The Art of Civilized Conversation

I felt it shelter to speak with you.
~ Emily Dickinson

[The art of conversation] is the Swiss Army knife
of social skills that anyone can learn to use. p.1

As much as we try to avoid it, there are times when we have to talk to strangers. 

Sometimes we need to sustain a conversation with strangers, acquaintances, or friends of friends.  When I served on Grand Jury for two months we had hours of in-between time where we had the choice of looking down and doodling or looking up at a fellow juror and launching a conversation. 

Shepherd’s book would have been a blessing.  Most of it is common sense clearly explained.  I tried to read it looking for me and my weaknesses (rambling, interruptions) rather than identify people I know in the author’s descriptions.  She introduces some great phrases: conversation kindling, verbal tics, rapport vs. report.  Since we all blunder, Shepherd tells us how to recover from them.

Did you know?

~  It is courteous to stand up for an introduction.
~  Order of introductions: first say name of the lady,
the elder, the honored person.
[By mixing these I made the mnemonic acronym HELP. ]
~ Think of talk as a good game of Frisbee.  Toss it to someone else.

Ten Rules of Conversation

1.  Tell the truth.
2.  Don’t ramble.
3.  Don’t interrupt.
4. Ask questions and listen to the answers.
5. Don’t take advantage of people.
6.  Don’t dwell on appearances.
7.  Don’t touch taboo subjects.
8.  Disagree in a civilized fashion.
9.  Don’t be a bore.
10.  Don’t gossip.

Five Fail-Safe Starters

1.  The journey.  Are you from here?  How did you get here?
2.  The recent past.  What have you been working on?
3.  Situation you share now.  How do you know ___?
4.  Companions.  Do you have family* nearby?
5.  Return questions.  Ask her what she just asked you.

Funny Quote

I wish you would read a little poetry sometimes.
Your ignorance cramps my conversation.

~  Sir Anthony Hopkins

Whether small talk makes you hum or gives your hives, I recommend this little book.   I also recommend Margaret Shepherd’s other book, The Art of the Handwritten Note. 

*Shepherd makes a point of using the word family.  While people may not have a spouse or children, everyone, presumably, has family.

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7 thoughts on “The Art of Civilized Conversation

  1. Do I really need to buy this book?  It sounds like stuff I like, but already know.  Then again, I bought Lynn Truss’s book… and I already knew and liked what she was talking about in Talk to the Hand: Six Good Reasons to Stay at Home and Bolt the Door.Those rules of conversation are good, but I have gotten in big trouble 1) telling the truth ;2) I dont think I ramble, but DH may not agree.  I have learned to present my thoughts within 3 minutes or less.3)  I’m a total failure here.  I interrupt.all.the.time!  Remember my third grade nickname?  Miss Butt Inskee.4) I like asking questions, but need to be careful about sounding like I’m *grilling* my friend.  You know, giving them the *third degree*5) *Dont take advantage* means dont ask legal advice of an attorney at a cocktail party?6)  Appearances – hmmm, like eye color and hair or what s/he’s wearing?7)  Don’t touch taboo subjects. Well, that’s no fun!8)  Disagree in a civilized fashion – I admire folks who can do that.  My facial expressions and tone of voice give me away every time.9)  Don’t be a bore – Can’t say I’ve ever been accused of that.10) Don’t gossip – At least not on FB…. did you read Cindy’s blog? 

  2. I bought that book too — it just came in last week and I’ve started it.  My problem is that I was so terribly shy growing up that I couldn’t do the polite kind of small talk — I’d just clam up.  “Yes,” or “No,” if asked a direct question, but nothing else.  As I got older I tried to compensate by being more open when asked those polite questions, but the last several months I’ve started noticing that now when I’m nervous I don’t clam up, I blather!  AAH!  I’d much rather be the other way.Anyway, I’m trying to memorize her advice about tossing the Frisbee back and really listening to the other person.  I’ve come to realize that my kind of shyness/blathering is sinful self-centeredness, not simply an introverted temperament, so in the meantime I’ve got to be repenting of that.  I’ll always be introverted but there’s no excuse for self-centeredness.

  3. Oh that people would get this. So many folks seem so very selfish in their conversations never asking any questions, just blah, blah, blah. : )  We are left feeling spent and used. I’m here on recommend.  Enjoyed this much needed entry!  Do you suppose someone may write a booklet on considerate xanga etiquette too?  ; )  Oh me oh my!  If only folks could realize it’s a two way street. ; )    And by the way, where are you from?  : P Blessings!

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