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    Of Conversation

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    Chapter 5
    Previous Chapter
    AN APOLOGY

    I must admit that in conversation I am not a brilliant success. Partly,
    indeed, that may be owing to the assiduity with which my aunt suppressed
    my early essays in the art: "Children," she said, "should be seen but
    not heard," and incontinently rapped my knuckles. To a larger degree,
    however, I regard it as intrinsic. This tendency to silence, to go out
    of the rattle and dazzle of the conversation into a quiet apart, is
    largely, I hold, the consequence of a certain elevation and breadth and
    tenderness of mind; I am no blowfly to buzz my way through the universe,
    no rattle that I should be expected to delight my fellow-creatures by
    the noises I produce. I go about to this social function and that,
    deporting myself gravely and decently in silence, taking, if possible, a
    back seat; and, in consequence of that, people who do not understand me
    have been heard to describe me as a "stick," as "shy," and by an
    abundance of the like unflattering terms. So that I am bound almost in
    self-justification to set down my reasons for this temperance of mine in
    conversation.

    Speech, no doubt, is a valuable gift, but at the same time it is a gift
    that may be abused. What is regarded as polite conversation is, I hold,
    such an abuse. Alcohol, opium, tea, are all very excellent things in
    their way; but imagine continuous alcohol, an incessant opium, or to
    receive, ocean-like, a perennially flowing river of tea! That is my
    objection to this conversation: its continuousness. You have to keep on.
    You find three or four people gathered together, and instead of being
    restful and recreative, sitting in comfortable attitudes and at peace
    with themselves and each other, and now and again, perhaps three or four
    times in an hour, making a worthy and memorable remark, they are all
    haggard and intent upon keeping this fetish flow agoing. A fortuitous
    score of cows in a field are a thousand times happier than a score of
    people deliberately assembled for the purposes of happiness. These
    conversationalists say the most shallow and needless of things, impart
    aimless information, simulate interest they do not feel, and generally
    impugn their claim to be considered reasonable creatures. Why, when
    people assemble without hostile intentions, it should be so imperative
    to keep the trickling rill of talk running, I find it impossible to
    imagine. It is a vestige of the old barbaric times, when men murdered at
    sight for a mere whim; when it was good form to take off your sword in
    the antechamber, and give your friend your dagger-hand, to show him it
    was no business visit. Similarly, you keep up this babblement to show
    your mind has no sinister concentration, not necessarily because you
    have anything to say, but as a guarantee of good faith. You have to make
    a noise all the time, like the little boy who was left in the room with
    the plums. It is the only possible explanation.

    To a logical mind there is something very distressing in this social law
    of gabble. Out of regard for Mrs. A, let us say, I attend some festival
    she has inaugurated. There I meet for the first time a young person of
    pleasant exterior, and I am placed in her company to deliver her at a
    dinner-table, or dance her about, or keep her out of harm's way, in a
    cosy nook. She has also never seen me before, and probably does not want
    particularly to see me now. However, I find her nice to look at, and she
    has taken great pains to make herself nice to look at, and why we cannot
    pass the evening, I looking at her and she being looked at, I cannot
    imagine. But no; we must talk. Now, possibly there are topics she knows
    about and I do not--it is unlikely, but suppose so; on these topics she
    requires no information. Again, I know about other topics things unknown
    to her, and it seems a mean and priggish thing to broach these, since
    they put her at a disadvantage. Thirdly, comes a last group of subjects
    upon which we are equally informed, and upon which, therefore, neither
    of us is justified in telling things to the other. This classification
    of topics seems to me exhaustive.

    These considerations, I think, apply to all conversations. In every
    conversation, every departure must either be a presumption when you talk
    into your antagonist's special things, a pedantry when you fall back
    upon your own, or a platitude when you tell each other things you both
    know. I don't see any other line a conversation can take. The reason why
    one has to keep up the stream of talk is possibly, as I have already
    suggested, to manifest goodwill. And in so many cases this could be
    expressed so much better by a glance, a deferential carriage, possibly
    in some cases a gentle pressure of the hand, or a quiet persistent
    smile. And suppose there is some loophole in my reasoning--though I
    cannot see it--and that possible topics exist, how superficial and
    unexact is the best conversation to a second-rate book!

    Even with two people you see the objection, but when three or four are
    gathered together the case is infinitely worse to a man of delicate
    perceptions. Let us suppose--I do not grant it--that there is a possible
    sequence of things to say to the person A that really harmonise with A
    and yourself. Grant also that there is a similar sequence between
    yourself and B. Now, imagine yourself and A and B at the corners of an
    equilateral triangle set down to talk to each other. The kind of talk
    that A appreciates is a discord with B, and similarly B's sequence is
    impossible in the hearing of A. As a matter of fact, a real conversation
    of three people is the most impossible thing in the world. In real life
    one of the three always drops out and becomes a mere audience, or a mere
    partisan. In real life you and A talk, and B pretends to be taking a
    share by interjecting interruptions, or one of the three talks a
    monologue. And the more subtle your sympathy and the greater your
    restraint from self-assertion, the more incredible triple and quadruple
    conversation becomes.

    I have observed that there is even nowadays a certain advance towards my
    views in this matter. Men may not pick out antagonists, and argue to the
    general audience as once they did: there is a tacit taboo of
    controversy, neither may you talk your "shop," nor invite your
    antagonist to talk his. There is also a growing feeling against
    extensive quotations or paraphrases from the newspapers. Again,
    personalities, scandal, are, at least in theory, excluded. This narrows
    the scope down to the "last new book," "the last new play," "impressions
    de voyage," and even here it is felt that any very ironical or satirical
    remarks, anything unusual, in fact, may disconcert your adversary. You
    ask: Have you read the _Wheels of Chance_? The answer is "Yes." "Do you
    like it?" "A little vulgar, I thought." And so forth. Most of this is
    stereo. It is akin to responses in church, a prescription, a formula.
    And, following out this line of thought, I have had a vision of the
    twentieth century dinner. At a distance it is very like the nineteenth
    century type; the same bright light, the same pleasant deglutition, the
    same hum of conversation; but, approaching, you discover each diner has
    a little drum-shaped body under his chin--his phonograph. So he dines
    and babbles at his ease. In the smoking-room he substitutes his anecdote
    record. I imagine, too, the suburban hostess meeting the new maiden: "I
    hope, dear, you have brought a lot of conversation," just as now she
    asks for the music. For my own part, I must confess I find this dinner
    conversation particularly a bother. If I could eat with my eye it would
    be different.

    I lose a lot of friends through this conversational difficulty. They
    think it is my dulness or my temper, when really it is only my refined
    mind, my subtlety of consideration. It seems to me that when I go to see
    a man, I go to see him--to enjoy his presence. If he is my friend, the
    sight of him healthy and happy is enough for me. I don't want him to
    keep his vocal cords, and I don't want to keep my own vocal cords, in
    incessant vibration all the time I am in his company. If I go to see a
    man, it distracts me to have to talk and it distracts me to hear him
    talking. I can't imagine why one should not go and sit about in people's
    rooms, without bothering them and without their bothering you to say all
    these stereotyped things. Quietly go in, sit down, look at your man
    until you have seen him enough, and then go. Why not?

    Let me once more insist that this keeping up a conversation is a sign of
    insecurity, of want of confidence. All those who have had real friends
    know that when the friendship is assured the gabble ceases. You are not
    at the heart of your friend, if either of you cannot go off comfortably
    to sleep in the other's presence. Speech was given us to make known our
    needs, and for imprecation, expostulation, and entreaty. This pitiful
    necessity we are under, upon social occasions, to say something--however
    inconsequent--is, I am assured, the very degradation of speech.
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