Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773)
RULES FOR CONVERSATION.
Talking. — When you are in company, talk often, but never long ; in that case, if you do not please, at least you are sure not to tire, your hearers. Take, rather than give, the tone of the company you are in. If you have parts you will shew them more or less upon every subject ; and if you have not, you had better talk sillily upon a subject of other people’s than any of your own choosing.
Learn the characters of the company before you talk much. — Inform yourself of the characters and situations of the company, before you give way to what your imagination may prompt you to say. There are, in all companies, more wrong heads than right ones, and many more who deserve than who like cen sure. Should you therefore expatiate in the praise of some virtue, which some in company notoriously want ; or declaim against any vice, which others are notori ously infected with ; your reflections, however general and unapplied, will, by being applicable, be thought personal, and levelled at those people. This conside ration points out to you sufficiently, not to be suspi cious and captious yourself, nor to suppose that things, because they may, are therefore meant at you. The manners of well-bred people secure one from those indirect and mean attacks ; but if by chance they are indulged in, it is much better not to seem to under stand, than to reply to them.
Telling stories, and digressions. — Tell stories very seldom, and absolutely never but where they are very apt and very short. Omit every circumstance that is not material, and beware of digressions. To have frequent recourse to narrative betrays great want of imagination.
Seizing people by the button. — Never hold any body by the button, or the hand, in order to be heard out ; for, if people are not willing to hear you, you had much better hold your tongue than them.
Long talkers and whisperers. — Long talkers generally single out some unfortunate man in company to whisper, or at least in a half voice to convey a con tinuity of words to. This is excessively ill-bred, and, in some degree, a fraud ; conversation stock being a joint and common property. But, if one of these un merciful talkers lays hold of you, hear him with pa tience (and at least seeming attention), if he is worth obliging; for nothing will oblige him more than a patient hearing, as nothing would hurt him more than either to leave him in the midst of his discourse, or to discover your impatience under your affliction.
Inattention to persons speaking. — There is no thing so shocking, nor so little forgiving, as a seeming inattention to the person who is speaking to you ; and I have known many a man knocked down for a much slighter provocation than that inattention which I mean, I have seen many people who, while you are speaking to them, instead of looking at and attending to you, fix their eyes upon the ceiling or some other part of the room, look out of the window, play with a dog, twirl their snuff-box, or pick their nose. Nothing discovers a little, futile, frivolous mind more than this, ana nothing is so offensively ill-bred ; it is an explicit de claration on your part that every the most trifling ob ject deserves your attention more than all that can be said by the person who is speaking to you. Judge of the sentiments of hatred and resentment, which such treatment must excite in every breast where any de gree of self-love dwells. I repeat it again and again, that a sort of vanity and self-love is mseparable from human nature, whatever may be its rank or condition ; even your footman will sooner forget and forg’ve a beating than any manifest mark of slight and contempt. Be, therefore, not only really, but seemingly and ma nifestly, attentive to whoever speaks to you.
Never interrupt any speaker. — It is considered as the height of ill manners to interrupt any person while speaking, by speaking yourself, or calling off the attention of the company to any new subject. This, however, every child knows.
Adopt rather than give the subject. — Take rather than give the subject of the company you are in. If you have parts, you will shew them, more or less, upon every subject ; and, if you have not, you had better talk sillily upon a subject of other people’s than of your own choosing.
Conceal your learning prom the company. — Never display your learning, but on particular occa sions. Reserve it for learned men, and let even these rather extort it from you than appear forward to dis play it. Hence you will be deemed modest, and re puted to possess more knowledge than you really have. Never seem wiser or more learned than your company. The man who affects to display his learning will be frequently questioned ; and, if found superficial, will be ridiculed and despised ; if otherwise, he will be deemed a pedant. Nothing can lessen real merit (which will always shew itself) in the opinion of the world but an ostentatious display of it by its possessor.
Contradict with politeness. — When you oppose or contradict any person’s assertion or opinion, let your manner, your air, your terms, and your tone of voice, be soft and gentle ; and that easy and naturally, not affectedly. Use palliatives when you contradict ; such as, . I may be deceived, I am not sure, but 1 believe, I should rather think,’ &c. Finish any argu ment or dispute with some little good-humoured plea santry, to shew that you are neither hurt yourself nor meant to hurt your antagonist ; for an argument, kept up a good while, often occasions a temporary aliena tion on each side.
Avoid argument if possible. — Avoid as much a°you can, in mixed companies, argumentative, polemical conversations ; which certainly indispose, for a time, the contending parties towards each other ; and, if the controversy grows warm and noisy, endeavour to put an end to it by some genteel levity or joke.
Always debate with temper. — Arguments should never be maintained with heat and clamour, though we believe or know ourselves to be in the right ; we should give our opinions modestly and coolly ; and, if that will not do, endeavour to change the conversation, by saying, ‘ We shall not be able to convince one another ; nor is it necessary that we should ; so let us talk of something else.’
Local propriety to be observed. — Remember that there is a local propriety to be observed in all companies ; and that what is extremely proper in one company may be, and often is, highly improper in another.
Jokes, bon mots, &c. — The jokes, bon mots, the little adventures, which may do very well in one com pany, will seem flat and tedious when related in an other. The particular characters, the habits, the cant, of one company may give merit to a word, or a gesture, which would have none at all if divested of those accidental circumstances. Here people very com monly err ; and, fond of something that has entertained them in one company, and in certain circumstances, repeat it with emphasis in another, where it is either insipid, or it may be offensive, by being ill-timed or misplaced. Nay, they often do it with this silly pre amble : ‘ I will tell you an excellent thing ;’ or, ‘ I will tell you the best thing in the world.’ This raises expectations, which, when absolutely disappointed, makes the relator of this excellent thing look, very de servedly, like a fool.
Egotism. — Upon all occasions avoid speaking of yourself, if it be possible. Some abruptly speak ad vantageously of themselves, without either pretence or provocation. This is downright impudence. Others proceed more artfully, as they imagine ; forging accusations against themselves, and complaining of ca lumnies which they never heard, in order to justify themselves and exhibit a catalogue of their many virtues ; — ‘ they acknowledge, indeed, it may appear odd that they should talk thus of themselves ; it is what they have a great aversion to, and what they could not have done, if they had not been thus un justly and scandalously abused.’ This thin veil of modesty, drawn before vanity, is much too transparent to conceal it, even from those who have but a mode rate share of penetration.
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Lord chesterfield’s advice to his son, on men and manners – 1836