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V. On Conversation.
The reason why so few persons are agreeable in conversation is that each
thinks more of what he desires to say, than of what the others say, and
that we make bad listeners when we want to speak.
Yet it is necessary to listen to those who talk, we should give them the
time they want, and let them say even senseless things; never contradict
or interrupt them; on the contrary, we should enter into their mind and
taste, illustrate their meaning, praise anything they say that deserves
praise, and let them see we praise more from our choice than from
agreement with them.
To please others we should talk on subjects they like and that interest
them, avoid disputes upon indifferent matters, seldom ask questions, and
never let them see that we pretend to be better informed than they are.
We should talk in a more or less serious manner, and upon more or less
abstruse subjects, according to the temper and understanding of the
persons we talk with, and readily give them the advantage of deciding
without obliging them to answer when they are not anxious to talk.
After having in this way fulfilled the duties of politeness, we can
speak our opinions to our listeners when we find an opportunity without
a sign of presumption or opinionatedness. Above all things we should
avoid often talking of ourselves and giving ourselves as an example;
nothing is more tiresome than a man who quotes himself for everything.
We cannot give too great study to find out the manner and the capacity
of those with whom we talk, so as to join in the conversation of those
who have more than ourselves without hurting by this preference the
wishes or interests of others.
Then we should modestly use all the modes abovementioned to show our
thoughts to them, and make them, if possible, believe that we take our
ideas from them.
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We should never say anything with an air of authority, nor show
any superiority of mind. We should avoid far-fetched expressions,
expressions hard or forced, and never let the words be grander than the
It is not wrong to retain our opinions if they are reasonable, but we
should yield to reason, wherever she appears and from whatever side
she comes, she alone should govern our opinions, we should follow her
without opposing the opinions of others, and without seeming to ignore
what they say.
It is dangerous to seek to be always the leader of the conversation, and
to push a good argument too hard, when we have found one. Civility often
hides half its understanding, and when it meets with an opinionated man
who defends the bad side, spares him the disgrace of giving way.
We are sure to displease when we speak too long and too often of one
subject, and when we try to turn the conversation upon subjects that we
think more instructive than others, we should enter indifferently upon
every subject that is agreeable to others, stopping where they wish, and
avoiding all they do not agree with.
Every kind of conversation, however witty it may be, is not equally
fitted for all clever persons; we should select what is to their taste
and suitable to their condition, their sex, their talents, and also
choose the time to say it.
We should observe the place, the occasion, the temper in which we find
the person who listens to us, for if there is much art in speaking to
the purpose, there is no less in knowing when to be silent. There is
an eloquent silence which serves to approve or to condemn, there is a
silence of discretion and of respect. In a word, there is a tone, an
air, a manner, which renders everything in conversation agreeable or
disagreeable, refined or vulgar.
But it is given to few persons to keep this secret well. Those who lay
down rules too often break them, and the safest we are able to give is
to listen much, to speak little, and to say nothing that will ever give
ground for regret.