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How To Talk

I wish the young people who propose to read any of these papers to understand to whom they are addressed. My friend, Frederic Ingham, has a nephew, who went to New York on a visit, and while there occupied himself in buying "travel-presents" for his brothers and sisters at home. His funds ran low; and at last he found that he had still three presents to buy and only thirty-four cents with which to buy them. He made the requisite calculation as to how much he should have for each,--looked in at Ball and Black's, and at Tiffany's, priced an amethyst necklace, which he thought Clara would like, and a set of cameos for Fanfan, and found them beyond his reach. He then tried at a nice little toy-shop there is a little below the Fifth Avenue House, on the west, where a "clever" woman and a good-natured girl keep the shop, and, having there made one or two vain endeavors to suit himself, asked the good-natured girl if she had not "got anything a fellow could buy for about eleven cents." She found him first one article, then another, and then another. Wat bought them all, and had one cent in his pocket when he came home.

In much the same way these several articles of mine have been waiting in the bottom of my inkstand and the front of my head for seven or nine years, without finding precisely the right audience or circle of readers. I explained to Mr. Fields--the amiable Sheik of the amiable tribe who prepare the "Young Folks" for the young folks--that I had six articles all ready to write, but that they were meant for girls say from thirteen to seventeen, and boys say from fourteen to nineteen. I explained that girls and boys of this age never read the "Atlantic," O no, not by any means! And I supposed that they never read the "Young Folks," O no, not by any means! I explained that I could not preach them as sermons, because many of the children at church were too young, and a few of the grown people were too old. That I was, therefore, detailing them in conversation to such of my young friends as chose to hear. On which the Sheik was so good as to propose to provide for me, as it were, a special opportunity, which I now use. We jointly explain to the older boys and girls, who rate between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, that these essays are exclusively for them.

I had once the honor--on the day after Lee's surrender--to address the girls of the 12th Street School in New York. "Shall I call you 'girls' or 'young ladies'?" said I. "Call us girls, call us girls," was the unanimous answer. I heard it with great pleasure; for I took it as a nearly certain sign that these three hundred young people were growing up to be true women,--which is to say, ladies of the very highest tone.

"Why did I think so?" Because at the age of fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen they took pleasure in calling things by their right names.

So far, then, I trust we understand each other, before any one begins to read these little hints of mine, drawn from forty-five years of very quiet listening to good talkers; which are, however, nothing more than hints.

How To Talk.

Here is a letter from my nephew Tom, a spirited, modest boy of seventeen, who is a student of the Scientific School at New Limerick. He is at home with his mother for an eight weeks' vacation; and the very first evening of his return he went round with her to the Vandermeyers', where was a little gathering of some thirty or forty people,--most of them, as he confesses, his old schoolmates, a few of them older than himself. But poor Tom was mortified, and thinks he was disgraced, because he did not have anything to say, could not say it if he had, and, in short, because he does not talk well. He hates talking parties, he says, and never means to go to one again.

Here is also a letter from Esther W., who may speak for herself, and the two may well enough be put upon the same file, and be answered together:--

"Please listen patiently to a confession. I have what seems to me very natural,--a strong desire to be liked by those whom I meet around me in society of my own age; but, unfortunately, when with them my manners have often been unnatural and constrained, and I have found myself thinking of myself, and what others were thinking of me, instead of entering into the enjoyment of the moment as others did. I seem to have naturally very little independence, and to be very much afraid of other people, and of their opinion. And when, as you might naturally infer from the above, I often have not been successful in gaining the favor of those around me, then I have spent a great deal of time in the selfish indulgence of 'the blues,' and in philosophizing on the why and the wherefore of some persons' agreeableness and popularity and others' unpopularity."

There, is not that a good letter from a nice girl?

Will you please to see, dear Tom, and you also, dear Esther, that both of you, after the fashion of your age, are confounding the method with the thing. You see how charmingly Mrs. Pallas sits back and goes on with her crochet while Dr. Volta talks to her; and then, at the right moment, she says just the right thing, and makes him laugh, or makes him cry, or makes him defend himself, or makes him explain himself; and you think that there is a particular knack or rule for doing this so glibly, or that she has a particular genius for it which you are not born to, and therefore you both propose hermitages for yourselves because you cannot do as she does. Dear children, it would be a very stupid world if anybody in it did just as anybody else does. There is no particular method about talking or talking well. It is one of the things in life which "does itself." And the only reason why you do not talk as easily and quite as pleasantly as Mrs. Pallas is, that you are thinking of the method, and coming to me to inquire how to do that which ought to do itself perfectly, simply, and without any rules at all.

It is just as foolish girls at school think that there is some particular method of drawing with which they shall succeed, while with all other methods they have failed. "No, I can't draw in india-ink [pronounced in-jink], 'n' I can't do anything with crayons,--I hate crayons,--'n' I can't draw pencil-drawings, 'n' I won't try any more; but if this tiresome old Mr. Apelles was not so obstinate, 'n' would only let me try the 'monochromatic drawing,' I know I could do that. 'T so easy. Julia Ann, she drew a beautiful piece in only six lessons."

My poor Pauline, if you cannot see right when you have a crayon in your hand, and will not draw what you see then, no "monochromatic system" is going to help you. But if you will put down on the paper what you see, as you see it, whether you do it with a cat's tail, as Benjamin West did it, or with a glove turned inside out, as Mr. Hunt bids you do it, you will draw well. The method is of no use, unless the thing is there; and when you have the thing, the method will follow.

So there is no particular method for talking which will not also apply to swimming or skating, or reading or dancing, or in general to living. And if you fail in talking, it is because you have not yet applied in talking the simple master-rules of life.

For instance, the first of these rules is,

Tell the Truth.

Only last night I saw poor Bob Edmeston, who has got to pull through a deal of drift-wood before he gets into clear water, break down completely in the very beginning of his acquaintance with one of the nicest girls I know, because he would not tell the truth, or did not. I was standing right behind them, listening to Dr. Ollapod, who was explaining to me the history of the second land-grant made to Gorges, and between the sentences I had a chance to hear every word poor Bob said to Laura. Mark now, Laura is a nice clever girl, who has come to make the Watsons a visit through her whole vacation at Poughkeepsie; and all the young people are delighted with her pleasant ways, and all of them would be glad to know more of her than they do. Bob really wants to know her, and he was really glad to be introduced to her. Mrs. Pollexfen presented him to her, and he asked her to dance, and they stood on the side of the cotillon behind me and in front of Dr. Ollapod. After they had taken their places, Bob said: "Jew go to the opera last week, Miss Walter?" He meant, "Did you go to the opera last week?"

"No," said Laura, "I did not."

"O, 't was charming!" said Bob. And there this effort at talk stopped, as it should have done, being founded on nothing but a lie; which is to say, not founded at all. For, in fact, Bob did not care two straws about the opera. He had never been to it but once, and then he was tired before it was over. But he pretended he cared for it. He thought that at an evening party he must talk about the opera, and the lecture season, and the assemblies, and a lot of other trash, about which in fact he cared nothing, and so knew nothing. Not caring and not knowing, he could not carry on his conversation a step. The mere fact that Miss Walter had shown that she was in real sympathy with him in an indifference to the opera threw him off the track which he never should have been on, and brought his untimely conversation to an end.

Now, as it happened, Laura's next partner brought her to the very same place, or rather she never left it, but Will Hackmatack came and claimed her dance as soon as Bob's was done. Dr. Ollapod had only got down to the appeal made to the lords sitting in equity, when I noticed Will's beginning. He spoke right out of the thing he was thinking of.

"I saw you riding this afternoon," he said.

"Yes," said Laura, "we went out by the red mills, and drove up the hill by Mr. Pond's."

"Did you?" said Will, eagerly. "Did you see the beehives?"

"Beehives? no;--are there beehives?"

"Why, yes, did not you know that Mr. Pond knows more about bees than all the world beside? At least, I believe so. He has a gold medal from Paris for his honey or for something. And his arrangements there are very curious."

"I wish I had known it," said Laura. "I kept bees last summer, and they always puzzled me. I tried to get books; but the books are all written for Switzerland, or England, or anywhere but Orange County."

"Well," said the eager Will, "I do not think Mr. Pond has written any book, but I really guess he knows a great deal about it. Why, he told me--" &c., &c., &c.

It was hard for Will to keep the run of the dance; and before it was over he had promised to ask Mr. Pond when a party of them might come up to the hill and see the establishment; and he felt as well acquainted with Laura as if he had known her a month. All this ease came from Will's not pretending an interest where he did not feel any, but opening simply where he was sure of his ground, and was really interested. More simply, Will did not tell a lie, as poor Bob had done in that remark about the opera, but told the truth.

If I were permitted to write more than thirty-five pages of this note-paper (of which this is the nineteenth), I would tell you twenty stories to the same point. And please observe that the distinction between the two systems of talk is the eternal distinction between the people whom Thackeray calls snobs and the people who are gentlemen and ladies. Gentlemen and ladies are sure of their ground. They pretend to nothing that they are not. They have no occasion to act one or another part. It is not possible for them, even in the choice of subjects, to tell lies.

The principle of selecting a subject which thoroughly interests you requires only one qualification. You may be very intensely interested in some affairs of your own; but in general society you have no right to talk of them, simply because they are not of equal interest to other people. Of course you may come to me for advice, or go to your master, or to your father or mother, or to any friend, and in form lay open your own troubles or your own life, and make these the subject of your talk. But in general society you have no right to do this. For the rule of life is, that men and women must not think of themselves, but of others: they must live for others, and then they will live rightly for themselves. So the second rule for talk would express itself thus:--

Do Not Talk About Your Own Affairs.

I remember how I was mortified last summer, up at the Tiptop House, though I was not in the least to blame, by a display Emma Fortinbras made of herself. There had gathered round the fire in the sitting-room quite a group of the different parties who had come up from the different houses, and we all felt warm and comfortable and social; and, to my real delight, Emma and her father and her cousin came in,--they had been belated somewhere. She is a sweet pretty little thing, really the belle of the village, if we had such things, and we are all quite proud of her in one way; but I am sorry to say that she is a little goose, and sometimes she manages to show this just when you don't want her to. Of course she shows this, as all other geese show themselves, by cackling about things that interest no one but herself. When she came into the room, Alice ran to her and kissed her, and took her to the warmest seat, and took her little cold hands to rub them, and began to ask her how it had all happened, and where they had been, and all the other questions. Now, you see, this was a very dangerous position. Poor Emma was not equal to it. The subject was given her, and so far she was not to blame. But when, from the misfortunes of the party, she rushed immediately to detail individual misfortunes of her own, resting principally on the history of a pair of boots which she had thought would be strong enough to last all through the expedition, and which she had meant to send to Sparhawk's before she left home to have their heels cut down, only she had forgotten, and now these boots were thus and thus, and so and so, and she had no others with her, and she was sure that she did not know what she should do when she got up in the morning,--I say, when she got as far as this, in all this thrusting upon people who wanted to sympathize a set of matters which had no connection with what interested them, excepting so far as their personal interest in her gave it, she violated the central rule of life; for she showed she was thinking of herself with more interest than she thought of others with. Now to do this is bad living, and it is bad living which will show itself in bad talking.

But I hope you see the distinction. If Mr. Agassiz comes to you on the Field day of the Essex Society, and says: "Miss Fanchon, I understand that you fell over from the steamer as you came from Portland, and had to swim half an hour before the boats reached you. Will you be kind enough to tell me how you were taught to swim, and how the chill of the water affected you, and, in short, all about your experience?" he then makes choice of the subject. He asks for all the detail. It is to gratify him that you go into the detail, and you may therefore go into it just as far as you choose. Only take care not to lug in one little detail merely because it interests you, when there is no possibility that, in itself, it can have an interest for him.

Have you never noticed how the really provoking silence of these brave men who come back from the war gives a new and particular zest to what they tell us of their adventures? We have to worm it out of them, we drag it from them by pincers, and, when we have it, the flavor is all pure. It is exactly what we want,--life highly condensed; and they could have given us indeed nothing more precious, as certainly nothing more charming. But when some Bobadil braggart volunteers to tell how he did this and that, how he silenced this battery, and how he rode over that field of carnage, in the first place we do not believe a tenth part of his story, and in the second place we wish he would not tell the fraction which we suppose is possibly true.

Life is given to us that we may learn how to live. That is what it is for. We are here in a great boarding-school, where we are being trained in the use of our bodies and our minds, so that in another world we may know how to use other bodies and minds with other faculties. Or, if you please, life is a gymnasium. Take which figure you choose. Because of this, good talk, following the principle of life, is always directed with a general desire for learning rather than teaching. No good talker is obtrusive, thrusting forward his observation on men and things. He is rather receptive, trying to get at other people's observations; and what he says himself falls from him, as it were, by accident, he unconscious that he is saying anything that is worth while. As the late Professor Harris said, one of the last times I saw him, "There are unsounded depths in a man's nature of which he himself knows nothing till they are revealed to him by the plash and ripple of his own conversation with other men." This great principle of life, when applied in conversation, may be stated simply then in two words,--

Confess Ignorance.

You are both so young that you cannot yet conceive of the amount of treasure that will yet be poured in upon you, by all sorts of people, if you do not go about professing that you have all you want already. You know the story of the two school-girls on the Central Railroad. They were dead faint with hunger, having ridden all day without food, but, on consulting together, agreed that they did not dare to get out at any station to buy. A modest old doctor of divinity, who was coming home from a meeting of the "American Board," overheard their talk, got some sponge-cake, and pleasantly and civilly offered it to them as he might have done to his grandchildren. But poor Sybil, who was nervous and anxious, said, "No, thank you," and so Sarah thought she must say, "No, thank you," too; and so they were nearly dead when they reached the Delavan House. Now just that same thing happens whenever you pretend, either from pride or from shyness, that you know the thing you do not know. If you go on in that way you will be starved before long, and the coroner's jury will bring in a verdict, "Served you right." I could have brayed a girl, whom I will call Jane Smith, last night at Mrs. Pollexfen's party, only I remembered, "Though thou bray a fool in a mortar, his foolishness will not depart from him," and that much the same may be said of fools of the other sex. I could have brayed her, I say, when I saw how she was constantly defrauding herself by cutting off that fine Major Andrew, who was talking to her, or trying to. Really, no instances give you any idea of it. From a silly boarding-school habit, I think, she kept saying "Yes," as if she would be disgraced by acknowledging ignorance. "You know," said he, "what General Taylor said to Santa Anna, when they brought him in?" "Yes," simpered poor Jane, though in fact she did not know, and I do not suppose five people in the world do. But poor Andrew, simple as a soldier, believed her and did not tell the story, but went on alluding to it, and they got at once into helpless confusion. Still, he did not know what the matter was, and before long, when they were speaking of one of the Muhlbach novels, he said, "Did you think of the resemblance between the winding up and Redgauntlet?" "O yes," simpered poor Jane again, though, as it proved, and as she had to explain in two or three minutes, she had never read a word of Redgauntlet. She had merely said "Yes," and "Yes," and "Yes" not with a distinct notion of fraud, but from an impression that it helps conversation on if you forever assent to what is said. This is an utter mistake; for, as I hope you see by this time, conversation really depends on the acknowledgment of ignorance,--being, indeed, the providential appointment of God for the easy removal of such ignorance.

And here I must stop, lest you both be tired. In my next paper I shall begin again, and teach you, 4. To talk to the person you are talking with, and not simper to her or him, while really you are looking all round the room, and thinking of ten other persons; 5. Never in any other way to underrate the person you talk with, but to talk your best, whatever that may be; and, 6. To be brief,--a point which I shall have to illustrate at great length.

If you like, you may confide to the Letter-Box your experiences on these points, as well as on the three on which we have already been engaged. But, whether you do or do not, I shall give to you the result, not only of my experiences, but of at least 5,872 years of talk--Lyell says many more--since Adam gave names to chattering monkeys.

Edward Everett Hale

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