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Talks On Talking by Grenville Kleiser


To make a good talker, genius and learning, even wit and eloquence, are insufficient; to these, in all or in part, must be added in some degree the talents of active life. The character has as much to do with colloquial power as has the intellect; the temperament, feelings, and animal spirits, even more, perhaps, than the mental gifts. |Napoleon said things which tell in history like his battles. Luther's Table-Talk glows with the fire that burnt the Pope's bull.| Caesar, Cicero, Themistocles, Lord Bacon, Selden, Talleyrand, and, in our own country, Aaron Burr, Jefferson, Webster, and Choate, were all, more or less, men of action. Sir Walter Scott tells us that, at a great dinner party, he thought the lawyers beat the Bishops as talkers, and the Bishops the wits. Nearly all great orators have been fine talkers. Lord Chatham, who could electrify the House of Lords by pronouncing the word |Sugar,| but who in private was but commonplace, was an exception; but the conversation of Pitt and Fox was brilliant and fascinating, -- that of Burke, rambling, but splendid, rich and instructive, beyond description. The latter was the only man in the famous |Literary Club| who could cope with Johnson. The Doctor confessed that in Burke he had a foeman worthy of his steel. On one occasion, when debilitated by sickness, he said: |That fellow calls forth all my powers. Were I to see Burke now, it would kill me.| At another time he said: |Burke, sir, is such a man that, if you met him for the first time in the street, where you were stopped by a drove of oxen, and you and he stepped aside to take shelter but for five minutes, he'd talk to you in such a manner, that when you parted you'd say -- 'This is an extraordinary man.'| |Can he wind into a subject like a serpent, as Burke does?| asked Goldsmith of a certain talker. Fox said that he had derived more political information from Burke's conversation alone than from books, science, and all his worldly experience put together. Moore finely says of the same conversation, that it must have been like the procession of a Roman triumph, exhibiting power and riches at every step, occasionally mingling the low Fescennine jest with the lofty music of the march, but glittering all over with the spoils of a ransacked world.

-- Mathews.

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The fault of literary conversation in general is its too great tenaciousness. It fastens upon a subject, and will not let it go. It resembles a battle rather than a skirmish, and makes a toil of a pleasure. Perhaps it does this from necessity, from a consciousness of wanting the more familiar graces, the power to sport and trifle, to touch lightly and adorn agreeably, every view or turn of a question en passant, as it arises. Those who have a reputation to lose are too ambitious of shining, to please. |To excel in conversation,| said an ingenious man, |one must not be always striving to say good things: to say one good thing, one must say many bad, and more indifferent ones.| This desire to shine without the means at hand, often makes men silent: --

The fear of being silent strikes us dumb.

A writer who has been accustomed to take a connected view of a difficult question and to work it out gradually in all its bearings, may be very deficient in that quickness and ease which men of the world, who are in the habit of hearing a variety of opinions, who pick up an observation on one subject, and another on another, and who care about none any further than the passing away of an idle hour, usually acquire. An author has studied a particular point -- he has read, he has inquired, he has thought a great deal upon it: he is not contented to take it up casually in common with others, to throw out a hint, to propose an objection: he will either remain silent, uneasy, and dissatisfied, or he will begin at the beginning, and go through with it to the end. He is for taking the whole responsibility upon himself. He would be thought to understand the subject better than others, or indeed would show that nobody else knows anything about it. There are always three or four points on which the literary novice at his first outset in life fancies he can enlighten every company, and bear down all opposition: but he is cured of this quixotic and pugnacious spirit, as he goes more into the world, where he finds that there are other opinions and other pretensions to be adjusted besides his own. When this asperity wears off, and a certain scholastic precocity is mellowed down, the conversation of men of letters becomes both interesting and instructive. Men of the world have no fixed principles, no groundwork of thought: mere scholars have too much an object, a theory always in view, to which they wrest everything, and not unfrequently, common sense itself. By mixing with society, they rub off their hardness of manner, and impracticable, offensive singularity, while they retain a greater depth and coherence of understanding. There is more to be learnt from them than from their books.

-- Hazlitt.

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There are some people whose good manners will not suffer them to interrupt you, but, what is almost as bad, will discover abundance of impatience, and lie upon the watch until you have done, because they have started something in their own thoughts, which they long to be delivered of. Meantime, they are so far from regarding what passes, that their imaginations are wholly turned upon what they have in reserve, for fear it should slip out of their memory; and thus they confine their invention, which might otherwise range over a hundred things full as good, and that might be much more naturally introduced.

There is a sort of rude familiarity, which some people, by practising among their intimates, have introduced into their general conversation, and would have it pass for innocent freedom or humor; which is a dangerous experiment in our northern climate, where all the little decorum and politeness we have are purely forced by art, and are so ready to lapse into barbarity. This, among the Romans, was the raillery of slaves, of which we have many instances in Plautus. It seems to have been introduced among us by Cromwell, who, by preferring the scum of the people, made it a court entertainment, of which I have heard many particulars; and, considering all things were turned upside down, it was reasonable and judicious; although it was a piece of policy found out to ridicule a point of honor in the other extreme, when the smallest word misplaced among gentlemen ended in a duel.

There are some men excellent at telling a story, and provided with a plentiful stock of them, which they can draw out upon occasion in all companies, and, considering how low conversation runs now among us, it is not altogether a contemptible talent; however, it is subject to two unavoidable defects, frequent repetition, and being soon exhausted; so, that, whoever values this gift in himself, has need of a good memory, and ought frequently to shift his company, that he may not discover the weakness of his fund; for those who are thus endued have seldom any other revenue, but live upon the main stock.

-- Swift.

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The highest and best of all the moral conditions for conversation is what we call tact. I say a condition, for it is very doubtful whether it can be called a single and separate quality; more probably it is -- De Quincey.

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Some, in their discourse, desire rather commendation of wit, in being able to hold all arguments, than of judgment, in discerning what is true; as if it were a praise to know what might be said, and no -- Dr. Arnold.

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If you would be loved as a companion, avoid unnecessary criticism upon those with whom you live. The number of people who have taken out judges' patents for themselves is very large in any society. Now -- Bishop Paget.

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How much squandering there is of the voice! How little is there of the advantage that may come from conversational tones! How seldom does a man dare to acquit himself with pathos and fervor! And the The Tattlers, whose pliable pipes are admirably adapted to the |soft parts of conversation,| and sweetly |prattling out of fashion,| make very pretty music from a beautiful face and a female tongue; but from a rough manly voice and coarse features mere nonsense is as harsh and dissonant as a jig from a hurdy-gurdy. The Swearers I have spoken of in a former paper; but the Half-Swearers, who split and mince, and fritter their oaths into |gad's but,| |ad's fish,| and |demme,| the Gothic Humbuggers, and those who nickname God's creatures, and call a man a cabbage, a crab, a queer cub, an odd fish, and an unaccountable skin, should never come into company without an interpreter. But I will not tire my reader's patience by pointing out all the pests of conversation, nor dwell particularly on the Sensibles, who pronounce dogmatically on the most trivial points, and speak in sentences; the Wonderers, who are always wondering what o'clock it is, or wondering whether it will rain or no, or wondering when the moon changes; the Phraseologists, who explain a thing by all that, or enter into particulars, with this and that and t'other; and lastly, the Silent Men, who seem afraid of opening their mouths lest they should catch cold, and literally observe the precept of the Gospel, by letting their conversation be only yea and nay.

The rational intercourse kept up by conversation is one of our principal distinctions from brutes. We should, therefore, endeavor to turn this peculiar talent to our advantage, and consider the organs of speech as the instruments of understanding; we should be very careful not to use them as the weapons of vice, or tools of folly, and do our utmost to unlearn any trivial or ridiculous habits, which tend to lessen the value of such an inestimable prerogative. It is, indeed, imagined by some philosophers, that even birds and beasts (tho without the power of articulation) perfectly understand one another by the sounds they utter; and that dogs, cats, etc., have each a particular language to themselves, like different nations. Thus it may be supposed that the nightingales of Italy have as fine an ear for their own native woodnotes as any signor or signora for an Italian air; that the boars of Westphalia gruntle as expressively through the nose as the inhabitants in High German; and that the frogs in the dykes of Holland croak as intelligibly as the natives jabber their Low Dutch. However this may be, we may consider those whose tongues hardly seem to be under the influence of reason, and do not keep up the proper conversation of human creatures, as imitating the language of different animals. Thus, for instance, the affinity between Chatterers and Monkeys, and Praters and Parrots, is too obvious not to occur at once; Grunters and Growlers may be justly compared to Hogs; Snarlers are Curs that continually show their teeth, but never bite; and the Spitfire passionate are a sort of wild cats that will not bear stroking, but will purr when they are pleased. Complainers are Screech-Owls; and Story-Tellers, always repeating the same dull note, are Cuckoos. Poets that prick up their ears at their own hideous braying are no better than Asses. Critics in general are venomous Serpents that delight in hissing, and some of them who have got by heart a few technical terms without knowing their meaning are no other than Magpies. I, myself, who have crowed to the whole town for near three years past may perhaps put my readers in mind of a Barnyard Cock; but as I must acquaint them that they will hear the last of me on this day fortnight, I hope that they will then consider me as a Swan, who is supposed to sing sweetly at his dying moments.

-- Cowper.

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It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined, and, so far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him, and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called the comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature -- like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their best in dispelling cold and fatigue, tho nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the mind of those with whom he is cast -- all clashing of opinion or collision of feeling, all restraint or suspicion or gloom or resentment, his great concern being to make every one at ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company, he is tender toward the bashful, gentle toward the distant, and merciful toward the absurd. He can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors when he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort; he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motive to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves toward our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults. He is too well employed to remember injuries and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned on philosophical principle; he submits to pain because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds, who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candor, consideration, indulgence; he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province, and its limits. If he can be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity. He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful or useful, to which he does not assent; he honors the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them. He is a friend of religious toleration, and that not only because his philosophy has taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness and effeminacy of feeling which is attendant on civilization.

-- Cardinal Newman.

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HOW TO SPEAK IN PUBLIC -- A practical self-instructor for lawyers, clergymen, teachers, business men, and others. Cloth, 543 pages. [USD]1.25, net; by mail,

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