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- Hold Up Your Heads, Girls! - 2/19 -
HOW TO TALK.
I saw a group of girls the other day bidding one another good-by after a year together at boarding-school. It was the merriest, most sparkling, set of people!--girls in every sense!--bobbing about, kissing, tuning their voices in all sorts of keys, with apparently not one care nor the shadow of an unpleasant memory! How I longed to get right in among them, and be hugged with the rest! though the hugging came along with armfuls of umbrellas, bags, hats, rackets, and whatever else would not go into the last inch of trunk. Pretty dresses, jaunty hats, tidy gloves and boots they wore; but better than these were their bright, honest faces, and the hearty words they spoke, Cheerfulness seemed to gush out in the wildest hilarity. How they talked with their tongues, and their eyes, and their hands! Enthusiasm sent their words racing after each other into sentences which had no beginning and no end.
Though you might never guess it, from the confusion of their language, these girls were practising some of the first principles in the art of conversation, without, indeed, being conscious of it. They were sincere and in earnest.
A girl is born to be a readier talker than a boy. She is usually less positive; and, as she has more animation, more spontaneity, more feeling, she talks much more. But somehow these natural gifts for talking are not cultivated by her as they should be: sometimes they are wholly disregarded. In a few years those very girls, who talked so fluently and engrossingly, will be sitting in corners trying to patch sentences together into what is called conversation.
Now, my dear girls, the importance of this art of talking is so great that. I should almost say any other art you may acquire cannot be compared with it; in fact, it is something so necessary to us that persons who are lacking in it stand in great danger of being metaphorically swallowed by the words of such individuals as know the cunning uses of language. Loosen some persons' tongues, and, no matter what sacrifices of character, of friendship, of good training, they have to make, they will reach the goal of their endeavor, and drive every one else into a corner. The power of eloquence and persuasion is mightier than any two-edged sword, and cuts down enemies like the sickle before the harvest. Go never so determined to remain unconvinced by certain talkers, and, before their eloquence ceases, you are enemies to yourselves, and wonder you never thought their way before.
Do not let me misguide you, however. Though you may be deceived by words, finding yourselves utterly incapable of replying to argument, still the joys you receive from the talks of certain well-minded persons are far greater than any danger I have implied.
What is it which makes some persons using very simple words say them so they drop like manna into hungry minds and hearts, or electrify with grand ideas and moving suggestions? Some will answer that it is brightness of intellect, and a keenness of insight added to profound thoughtfulness. I believe this in a large measure, though, if it were always true, we should oftener be able to understand certain full-mouthed speakers, deep thinkers, and philosophers. They do any thing but electrify, and suggest little more than sleep and weariness. Others will reply that successful talking is the effect of personal magnetism. That may be true to a slight degree. When certain strangers enter the room, we sometimes realize at once that it will be extremely difficult to say any more than yes or no to them; while others, previously unknown to us, may come in and draw out thoughts from us in rapid succession,--thoughts we hardly knew we were capable of expressing. But I would define a large part of the personal magnetism used in talking as an honest compound of heartiness, thoughtfulness, and sympathy.
Conversation does not demand that we should always be vivacious, sparkling, witty, fanciful, or even that we should use beautiful language; but good talk does ask for heart and interest. Put your heart into what you have to say: put your interest into it, and your conscience will be awakened, your zeal will be aroused; then you will compel attention, and set others thinking also. De Quincy writes, "From the heart, from an interest of love or hatred, of hope or care, springs all permanent eloquence; and the elastic spring of conversation is gone if the talker is a mere showy man of talent, pulling at an oar which he detests."
These things being true, it seems to me that character is the first requirement in the art of conversation. I take it for granted that every girl can, with perseverance, acquire a fluent use of words; for this depends mainly on practice: so I shall try to indicate those qualities which lie back of the words, and which give life to them. Even the nature of a talk will have its source in character, and to character it will return. Whatever chance or circumstance brings about a conversation, it will generally lead to such expressions of ideas as will show the dispositions of the conversers.
Just here, girls, let me remark, that, if by any slang or catch words you thoughtlessly express yourselves, the danger is, your character will be misunderstood, and your pure hearts but merry minds will be censured for what is not in them. Depend upon it, your own personality will be inferred from what you say, hence the value of utter sincerity in what you talk.
Naturally, we are led to think about courtesy and good manners as requirements in the art of talking. Have you not met certain men and women who, when they opened their mouths to speak to you, conferred a favor on you? and, when they spoke, have you not felt the benediction descending on your heads? I have. They were not always scholars, nor were they great people, nor rich people, but _mannered_ people. Such persons used their words as if they expected words from you, for which they would be grateful. They did not monopolize conversation, neither did they frequently interrupt; but when they had a suggestion to offer, opportunity being afforded, they spoke honestly, though politely, their good sound thoughts,--ideas which frequently destroyed the evil of gossip or impatiently uttered remarks.
Conversation does not depend upon rapidity of speech, as certain impulsive persons seem to think. I acknowledge that much of the interruption in conversation, and much of the monopoly, and a large number of the quick, almost angry words, result from eagerness rather than conceit or selfishness. If one cannot be animated without rapid speech, let him talk fast. It is a bad practice, however, even in the ablest talkers.
One can have opinions, and yet not use them to knock down one's opponents who have had no chance to arm against one. Do not be ungenerous, girls, selfish, in talking. Allow that some one else may have ideas as good as yours. George Eliot says, in "Daniel Deronda," "I cannot bear people to keep their minds bottled up for the sake of letting them off with a pop." That is not conversation: it is a selfish display of a few treasured maxims or witticisms or opinions.
If courtesy, deference, patience, and generosity are needed to talk well, then certainly sympathy is necessary. A woman who has no comfortable word for her sister woman had better talk to the wall. But I need not reproach girls for lack of sympathy, nor for lack of interest in the girls they meet. Their confidence in new friends is so absolute; their desire to receive sympathy, as well as to give it, is so great, that they frequently impart their whole lists of secrets to the bosoms of others whom they have not known a month. Now a more careful use of sympathy and confidence will induce not only good manners but good talk. It will tell you how to avoid such subjects as would give rise to unpleasant, even quarrelsome, talk. It will show you when you have talked too long with one person in a mixed company, and when you are wounding the feelings of another by paying no regard to her.
Impartial treatment of those we meet in society is certainly very charming. We say it is a great accomplishment to be able to speak a pleasant word to the neighbor on the right, and a different, though equally expressive, one to the friend on the left. Mary likes books, Sallie prefers society, Ruth enjoys housekeeping, Margaret is fond of music. Then why not ask Mary if she has noticed the beautiful woodcuts in the last Harper's, or seen the new edition of Hawthorne? Why not inquire of Sallie about the last matinee and the last hop? Why not ask Ruth how she made those delicious rolls, and how she prepared the coffee, or how she manages to make her room look so cheerful and cosey? And why not make Margaret give you her opinion of Wagner or of Beethoven?
I cannot dwell too long on the necessity of that adaptability to others which a kind and sympathetic heart will always strive for in conversation. Suppose you do not know the group amidst which you are seated in a drawing-room, and it is expected you will all become acquainted? Well, if it must be, say something to Miss Brown about yesterday's storm or today's sunshine; something to Miss Eliot about the kindness of your hostess, who is entertaining her friends in her usual hospitable manner, with a word to each just suited to the individual addressed; and something to Mrs. Hammerton about the pleasant surroundings,--a picture near you, a book, a vase of exquisite form.
But suppose you are to talk with a gentleman? Why, begin with just such remarks as you would use to a sensible girl; and, if he does not seem to care for them, turn his attention to the world of his own affairs,--to the street and the office. A man often takes pleasure in giving information about matters of great public interest of which so many girls are ignorant. After you have passed a few remarks about the last election, or the new town-hall, you will probably find out what he prefers to discuss, and then you can easily entertain him, and be entertained in return. I think that most men are quite as fond of general topics in conversation as women are; and I fail to see the necessity of introducing different subjects for gentlemen than for ladies,--I mean when both young men and young women appreciate what it is to be gentlemen and ladies.
Girls, why do so many of you indulge in so much smaller talk with men than with women? Because it is expected of you? Only by a few, and they make themselves very absurd by always trying to say nonsensical things to you. Men of this sort appear to have an impression that you are still children amused with a Jack-in-the-box which springs up in a very conceited hobgoblin way. Everybody likes a joke, and at times feels a childlike pleasure in speaking nonsense; but, believe me, sense is much more attractive in conversation.
Discretion in conversation really implies a peculiar tact of woman, a kind of cleverness, not so frequently found in men, and very seldom met with in boys. When a woman sees her guests are led by a monopolizer along unsafe channels of thought, she can easily, by that happy faculty of hers, bring them back again where all will run smoothly. She can change the subject by some little remark irrelevant to it. Perhaps adaptability comes from discretion. When you are talking with Englishmen,--well, do not talk quite as Englishmen do, though they may be perfectly sincere; but talk as Americans talk. Say _a_ the way they do in Boston, or wherever else you may belong: stick to your own town's forms of speech so long as they are reasonable. Above all things, do not ape the peculiar pronunciations of certain individuals. Affectation, imitation in talk, is ruinous. Be yourselves! Girls and boys are not themselves as much as they ought to be.
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