lady not to do all the talking during three hours.

After a first introduction there is, no doubt, some difficulty in starting a conversation. The weather, the newspaper, the last accident, the little dog, the bric-à-brac, the love of horses, etc., are good and unfailing resources, except that very few people have the readiness to remember this wealth of subjects at once. To recollect a thing apropos of the moment is the gift of ready-witted people alone, and how many remember, hours after, a circumstance which would have told at that particular moment of embarrassment when one stood twiddling his hat, and another twisted her handkerchief. The French call “l’esprit d’escalier”–the “wit of the staircase”–the gift of remembering the good thing you might have said in the drawing-room, just too late, as you go up-stairs. However, two new people generally overcome this moment of embarrassment, and then some simple offer of service, such as, “Can I get you a chair?” “Is that window too cold ?”

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“Can I bring you some tea?” occurs, and then the small-talk follows.

The only curious part of this subject is that so little skill is shown by the average talker in weaving facts and incidents into his treatment of subjects of everyday character, and that he brings so little intelligence to bear on Iris discussion of them. It is not given to every one to be brilliant and amusing, but, with a little thought, passing events may always give rise to pleasant conversation. We have lately been visited by a succession of brilliant sunsets, concerning which there have been various theories. This has been a charming subject for conversation, yet at the average dinner we have heard but few persons mention this interesting topic. Perhaps one is afraid to start a conversation upon celestial scenery at a modern dinner. The things may seem too remote, yet it would not be a bad idea.

Gossip may promote small-talk among those who are very intimate and who live in a narrow circle. But how profoundly uninteresting is it to an outsider!–how useless to the real man or woman of the world! That is, unless it is literary, musical, artistic gossip. Scandal ruins conversation, and should never be included even in a definition of small-talk. Polite, humorous, vivacious, speculative, dry, sarcastic, epigrammatic, intellectual, and practical people all meet around a dinner-table, and much agreeable small-talk should be the result. It is unfortunately true that there is sometimes a failure in this respect. Let a hostess remember one thing: there is no chance for vivacity of intellect if her room is too warm; her flowers

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and her guests will wilt together. There are those also who prefer her good dishes to talking, and the old gentleman in Punch who rebuked his lively neighbor for talking while there were “such entrées coming in” has his counterparts among ourselves.

Some shy talkers have a sort of empirical way of starting a subject with a question like this: “Do you know the meaning and derivation of the term ‘bric-à-brac ?'” “Do you believe in ghosts?rdquo;ldquo;What do you think of a ladies’ club ?” “Do you believe in chance ?” “Is there more talent displayed in learning the violin than in playing a first-rate game of chess ?” etc.

These are intellectual conundrums, and may be repeated indefinitely where the person questioned is disposed to answer. With a flow of good spirits and the feeling of case which comes from a knowledge of society, such questions often bring out what Margaret Fuller called “good talk.”

But if your neighbor says “Oh,” “Really,” “Indeed,”I don’t know,” then the best way is to be purely practical, and talk of the chairs and tables, and the existing order of things, the length of trains, or the shortness of the dresses of the young ladies at the last ball, the prevailing idea that “ice-water is unhealthy,” and other such extremely easy ideas. The sound of one’s own voice is generally very sweet in one’s own ears; let every lady try to cultivate a pleasant voice for those of other people, and also an agreeable and accurate pronunciation. The veriest nothings sound well when thus spoken. The best way to learn how to talk is, of course, to learn how to think: from full wells one brings up buckets full of clear water,

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but there can be small-talk without much thought. The fact remains that brilliant thinkers and scholars are not always good talkers, and there is no harm in the cultivation of the art of conversation, no harm in a little “cramming,” if a person is afraid that language is not his strong point. The merest trifle generally suffices to start the flow of small-talk, and the person who can use this agreeable weapon of society is always popular and very much courted.

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