How to master the art of conversation like a vintage gentleman—from a manual on manners from the 1880s

How to master the art of conversation like a vintage gentleman—from a manual on manners from the 1880s

The following is an excerpt from “Our Deportment,” a code of manners for refined society by John H. Young A.M., published in 1881. We offer it in hopes of promoting gentlemanly conduct among men—young and older—in today’s often unbalanced world.

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THE character of a person is revealed by his conversation as much as by any one quality he possesses, for strive as he may, he cannot always be acting.


To be able to converse well is an attainment which should be cultivated by every intelligent man and woman. It is better to be a good talker than a good singer or musician, because the former is more widely appreciated, and the company of a person who is able to talk well on a great variety of subjects, is much sought after. The importance, therefore, of cultivating the art of conversation, cannot easily be over-estimated. It should be the aim of all intelligent persons to acquire the habit of talking sensibly and with facility upon all topics of general interest to society, so that they may both interest others and be themselves interested, in whatever company they may chance to be thrown.


The training for this should be commenced in early childhood. Parents should not only encourage their children to express themselves freely upon everything that attracts their attention and interests them, but they should also incite their faculties of perception, memory and close observation, by requiring them to recount everything, even to its minutest details, that they may have observed in walking to and from school, or in taking a ride in a carriage or in the cars. By training a child to a close observation of everything he meets or passes, his mind becomes very active, and the habit having once been acquired, he becomes interested in a great variety of objects; sees more and enjoys more than one who has not been so trained.


A good memory is an invaluable aid in acquiring the art of conversation, and the cultivation and training of this faculty is a matter of importance. Early youth is the proper time to begin this training, and parents and teachers should give special attention to the cultivation of memory. When children are taken to church, or to hear a lecture, they should be required to relate or to write down from memory, such a digest of the sermon or lecture as they can remember. Adults may also adopt this plan for cultivating the memory, and they will be surprised to find how continued practice in this will improve this faculty. The practice of taking notes impairs rather than aids the memory, for then a person relies almost entirely in the notes taken, and does not tax the memory sufficiently. A person should also train himself to remember the names of persons whom he becomes acquainted with, so as to recall them whenever or wherever he may subsequently meet them. It is related of a large wholesale boot and shoe merchant of an eastern city, that he was called upon one day by one of his best customers, residing in a distant city, whom he had frequently met, but whose name, at the time, he could not recall, and received his order for a large bill of goods. As he was about to leave, the merchant asked his name, when the customer indignantly replied that he supposed he was known by a man from whom he had purchased goods for many years, and countermanding his order, he left the store, deaf to all attempts at explanation. Though this may be an extreme case, it illustrates the importance of remembering the names of people when circumstances require it.


One secret of Henry Clay’s popularity as a politician was his faculty of remembering the names of persons he had met. It is said of him that if he was once introduced to a person, he was ever afterwards able to call him by name, and recount the circumstances of their first meeting. This faculty he cultivated after he entered upon the practice of law in Kentucky, and soon after he began his political life. At that time his memory for names was very poor, and he resolved to improve it. He adopted the practice, just before retiring at night, of recalling the names of all the persons he had met during the day, writing them in a note book, and repeating over the list the next morning. By this practice, he acquired in time, his wonderful faculty in remembering the names of persons he had become acquainted with.


To converse correctly—to use correct language in conversation—is also a matter of importance, and while this can be acquired by a strict attention to grammatical rules, it can be greatly facilitated by the habit of writing down one’s thoughts. In writing, strict regard is, or should be, paid to the correct use of language, and when a person, from constant writing, acquires the habit of using correct language, this habit will follow him in talking. A person who is accustomed to much writing, will always be found to use language correctly in speaking.


To be a good talker then, one should be possessed of much general information, acquired by keen observation, attentive listening, a good memory, extensive reading and study, logical habits of thought, and have a correct knowledge of the use of language. He should also aim at a clear intonation, well chosen phraseology and correct accent. These acquirements are within the reach of every person of ordinary ability, who has a determination to possess them, and the energy and perseverance to carry out that determination.


In conversation, one must scrupulously guard against vulgarisms. Simplicity and terseness of language are the characteristics of a well educated and highly cultivated person. It is the uneducated or those who are but half educated, who use long words and high-sounding phrases. A hyperbolical way of speaking is mere flippancy, and should be avoided. Such phrases as “awfully pretty,” “immensely jolly,” “abdominally stupid,” “disgustingly mean,” are of this nature, and should be avoided. Awkwardness of attitude is equally as bad as awkwardness of speech. Lolling, gesticulating, fidgeting, handling an eye-glass or watch chain and the like, give an air of gaucherie, and take off a certain percentage from the respect of others.


The habit of listening with interest and attention is one which should be specially cultivated. Even if the talker is prosy and prolix, the well-bred person will appear interested, and at appropriate intervals make such remarks as shall show that he has heard and understood all that has been said. Some superficial people are apt to style this hypocrisy; but if it is, it is certainly a commendable hypocrisy, directly founded on that strict rule of good manners which commands us to show the same courtesy to others that we hope to receive ourselves. We are commanded to check our impulses, conceal our dislikes, and even modify our likings whenever or wherever these are liable to give offense or pain to others. The person who turns away with manifest displeasure, disgust or want of interest when another is addressing him, is guilty not only of an ill-bred, but a cruel act.


In conversation all provincialism, affectations of foreign accents, mannerisms, exaggerations and slang are detestable. Equally to be avoided are inaccuracies of expression, hesitation, an undue use of foreign words, and anything approaching to flippancy, coarseness, triviality or provocation. Gentlemen sometimes address ladies in a very flippant manner, which the latter are obliged to pass over without notice, for various reasons, while inwardly they rebel. Many a worthy man has done himself an irreparable injury by thus creating a lasting prejudice in the minds of those whom he might have made his friends, had he addressed them as though he considered them rational beings, capable of sustaining their part in a conversation upon sensible subjects. Flippancy is as much an evidence of ill-breeding as is the perpetual smile, the wandering eye, the vacant stare, and the half-opened mouth of the man who is preparing to break in upon the conversation.


Do not go into society unless you make up your mind to be sympathetic, unselfish, animating, as well as animated. Society does not require mirth, but it does demand cheerfulness and unselfishness, and you must help to make and sustain cheerful conversation. The manner of conversation is as important as the matter.


Compliments are said by some to be inadmissible. But between equals, or from those of superior position to those of inferior station, compliments should be not only acceptable but gratifying. It is pleasant to know that our friends think well of us, and it is always agreeable to know that we are thought well of by those who hold higher positions, such as men of superior talent, or women of superior culture. Compliments which are not sincere, are only flattery and should be avoided; but the saying of kind things, which is natural to the kind heart, and which confers pleasure, should be cultivated, at least not suppressed. Those parents who strive most for the best mode of training their children are said to have found that it is never wise to censure them for a fault, without preparing the way by some judicious mention of their good qualities.


All slang is vulgar. It lowers the tone of society and the standard of thought. It is a great mistake to suppose that slang is in any manner witty. Only the very young or the uncultivated so consider it.


Do not be guilty of flattery. The flattery of those richer than ourselves or better born is vulgar, and born of rudeness, and is sure to be received as emanating from unworthy motives. Testify your respect, your admiration, and your gratitude by deeds more than words. Words are easy but deeds are difficult. Few will believe the former, but the latter will carry confirmation with them.


Scandal is the least excusable of all conversational vulgarities. Envy prompts the tongue of the slanderer. Jealousy is the disturber of the harmony of all interests. A writer on this subject says: “Gossip is a troublesome sort of insect that only buzzes about your ears and never bites deep; slander is the beast of prey that leaps upon you from its den and tears you in pieces. Slander is the proper object of rage; gossip of contempt.” Those who best understand the nature of gossip and slander, if the victims of both, will take no notice of the former, but will allow no slander of themselves to go unrefuted during their lifetime, to spring up in a hydra-headed attack upon their children. No woman can be too sensitive as to any charges affecting her moral character, whether in the influence of her companionship, or in the influence of her writings.


Religion and politics are topics that should never be introduced into general conversation, for they are subjects dangerous to harmony. Persons are most likely to differ, and least likely to preserve their tempers on these topics. Long arguments in general company, however entertaining to the disputants, are very tiresome to the hearers.


Young persons appear ridiculous when satirizing or ridiculing books, people or things. Opinions to be worth the consideration of others should have the advantage of coming from mature persons. Cultivated people are not in the habit of resorting to such weapons as satire and ridicule. They find too much to correct in themselves to indulge in coarse censure of the conduct of others, who may not have had advantages equal to their own.


In addressing persons with titles always add the name; as “what do you think of it, Doctor Hayes?” not “what do you think of it, Doctor?” In speaking of foreigners the reverse of the English rule is observed. No matter what the title of a Frenchman is, he is always addressed as Monsieur, and you never omit the word Madame, whether addressing a duchess or a dressmaker. The former is “Madame la Duchesse,” the latter plain “Madame.” Always give a foreigner his title. If General Sherman travels in Europe and is received by the best classes with the dignity that his worth, culture and position as an American general demand, he will never be called Mr. Sherman, but his title will invariably precede his name. There are persons who fancy that the omission of the title is annoying to the party who possesses it, but this is not the ground taken why the title should be given, but because it reveals either ignorance or ill-breeding on the part of those omitting it.


There is a class of persons, who from ignorance of the customs of good society, or from carelessness, speak of persons by their Christian names, who are neither relations nor intimate friends. This is a familiarity which, outside of the family circle, and beyond friends of the closest intimacy, is never indulged in by the well-bred.


Interruption of the speech of others is a great sin against good-breeding. It has been aptly said that if you interrupt a speaker in the middle of a sentence, you act almost as rudely as if, when walking with a companion, you were to thrust yourself before him and stop his progress.


The great secret of talking well is to adapt your conversation, as skillfully as may be, to your company. Some men make a point of talking commonplace to all ladies alike, as if a woman could only be a trifler. Others, on the contrary, seem to forget in what respects the education of a lady differs from that of a gentleman, and commit the opposite error of conversing on topics with which ladies are seldom acquainted, and in which few, if any, are ever interested. A woman of sense has as much right to be annoyed by the one, as a woman of ordinary education by the other. If you really wish to be thought agreeable, sensible, amiable, unselfish and even well-informed, you should lead the way, in tete-a-tete conversations, for sportsmen to talk of their shooting, a mother to talk of her children, a traveler of his journeys and the countries he has visited, a young lady of her last ball and the prospective ones, an artist of his picture and an author of his book. To show any interest in the immediate concerns of people is very complimentary, and when not in general society one is privileged to do this. People take more interest in their own affairs than in anything else you can name, and if you manifest an interest to hear, there are but few who will not sustain conversation by a narration of their affairs in some form or another. Thackeray says: “Be interested by other people and by their affairs. It is because you yourself are selfish that that other person’s self does not interest you.”


The correct use of words is indispensable to a good talker who would escape the unfavorable criticism of an educated listener. There are many words and phrases, used in some cases by persons who have known better, but who have become careless from association with others who make constant use of them. “Because that” and “but that” should never be used in connection, the word “that” being entirely superfluous. The word “vocation” is often used for “avocation.” “Unhealthy” food is spoken of when it should be “unwholesome.” “Had not ought to” is sometimes heard for “ought not to;” “banister” for “baluster;” “handsful” and “spoonsful” for “handfuls” and “spoonfuls;” “it was him” for “it was he;” “it was me” for “it was I;” “whom do you think was there?” for “who do you think was there?”; “a mutual friend” for “a common friend;” “like I did” instead of “as I did;” “those sort of things” instead of “this sort of things;” “laying down” for “lying down;” “setting on a chair” for “sitting on a chair;” “try and make him” instead of “try to make him;” “she looked charmingly” for “she looked charming;” “loan” for “lend;” “to get along” instead of “to get on;” “cupalo” instead of “cupola;” “who” for “whom”—as, “who did you see” for “whom did you see;” double negatives, as, “he did not do neither of those things;” “lesser” for “least;” “move” instead of “remove;” “off-set” instead of “set-off,” and many other words which are often carelessly used by those who have been better taught, as well as by those who are ignorant of their proper use.


Certain honest but unthinking people often commit the grievous mistake of “speaking their mind” on all occasions and under all circumstances, and oftentimes to the great mortification of their hearers. And especially do they take credit to themselves for their courage, if their freedom of speech happens to give offense to any of them. A little reflection ought to show how cruel and unjust this is. The law restrains us from inflicting bodily injury upon those with whom we disagree, yet there is no legal preventive against this wounding of the feeling of others.


Another class of people, actuated by the best of intentions, seem to consider it a duty to parade their opinions upon all occasions, and in all places without reflecting that the highest truth will suffer from an unwise and over-zealous advocacy. Civility requires that we give to the opinions of others the same toleration that we exact for our own, and good sense should cause us to remember that we are never likely to convert a person to our views when we begin by violating his notions of propriety and exciting his prejudices. A silent advocate of a cause is always better than an indiscreet one.


No gentleman uses profane language. It is unnecessary to add that no gentleman will use profane language in the presence of a lady. For profanity there is no excuse. It is a low and paltry habit, acquired from association with low and paltry spirits, who possess no sense of honor, no regard for decency and no reverence or respect for beings of a higher moral or religious nature than themselves. The man who habitually uses profane language, lowers his moral tone with every oath he utters. Moreover, the silliness of the practice, if no other reason, should prevent its use by every man of good sense.


Do not parade merely private matters before a public or mixed assembly or to acquaintances. If strangers really wish to become informed about you or your affairs, they will find the means to gratify their curiosity without your advising them gratuitously. Besides, personal and family affairs, no matter how interesting they may be to the parties immediately concerned, are generally of little moment to outsiders. Still less will the well-bred person inquire into or narrate the private affairs of any other family or individual.


In refined and intelligent society one should always display himself at his best, and make a proper and legitimate use of all such acquirements as he may happen to have. But there should be no ostentatious or pedantic show of erudition. Besides being vulgar, such a show subjects the person to ridicule.


Avoid an affectation of excessive modesty. Do not use the word “limb” for “leg.” If legs are really improper, then let us, on no account, mention them. But having found it necessary to mention them, let us by all means give them their appropriate name.


No person of decency, still less of delicacy, will be guilty of double entendre. A well-bred person always refuses to understand a phrase of doubtful meaning. If the phrase may be interpreted decently, and with such interpretation would provoke a smile, then smile to just the degree called for by such interpretation, and no more. The prudery which sits in solemn and severe rebuke at a double entendre is only second in indelicacy to the indecency which grows hilarious over it, since both must recognize the evil intent. It is sufficient to let it pass unrecognized.


Not so when one hears an indelicate word or expression, which allows of no possible harmless interpretation. Then not the shadow of a smile should flit across the lips. Either complete silence should be preserved in return, or the words, “I do not understand you,” be spoken. A lady will always fail to hear that which she should not hear, or, having unmistakably heard, she will not understand.


No lady should make use of any feminine substitute for profanity. The woman who exclaims “The Dickens!” or “Mercy!” or “Goodness!” when she is annoyed or astonished, is as vulgar in spirit, though perhaps not quite so regarded by society, as though she had used expressions which it would require but little stretch of the imagination to be regarded as profane.


You may be witty and amusing if you like, or rather if you can; but never use your wit at the expense of others.


“Wit’s an unruly engine, wildly striking
Sometimes a friend, sometimes the engineer;
Hast thou the knack? pamper it not with liking;
But if thou want it, buy it not too dear.
Many affecting wit beyond their power
Have got to be a dear fool for an hour.”—Herbert.



Avoid all exhibitions of temper before others, if you find it impossible to suppress them entirely. All emotions, whether of grief or joy, should be subdued in public, and only allowed full play in the privacy of your own apartments.


Never ask impertinent questions. Some authorities in etiquette even go so far as to say that all questions are strictly tabooed. Thus, if you wished to inquire after the health of the brother of your friend, you would say, “I hope your brother is well,” not, “How is your brother’s health?”


Never try to force yourself into the confidence of others; but if they give you their confidence of their own free will, let nothing whatever induce you to betray it. Never seek to pry into a secret, and never divulge one.


Do not form the habit of introducing words and phrases of French or other foreign languages into common conversation. This is only allowable in writing, and not then except when the foreign word or phrase expresses more clearly and directly than English can do the desired meaning. In familiar conversation this is an affectation, only pardonable when all persons present are particularly familiar with the language.


Avoid all pretense at gentility. Pass for what you are, and nothing more. If you are obliged to make any little economies, do not be ashamed to acknowledge them as economies, if it becomes necessary to speak of them at all. If you keep no carriage, do not be over-solicitous to impress upon your friends that the sole reason for this deficiency is because you prefer to walk. Do not be ashamed of poverty; but, on the other hand, do not flaunt its rags unmercifully in the faces of others. It is better to say nothing about it, either in excuse or defense.


Never speak dogmatically or with an assumption of knowledge or information beyond that of those with whom you are conversing. Even if you are conscious of this superiority, a proper and becoming modesty will lead you to conceal it as far as possible, that you may not put to shame or humiliation those less fortunate than yourself. If they discover your superiority of their own accord, they will have much more admiration for you than though you forced the recognition upon them. If they do not discover it, you cannot force it upon their perceptions, and they will only hold you in contempt for trying to do so. Besides, there is the possibility that you over-estimate yourself, and instead of being a wise man you are only a self-sufficient fool.


Do not be censorious or fault-finding. Long and close friendship may sometimes excuse one friend in reproving or criticising another, but it must always be done in the kindest and gentlest manner, and in nine cases out of ten had best be left undone. When one is inclined to be censorious or critical, it is well to remember the scriptural injunction, “First cast the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”


A gentleman should never lower the intellectual standard of his conversation in addressing ladies. Pay them the compliment of seeming to consider them capable of an equal understanding with gentlemen. You will, no doubt, be somewhat surprised to find in how many cases the supposition will be grounded on fact, and in the few instances where it is not, the ladies will be pleased rather than offended at the delicate compliment you pay them. When you “come down” to commonplace or small-talk with an intelligent lady, one of two things is the consequence; she either recognizes the condescension and despises you, or else she accepts it as the highest intellectual effort of which you are capable, and rates you accordingly.


People with hobbies are at once the easiest and most difficult persons with whom to engage in conversation. On general subjects they are idealess and voiceless beyond monosyllables. But introduce their special hobby, and if you choose you need only to listen. There is much profit to be derived from the conversation of these persons. They will give you a clearer idea of the aspects of any subject or theory which they may have taken to heart, than you could perhaps gain in any other way.

The too constant riding of hobbies is not, however, to be specially recommended. An individual, though he may be pardoned in cultivating special tastes, should yet be possessed of sufficiently broad and general information to be able to converse intelligently on all subjects, and he should, as far as possible, reserve his hobby-riding for exhibition before those who ride hobbies similar to his own.


It must be remembered that a social gathering should never be made the arena of a dispute. Consequently every subject liable to provoke a discussion should be avoided. Even slight inaccuracy in a statement of facts or opinions should rarely be remarked on in conversation.

Do not permit yourself to lose your temper in society, nor show that you have taken offense at a supposed slight.

If anyone should assume a disagreeable tone of voice or offensive manner toward you, never return it in company, and, above all, do not adopt the same style of conversation with him. Appear not to notice it, and generally it will be discontinued, as it will be seen that it has failed in its object.

Avoid all coarseness and undue familiarity in addressing others. A person who makes himself offensively familiar will have few friends.

Never attack the character of others in their absence; and if you hear others attacked, say what you can consistently to defend them.

If you are talking on religious subjects, avoid all cant. Cant words and phrases may be used in good faith from the force of habit, but their use subjects the speaker to a suspicion of insincerity.

Do not ask the price of articles you observe, except from intimate friends, and then very quietly, and only for some good reason.

Do not appear to notice an error in language, either in pronunciation or grammar, made by the person with whom you are conversing, and do not repeat correctly the same word or phrase. This would be as ill-bred as to correct it when spoken.

Mimicry is ill-bred, and must be avoided.

Sneering at the private affairs of others has long ago been banished from the conversation of well-mannered people.

Never introduce unpleasant topics, nor describe revolting scenes in general company.

Never give officious advice. Even when sought for, give advice sparingly.

Never, directly or indirectly, refer to the affairs of others, which it may give them pain in any degree to recall.

Never hold your companion in conversation by the button-hole. If you are obliged to detain him forcibly in order to say what you wish, you are pressing upon him what is disagreeable or unwelcome, and you commit a gross breach of etiquette in so doing.

Especially avoid contradictions, interruptions and monopolizing all conversation yourself. These faults are all intolerable and very offensive.

To speak to one person in a company in ambiguous terms, understood by him alone, is as rude as if you had whispered in his ear.

Avoid stale and trite remarks on commonplace subjects; also all egotism and anecdotes of personal adventure and exploit, unless they should be called out by persons you are conversing with.

To make a classical quotation in a mixed company is considered pedantic and out of place, as is also an ostentatious display of your learning.

A gentleman should avoid talking about his business or profession, unless such matters are drawn from him by the person with whom he is conversing. It is in bad taste, particularly, to employ technical or professional terms in general conversation.

Long arguments or heated discussions are apt to be tiresome to others, and should be avoided.

It is considered extremely ill-bred for two persons to whisper in society, or to converse in a language with which all persons are not familiar.

Avoid talking too much, and do not inflict upon your hearers interminably long stories, in which they can have but little interest.

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