Ever since Freud told his patients that they had to say whatever came to mind, no matter how repulsive or trivial, psychotherapy has been undermining the art of conversation.
Think about it… if you follow Freud’s rule of free association you will become, alternately, a boor and a bore. Try engaging a good conversation by following that rule.
Many of today’s therapists no longer require their patients to free associate. Yet, they encourage their patients to give full throated expression to their deepest feelings, regardless of how a sentient human listener might react. Patients are taught that they have a right to offend with impunity and that anyone who thinks otherwise is being judgmental.
Try engaging a good conversation by making it all about you.
Then again, does anyone really care about learning how to conduct a good conversation? The signs are not encouraging.
The most conversationally deficient among us, that would be young men, now take seminars in pickup artistry. Apparently, they believe that the ne plus ultra of human communication is finding the clever quip, the dazzling one-liner that will entice a woman they do not know to allow them to show off their sexual prowess.
Young people, and some not-so-young people have been taught to express their feelings openly and honestly. When they discover that this dubious talent does not produce anything resembling a human connection, they fall back on the random, anonymous hookup. They believe that it’s better than nothing.
Therapy has not merely taught people to speak about themselves. It has told them that others are obliged to listen to them, no matter how offensive or numbing their discourse. It has told them that anyone who does not reciprocate their shameless oversharing is emotionally repressed, in sore need of whichever medication is currently supposed to cure the condition.
It’s not a formula for good conversation. It’s a formula for permanent psychodrama.
Let’s assume, for the sake of this post, that many people do not know how to conduct a good conversation. If conversation is a skill, it needs to be learned and developed.
Anyone who imagines that if he feels good about himself, through a combination of therapy and meds he will automatically know how to converse has overdosed on therapy.
If you want to develop your conversational muscle you can do a lot worse than to read the advice offered by Cecil Hartley in his book The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness. As the title suggests it was written over a century ago, in 1875. This makes it mid-Victorian, but it also makes it pre-Freudian.
In his book Hartley offered a list of the rules for good conversation. They have been reprinted on the blog: The Art of Manliness.
Perhaps these rules are offered to men because men are more likely to manifest conversational incompetence, but they are not, you will be pleased to note, gender specific.
As Hartley prescribes, conversation should be more about light than heat. He counsels against heated discussions, pitched arguments, raised voices and dramatic displays.
Thus, he recommends that you avoid controversial topics. If a point of disagreement threatens becoming an argument or a fight, you should back away from it as quickly as possible.
At the risk of being obvious, this perspective differs radically from that of those therapists who teach their patients how to fight and argue constructively.
There is no redeeming virtue in arguing or fighting. There is no ultimate reward for making a display of intemperate emotion.
One understands that in our narcissistic age, people have been trained to speak about themselves. They do so because they believe it to be therapeutic. To Hartley, it is rude and arrogant.
Never, during a general conversation, endeavor to concentrate the attention wholly upon yourself. It is quite as rude to enter into conversation with one of a group, and endeavor to draw him out of the circle of general conversation to talk with you alone.
Speak of yourself but little. Your friends will find out your virtues without forcing you to tell them, and you may feel confident that it is equally unnecessary to expose your faults yourself.
The same applies to bragging or touting one’s own achievements. Men (and women) of accomplishment are modest about their achievements. If you brag about yourself you are putting down your interlocutor, and this is not the formula for good conversation. Besides, if you have really done well, your achievements will speak for themselves.
Hartley also suggests that you not bring up technical topics that you alone understand. Showing off your intellectual prowess is not the way to connect with another person.
Being good at conversation means knowing how to sustain a harmonious exchange. To do so you must be a good listener.
What does it mean to be a good listener? First, it means not interrupting someone who is speaking. Second, it means not completing or correcting someone else’s sentences. Third, it means not affecting an air of boredom or disaffection while someone else is talking. Fourth, it means never trying to speak over another person. Fifth, it means paying close attention to what you are hearing, even to the point where you can make remarks that will allow the speaker to elaborate his points.
The second point has a certain amount of amusement value. How many times have you heard people tell you that they discovered they were in love when either they saw that they were completing each other’s sentences?
According to Hartley, such activity is rude and disrespectful.
Conversation is an exchange. It is not a theatrical performance. It is not stand-up comedy. Those who fashion themselves fascinating creatures, great jokesters or brilliant raconteurs end up being anything but:
Be careful in society never to play the part of buffoon, for you will soon become known as the “funny” man of the party, and no character is so perilous to your dignity as a gentleman. You lay yourself open to both censure and bad ridicule, and you may feel sure that, for every person who laughs with you, two are laughing at you, and for one who admires you, two will watch your antics with secret contempt.
As for how a Victorian gentleman should converse with a Victorian lady, Hartley has sound advice:
Avoid flattery. A delicate compliment is permissible in conversation, but flattery is broad, coarse, and to sensible people, disgusting. If you flatter your superiors, they will distrust you, thinking you have some selfish end; if you flatter ladies, they will despise you, thinking you have no other conversation.
A lady of sense will feel more complimented if you converse with her upon instructive, high subjects, than if you address to her only the language of compliment. In the latter case she will conclude that you consider her incapable of discussing higher subjects, and you cannot expect her to be pleased at being considered merely a silly, vain person, who must be flattered into good humor.
Are you surprised to see a Victorian man advising other men to speak respectfully to women, to engage them in conversation on “higher subjects?” It’s a long way from pick up artistry.