“Conversation. To Young Ladies,” by the author of The Young Ladies’ Guide (from The Mother’s Assistant and Young Lady’s Friend, November 1853; pp. 136-139)
The chief attraction of good society is found in agreeable and intelligent conversation; and this derives its principal charm from the versatility and sprightliness of the female mind. The art of conversing agreeably and well is a high attainment, and one which will well repay the effort it requires. No personal attractions in a young lady will compensate for the want of it; and nothing but goodness of heart will reconcile us to the deficiency.
In the management of the conversational powers, there are two opposite extremes, talkativeness and taciturnity. Which of these is the greater defect, depends, perhaps, chiefly upon the motive. The garrulity of a talkative person may be tolerated, where it proceeds from openness of heart and kindness of feeling; and, on the other hand, silence may be endured, when it arises not from the absence of ideas, but from a modest, unobtrusive disposition. But there is a happy medium, which is earnestly to be sought.
The talkative lady never is at a loss for something to say. Her tongue, to use a homely comparison, is like the clapper of a mill, which only needs to have the gate raised to set it agoing; and it never stops till the grist is ground, or the pond run out. You wait with painful anxiety for a pause, that you may “put in a word;” but she must “utter all her mind;” and, if one story is not long enough, she must lap on another, to spin it out. Thus she goes from hill to dale and from valley to grove, without connection, rhyme or reason, but only an association of ideas, which suggests
to her mind one digression after another, till she forgets the point where she started, and “over creation wanders.” She speaks before she considers whether she has anything worth being said; and she goes on as though she were the chief speaker, without reflecting that others in the company may wish also to speak. She engrosses the conversation without adding to the general stock of knowledge, and leaves the company vexed that they have had no opportunity to participate in the entertainment.
On the other hand, the taciturn lady only speaks when spoken to, and then only in monosyllables. It is possible her mind is well stored with knowledge; but who can tell? If she has resources at her command, she is either too selfish or too modest to share them with others. The presumption generally is, that it arises from vacancy of mind; though often, we doubt not, the assumption is unjust. But, however that may be, it is “dull music” to attempt to maintain conversation where the talk must be all one one side.
The impression made by the talkative lady is unfavorable but the taciturn makes none at all. You feel yourself at once acquainted with the former; but, whether there is anything of the latter or not, you are at a loss to determine.
But the agreeable lady finds out the happy mean. She has, in the first place, a well-stored and a well-disciplined mind. She has not only a rich fund of ideas, but they are well arranged. She applies to her mind the well-known rule of order, in material things, “a place for everything, and everything in its place.” She does not, like the talkative lady, display all her wares in a confused heap at once, but selects and arranges in order those which are wanted for the present occasion. And this she does without seeming effort, by a sort of intuitive sense of what is proper and right. She obeys the old adage, “think three times before you speak;” and yet does it unconsciously, from long habit, without stiffness, formality, or affectation of excessive propriety. You are at perfect ease in her presence, and never feel that she is making an effort to entertain you; and she will manage to draw out your resources, if any you have, so that you may bear your part of the entertainment. She will find out on what subjects you are at home, and, before you are aware of it, she will make your knowledge of them her own; and yet, not without having given some equivalent in return. And thus, while
she entertains others, she will be constantly adding to her own stock of materials.
But how is this art to be acquired? In the first place, there must be a well-cultivated mind. The mind must be trained to habits of thought, and rapid thought, upon whatever subjects come before it. And this is best acquired by habits of study. A thorough course of solid study will fit the mind to grapple with any subject which is brought before it. And then the mind must be stored with useful knowledge, by a course of reading instructive and improving. A knowledge of the sciences, and familiarity with the best writers in the English language, will furnish a good stock of ideas, facts and principles, from which a cultivated intellect may draw at all times, as occasion may require.
In the second place, fluency of speech is requisite. To secure this self-possession is indispensable. When one is embarrassed, confused or abashed, by the presence of company, or the circumstances of the occasion, the mind plays most fantastic tricks. The most familiar words will not come at bidding. The very word you want, and which was in the mind a moment before, is now irrecoverably gone, and you are left to the painful alternative of hesitating, stumbling, stopping, or of using the wrong word, which will perhaps call for circumlocution, and certainly mar the beauty of your sentence. But, it is a great assistance, in this case, to be familiar with the vocabulary of English words commonly used in the conversation of cultivated society. I suppose the daily habit of reading aloud, from books written in a pure, classic style, and occasionally committed to memory and rehearsing some of the most interesting passages, will contribute much to this result. Then the habit of observing and treasuring up the words of the best speakers, both in public and private, will aid still further. But all high-flown expressions and sickly sentimentalism must be avoided, unless you would be a “laughing-stock;” of which there will be great danger, if you are a reader of novels, which affect the mind as intoxicating liquors do the body; weakening its powers by excessive excitement, and satisfying its cravings with that which is not food.
Good taste, good breeding, and a nice sense of propriety, also, are essential to agreeable conversation. These are necessary to teach us when to speak, what to say, and when to cease. An ill-bred person will interrupt others, and prolong discourse, so as to encroach upon the rights of the rest of the company. Bad taste will intro-
duce subjects awkwardly or abruptly; and the want of a sense of propriety will lead to the introduction of subjects unsuited or offensive to the present company.
These suggestions I have thrown out in a desultory manner, with the hope of calling the attention of young ladies to the great importance of cultivating their conversational powers, and of giving some direction to their efforts. I will conclude with the remark that the conversational talent, with which ladies are often so highly gifted, should be consecrated to Christ, as a means of usefulness. The tongue, though a fire and a world of iniquity, capable of being “set on fire of hell,” yet, if held in with “bit and bridle,” and brought strictly under the control of Christian principle, may be made the medium of a mighty influence for good.