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How To Talk II

Talk.


May I presume that all my young friends between this and Seattle have read paper Number Two? First class in geography, where is Seattle? Eight. Go up. Have you all read, and inwardly considered, the three rules, "Tell the truth"; "Talk not of yourself"; and "Confess ignorance"? Have you all practised them, in moonlight sleigh-ride by the Red River of the North,--in moonlight stroll on the beach by St. Augustine,--in evening party at Pottsville,--and at the parish sociable in Northfield? Then you are sure of the benefits which will crown your lives if you obey these three precepts; and you will, with unfaltering step, move quickly over the kettle-de-benders of this broken essay, and from the thistle, danger, will pluck the three more flowers which I have promised. I am to teach you, fourth,--

To Talk To The Person Who Is Talking To You.

This rule is constantly violated by fools and snobs. Now you might as well turn your head away when you shoot at a bird, or look over your shoulder when you have opened a new book,--instead of looking at the bird, or looking at the book,--as lapse into any of the habits of a man who pretends to talk to one person while he is listening to another, or watching another, or wondering about another. If you really want to hear what Jo Gresham is saying to Alice Faulconbridge, when they are standing next you in the dance, say so to Will Withers, who is trying to talk with you. You can say pleasantly, "Mr. Withers, I want very much to overhear what Mr. Gresham is saying, and if you will keep still a minute, I think I can." Then Will Withers will know what to do. You will not be preoccupied, and perhaps you may be able to hear something you were not meant to know.

At this you are disgusted. You throw down the book at once, and say you will not read any more. You cannot think why this hateful man supposes that you would do anything so mean.

Then why do you let Will Withers suppose so? All he can tell is what you show him. If you will listen while he speaks, so as to answer intelligently, and will then speak to him as if there were no other persons in the room, he will know fast enough that you are talking to him. But if you just say "yes," and "no," and "indeed," and "certainly," in that flabby, languid way in which some boys and girls I know pretend to talk sometimes, he will think that you are engaged in thinking of somebody else, or something else,--unless, indeed, he supposes that you are not thinking of anything, and that you hardly know what thinking is.

It is just as bad, when you are talking to another girl, or another girl's mother, if you take to watching her hair, or the way she trimmed her frock, or anything else about her, instead of watching what she is saying as if that were really what you and she are talking for. I could name to you young women who seem to go into society for the purpose of studying the milliner's business. It is a very good business, and a very proper business to study in the right place. I know some very good girls who would be much improved, and whose husbands would be a great deal happier, if they would study it to more purpose than they do. But do not study it while you are talking. No,--not if the Empress EugA(C)nie herself should be talking to you.

[Footnote: This was written in 1869, and I leave it in memoriam. Indeed, in this May of 1871, EugA(C)nie's chances of receiving Clare at Court again are as good as anybody's, and better than some.]

Suppose, when General Dix has presented you and mamma, the Empress should see you in the crowd afterwards, and should send that stiff-looking old gentleman in a court dress across the room, to ask you to come and talk to her, and should say to you, "Mademoiselle, est-ce que l'on permet aux jeunes filles AmA(C)ricaines se promener A cheval sans cavalier?" Do you look her frankly in the face while she speaks, and when she stops, do you answer her as you would answer Leslie Goldthwaite if you were coming home from berrying. Don't you count those pearls that the Empress has tied round her head, nor think how you can make a necktie like hers out of that old bit of ribbon that you bought in Syracuse. Tell her, in as good French or as good English as you can muster, what she asks; and if, after you have answered her lead, she plays again, do you play again; and if she plays again, do you play again,--till one or other of you takes the trick. But do you think of nothing else, while the talk goes on, but the subject she has started, and of her; do not think of yourself, but address yourself to the single business of meeting her inquiry as well as you can. Then, if it becomes proper for you to ask her a question, you may. But remember that conversation is what you are there for,--not the study of millinery, or fashion, or jewelry, or politics.

Why, I have known men who, while they were smirking, and smiling, and telling other lies to their partners, were keeping the calendar of the whole room,--knew who was dancing with whom, and who was looking at pictures, and that Brown had sent up to the lady of the house to tell her that supper was served, and that she was just looking for her husband that he might offer Mrs. Grant his arm and take her down stairs. But do you think their partners liked to be treated so? Do you think their partners were worms, who liked to be trampled upon? Do you think they were pachydermatous coleoptera of the dor tribe, who had just fallen from red-oak trees, and did not know that they were trampled upon? You are wholly mistaken. Those partners were of flesh and blood, like you,--of the same blood with you, cousins-german of yours on the Anglo-Saxon side,--and they felt just as badly as you would feel if anybody talked to you while he was thinking of the other side of the room.

And I know a man who is, it is true, one of the most noble and unselfish of men, but who had made troops of friends long before people had found that out. Long before he had made his present fame, he had found these troops of friends. When he was a green, uncouth, unlicked cub of a boy, like you, Stephen, he had made them. And do you ask how? He had made them by listening with all his might. Whoever sailed down on him at an evening party and engaged him--though it were the most weary of odd old ladies--was sure, while they were together, of her victim. He would look her right in the eye, would take in her every shrug and half-whisper, would enter into all her joys and terrors and hopes, would help her by his sympathy to find out what the trouble was, and, when it was his turn to answer, he would answer like her own son. Do you wonder that all the old ladies loved him? And it was no special court to old ladies. He talked so to school-boys, and to shy people who had just poked their heads out of their shells, and to all the awkward people, and to all the gay and easy people. And so he compelled them, by his magnetism, to talk so to him. That was the way he made his first friends,--and that was the way, I think, that he deserved them.

Did you notice how badly I violated this rule when Dr. Ollapod talked to me of the Gorges land-grants, at Mrs. Pollexfen's? I got very badly punished, and I deserved what I got, for I had behaved very ill. I ought not to have known what Edmeston said, or what Will Hackmatack said. I ought to have been listening, and learning about the Lords sitting in Equity. Only the next day Dr. Ollapod left town without calling on me, he was so much displeased. And when, the next week, I was lecturing in Naguadavick, and the mayor of the town asked me a very simple question about the titles in the third range, I knew nothing about it and was disgraced. So much for being rude, and not attending to the man who was talking to me.

Now do not tell me that you cannot attend to stupid people, or long-winded people, or vulgar people. You can attend to anybody, if you will remember who he is. How do you suppose that Horace Felltham attends to these old ladies, and these shy boys? Why, he remembers that they are all of the blood-royal. To speak very seriously, he remembers whose children they are,--who is their Father. And that is worth remembering. It is not of much consequence, when you think of that, who made their clothes, or what sort of grammar they speak in. This rule of talk, indeed, leads to our next rule, which, as I said of the others, is as essential in conversation as it is in war, in business, in criticism, or in any other affairs of men. It is based on the principle of rightly honoring all men. For talk, it may be stated thus:--

Never Underrate Your Interlocutor.

In the conceit of early life, talking to a man of thrice my age, and of immense experience, I said, a little too flippantly, "Was it not the King of Wurtemberg whose people declined a constitution when he had offered it to them?"

"Yes," said my friend, "the King told me the story himself."

Observe what a rebuke this would have been to me, had I presumed to tell him the fact which he knew ten times as accurately as I. I was just saved from sinking into the earth by having couched my statement in the form of a question. The truth is, that we are all dealing with angels unawares, and we had best make up our minds to that, early in our interviews. One of the first of preachers once laid down the law of preaching thus: "Preach as if you were preaching to archangels." This means, "Say the very best thing you know, and never condescend to your audience." And I once heard Mr. William Hunt, who is one of the first artists, say to a class of teachers, "I shall not try to adapt myself to your various lines of teaching. I will tell you the best things I know, and you may make the adaptations." If you will boldly try the experiment of entering, with anybody you have to talk with, on the thing which at the moment interests you most, you will find out that other people's hearts are much like your heart, other people's experiences much like yours, and even, my dear Justin, that some other people know as much as you know. In short, never talk down to people; but talk to them from your best thought and your best feeling, without trying for it on the one hand, but without rejecting it on the other.

You will be amazed, every time you try this experiment, to find how often the man or the woman whom you first happen to speak to is the very person who can tell you just what you want to know. My friend Ingham, who is a working minister in a large town, says that when he comes from a house where everything is in a tangle, and all wrong, he knows no way of righting things but by telling the whole story, without the names, in the next house he happens to call at in his afternoon walk. He says that if the Windermeres are all in tears because little Polly lost their grandmother's miniature when she was out picking blueberries, and if he tells of their loss at the Ashteroths' where he calls next, it will be sure that the daughter of the gardener of the Ashteroths will have found the picture of the Windermeres. Remember what I have taught you,--that conversation is the providential arrangement for the relief of ignorance. Only, as in all medicine, the patient must admit that he is ill, or he can never be cured. It is only in "Patronage,"--which I am so sorry you boys and girls will not read,--and in other poorer novels, that the leech cures, at a distance, patients who say they need no physician. Find out your ignorance, first; admit it frankly, second; be ready to recognize with true honor the next man you meet, third; and then, presto!--although it were needed that the floor of the parlor should open, and a little black-bearded Merlin be shot up like Jack in a box, as you saw in Humpty-Dumpty,--the right person, who knows the right thing, will appear, and your ignorance will be solved.

What happened to me last week when I was trying to find the History of Yankee Doodle? Did it come to me without my asking? Not a bit of it. Nothing that was true came without my asking. Without my asking, there came that stuff you saw in the newspapers, which said Yankee Doodle was a Spanish air. That was not true. This was the way I found out what was true. I confessed my ignorance; and, as Lewis at Bellombre said of that ill-mannered Power, I had a great deal to confess. What I knew was, that in "American Anecdotes" an anonymous writer said a friend of his had seen the air among some Roundhead songs in the collection of a friend of his at Cheltenham, and that this air was the basis of Yankee Doodle. What was more, there was the old air printed. But then that story was good for nothing till you could prove it. A Methodist minister came to Jeremiah Mason, and said, "I have seen an angel from heaven who told me that your client was innocent." "Yes," said Mr. Mason, "and did he tell you how to prove it?" Unfortunately, in the dear old "American Anecdotes," there was not the name of any person, from one cover to the other, who would be responsible for one syllable of its charming stories. So there I was! And I went through library after library looking for that Roundhead song, and I could not find it. But when the time came that it was necessary I should know, I confessed ignorance. Well, after that, the first man I spoke to said, "No, I don't know anything about it. It is not in my line. But our old friend Watson knew something about it, or said he did." "Who is Watson?" said I. "O, he's dead ten years ago. But there's a letter by him in the Historical Proceedings, which tells what he knew." So, indeed, there was a letter by Watson. Oddly enough it left out all that was of direct importance; but it left in this statement, that he, an authentic person, wrote the dear old "American Anecdote" story. That was something. So then I gratefully confessed ignorance again, and again, and again. And I have many friends, so that there were many brave men, and many fair women, who were extending the various tentacula of their feeling processes into the different realms of the known and the unknown, to find that lost scrap of a Roundhead song for me. And so, at last, it was a girl--as old, say, as the youngest who will struggle as far as this page in the Cleveland High School--who said, "Why, there is something about it in that funny English book, 'Gleanings for the Curious,' I found in the Boston Library." And sure enough, in an article perfectly worthless in itself, there were the two words which named the printed collection of music which the other people had forgotten to name. These three books were each useless alone; but, when brought together, they established a fact. It took three people in talk to bring the three books together. And if I had been such a fool that I could not confess ignorance, or such another fool as to have distrusted the people I met with, I should never have had the pleasure of my discovery.

Now I must not go into any more such stories as this, because you will say I am violating the sixth great rule of talk, which is

Be Short.

And, besides, you must know that "they say" (whoever they may be) that "young folks" like you skip such explanations, and hurry on to the stories. I do not believe a word of that, but I obey.

I know one Saint. We will call her Agatha. I used to think she could be painted for Mary Mother, her face is so passionless and pure and good. I used to want to make her wrap a blue cloth round her head, as if she were in a picture I have a print of, and then, if we could only find the painter who was as pure and good as she, she should be painted as Mary Mother. Well, this sweet Saint has done lovely things in life, and will do more, till she dies. And the people she deals with do many more than she. For her truth and gentleness and loveliness pass into them, and inspire them, and then, with the light and life they gain from her, they can do what, with her light and life, she cannot do. For she herself, like all of us, has her limitations. And I suppose the one reason why, with such serenity and energy and long-suffering and unselfishness as hers, she does not succeed better in her own person is that she does not know how to "be short." We cannot all be or do all things. First boy in Latin, you may translate that sentence back into Latin, and see how much better it sounds there than in English. Then send your version to the Letter-Box.

For instance, it may be Agatha's duty to come and tell me that--what shall we have it?--say that dinner is ready. Now really the best way but one to say that is, "Dinner is ready, sir." The best way is, "Dinner, sir"; for this age, observe, loves to omit the verb. Let it. But really if St. Agatha, of whom I speak,--the second of that name, and of the Protestant, not the Roman Canon,--had this to say, she would say: "I am so glad to see you! I do not want to take your time, I am sure, you have so many things to do, and you are so good to everybody, but I knew you would let me tell you this. I was coming up stairs, and I saw your cook, Florence, you know. I always knew her; she used to live at Mrs. Cradock's before she started on her journey; and her sister lived with that friend of mine that I visited the summer Willie was so sick with the mumps, and she was so kind to him. She was a beautiful woman; her husband would be away all the day, and, when he came home, she would have a piece of mince-pie for him, and his slippers warmed and in front of the fire for him; and, when he was in Cayenne, he died, and they brought his body home in a ship Frederic Marsters was the captain of. It was there that I met Florence's sister,--not so pretty as Florence, but I think a nice girl. She is married now and lives at Ashland, and has two nice children, a boy and a girl. They are all coming to see us at Thanksgiving. I was so glad to see that Florence was with you, and I did not know it when I came in, and when I met her in the entry I was very much surprised, and she saw I was coming in here, and she said, 'Please, will you tell him that dinner is ready?'"

Now it is not simply, you see, that, while an announcement of that nature goes on, the mutton grows cold, your wife grows tired, the children grow cross, and that the subjugation of the world in general is set back, so far as you are all concerned, a perceptible space of time on The Great Dial. But the tale itself has a wearing and wearying perplexity about it. At the end you doubt if it is your dinner that is ready, or Fred Marsters's, or Florence's, or nobody's. Whether there is any real dinner, you doubt. For want of a vigorous nominative case, firmly governing the verb, whether that verb is seen or not, or because this firm nominative is masked and disguised behind clouds of drapery and other rubbish, the best of stories, thus told, loses all life, interest, and power.

Leave out then, resolutely. First omit "Speaking of hides," or "That reminds me of," or "What you say suggests," or "You make me think of," or any such introductions. Of course you remember what you are saying. You could not say it if you did not remember it. It is to be hoped, too, that you are thinking of what you are saying. If you are not, you will not help the matter by saying you are, no matter if the conversation do have firm and sharp edges. Conversation is not an essay. It has a right to many large letters, and many new paragraphs. That is what makes it so much more interesting than long, close paragraphs like this, which the printers hate as much as I do, and which they call "solid matter" as if to indicate that, in proportion, such paragraphs are apt to lack the light, ethereal spirit of all life.

Second, in conversation, you need not give authorities, if it be only clear that you are not pretending originality. Do not say, as dear Pemberton used to, "I have a book at home, which I bought at the sale of Byles's books, in which there is an account of Parry's first voyage, and an explanation of the red snow, which shows that the red snow is," &c., &c., &c. Instead of this say, "Red snow is," &c., &c., &c. Nobody will think you are producing this as a discovery of your own. When the authority is asked for, there will be a fit time for you to tell.

Third, never explain, unless for extreme necessity, who people are. Let them come in as they do at the play, when you have no play-bill. If what you say is otherwise intelligible, the hearers will find out, if it is necessary, as perhaps it may not be. Go back, if you please, to my account of Agatha, and see how much sooner we should all have come to dinner if she had not tried to explain about all these people. The truth is, you cannot explain about them. You are led in farther and farther. Frank wants to say, "George went to the Stereopticon yesterday." Instead of that he says, "A fellow at our school named George, a brother of Tom Tileston who goes to the Dwight, and is in Miss Somerby's room,--not the Miss Somerby that has the class in the Sunday school,--she's at the Brimmer School,--but her sister,"--and already poor Frank is far from George, and far from the Stereopticon, and, as I observe, is wandering farther and farther. He began with George, but, George having suggested Tom and Miss Somerby, by the same law of thought each of them would have suggested two others. Poor Frank, who was quite master of his one theme, George, finds unawares that he is dealing with two, gets flurried, but plunges on, only to find, in his remembering, that these two have doubled into four, and then, conscious that in an instant they will be eight, and, which is worse, eight themes or subjects on which he is not prepared to speak at all, probably wishes he had never begun. It is certain that every one else wishes it, whether he does or not. You need not explain. People of sense understand something.

Do you remember the illustration of repartee in Miss Edgeworth? It is this:--

Mr. Pope, who was crooked and cross, was talking with a young officer. The officer said he thought that in a certain sentence an interrogation-mark was needed.

"Do you know what an interrogation-mark is?" snarled out the crooked, cross little man.

"It is a crooked little thing that asks questions," said the young man.

And he shut up Mr. Pope for that day.

But you can see that he would not have shut up Mr. Pope at all if he had had to introduce his answer and explain it from point to point. If he had said, "Do you really suppose I do not know? Why, really, as long ago as when I was at the Charter House School, old William Watrous, who was master there then,--he had been at the school himself, when he and Ezekiel Cheever were boys,--told me that a point of interrogation was a little crooked thing that asks questions."

The repartee would have lost a good deal of its force, if this unknown young officer had not learned, 1, not to introduce his remarks; 2, not to give authorities; and 3, not to explain who people are. These are, perhaps, enough instances in detail, though they do not in the least describe all the dangers that surround you. Speaking more generally, avoid parentheses as you would poison; and more generally yet, as I said at first, BE SHORT.

These six rules must suffice for the present. Observe, I am only speaking of methods. I take it for granted that you are not spiteful, hateful, or wicked otherwise. I do not tell you, therefore, never to talk scandal, because I hope you do not need to learn that. I do not tell you never to be sly, or mean, in talk. If you need to be told that, you are beyond such training as we can give here. Study well, and practise daily these six rules, and then you will be prepared for our next instructions,--which require attention to these rules, as all Life does,--when we shall consider

HOW TO WRITE.


Edward Everett Hale

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