Good Conversation Is a Two-way Deal

When two people meet, say, on a Monday morning, after brief greetings, the one who’s fastest on the uptake starts to talk. About what? Ten to one, something about himself—the fish he caught, the show he saw, what he grew in his garden, about his trip, his car, his youngsters, and so on. Sure—he talks about himself.

But the other fellow is only half listening. He’s just waiting for an opening to crash in and talk a bit himself. And when he does, what does he talk about?

About himself, of course—where he’s been, what he’s done, what he told so-and-so.

All this is just human nature and we needn’t be critical of people who do it. They are just following a natural impulse; each one trying, in this way or that, to build himself up.

But what do they gain in information, good will or other wise? Most anyone will agree that such sounding off, such pumping up of one’s self, quickens no esteem in the other per son. Such talk only gives vent to the passing vanity of self- expression. It means nothing. As a friend once said, “After twenty years of talking about my golf game, I’ve found out that nobody is interested in my golf game but myself.”

The first thing we may note about a good conversation, then, is that we should talk in terms of the other person’s interests.

What does the thoughtful person do in a conversation? Well, first, he listens. With a little self-restraint, he can listen instead of talking himself. We’re not suggesting he be dull and stodgy, with nothing to say. Certainly a person, to make his influence felt, must have something to say and say it well. People like a strong, colorful, animated personality. They like a person who comes out of his shell and takes part. But the point is that the commonest error in conversation is that of overtalking the other fellow. At very least, the continuous talker gets to be an unholy bore.

If anyone expects cooperation from the other fellow, he has to be a good listener. The listener is paid, first, and most importantly, in the good will of the talker. Doesn’t the talker always think the interested listener is a good conversationalist, and smart, too?

Furthermore, if you have something fairly important to say to another person, isn’t it best to let him talk himself our first so that he will have a free mind to give attention to what you have to say?

Too few people keep in mind that in conversation you are talking ‘with another person, not to him. Good conversation has to be a two-way deal. There is much in that word “with” (for the prefix “con”) in this particular usage. The attitude of talking “with” tends to bring the other person in with you emotionally; he feels the cooperative spirit; he is inclined to join with you, rather than be against you in what you may propose. So let’s not monopolize a conversation. The other fellow will repay us if we give him a break.

Long-drawn-out continuous talk is hard to take. Did you ever notice a person being subjected to it; how he takes on a benumbed look, his eyes glazed, like a suffering animal? The considerate talker will pause at frequent intervals and let the other person make a comment. Few persons are more nerve- racking than one who goes on endlessly, filling in the gaps between sentences with “and-uh” that effectively blocks out the other fellow. It is a relief to the listener just to be able to say occasionally “Is that so?” or “Yes.” Unless one is delivering a public speech, it is seldom advisable for a person to talk continuously to another for more than one minute.

To our list of suggestions for good human relations in conversation, then, let’s add: Be a good listener. Cultivate a talent for occasional silence. Don’t overtalk the other fellow.

A dog can talk to you. When he comes to you wagging his tail, he’s saying “I like you.” If he wags his whole body and gives a joyous bark, he’s saying, “I sure glad to see you, my great and good friend.” And he expects a little recognition, a friendly word, a pat on the back.

When a dog barks sharply, uncertainly, he is in fact uncertain. Dog lovers know that a quiet, friendly, firm word will re assure the dog.

When he prances, barks playfully, and crouches down in his forequarters, he is saying that he wants to play. He wants you to throw a ball or stick for him to retrieve.

When he growls, with his ruff on end and a baleful look in his eye, he’s warning you off. You’d better be careful.

Human beings, like dogs, say something to you by their attitudes and actions. In fact, we communicate with others with our whole personalities, and we may say many things without uttering a word. When we do speak—whether we smile or frown, whether we are loud or mild, cringing or aggressive, nervous or relaxed—our manner importantly affects the per sons to whom we speak. Our attitude inclines them to agree or to disagree with us, to accept or to reject what we say.

So, let’s add a third conversational precept: Our attitude and manner should add power or appeal to our words.

A newspaper editor, whose interests were as wide as the range of human knowledge and activities, used to say that “the principal aim of education is to make one an effective conversationalist.” In large measure this is true.

The civilized man could not exist without conversation. He uses it for four main purposes: (1) to convey information, (2) to gain information, (3) to persuade, or (4) just to show a human interest in other human beings—to win and hold friends.

And there are three main requirements of the successful conversationalist: (1) He should have something worth while to say, thoughts or facts to express, (2) he should have words to form and present such thoughts or facts, and (3) he should have the grace to express himself in terms of the other person’s interests.

“We rule with words,” said Disraeli. It is true that combinations of words, magic-like, have swayed men and nations, have created war and made the peace. Balzac said, “There are words that cut like steel.” Who is there who has not experienced them? The Bible says, “Pleasant words are an honeycomb, sweet to the soul and health to the bone.” Modern psychiatrists are, in fact, curing physical ailments with words.

But words are not enough. Let us balance our consideration of the great power of words with Emerson’s warning: “What you are thunders so loud I cannot hear what you say.” People add weight to the words of the solid genuine character and discount the words of the fickle and insincere. Common sayings are: “Consider the source” and “Actions speak louder than words.” Unless people believe in you, they will not believe what you say.

Some have said that thought began with the invention of words. Certainly, the use of primitive sound symbols marked the beginning of language. Thereafter language led to precision and variety in expression; and, as written symbols for words and figures were invented and developed, thinking in the higher levels was made possible. Without words man would be little more than a beast. People plan and imagine with words, drawings, and figures. They devise and carry on the complex and fascinating world we live in by words.

A student may say, “I know it but I can’t say it.” Educators will not accept this. If you really know it, you can say it.

Words take on varying meanings for various people. The subject of semantics deals with this. “Red” may be to you just a color you like. To another it may be a political and social idea that he hates; uttering the word to this man may be like waving a red flag at a bull. There are words that set loose strong emotions in people: words that make you mad or make you laugh. Since people are governed largely by their emotions, it is vital in business, social, and everyday life that we know about words and what they signify to various persons. Words become distorted. Sometimes they get to be stereotyped. Sometimes they imply meanings different from those they originally had. It is important that we know what these variations are. People conditioned in certain ways, such as trained soldiers and lots of others besides, are galvanized into action by a single word. “ “halt,” “stop,” “go” are signals to which people respond almost automatically.

A deck of cards holds such endless and elaborate combinations that mathematicians cannot go much beyond general theories as to how the cards are likely to fall. There are eighty-eight notes on the standard piano keyboard. Think of the endless chords, harmonies, and dissonances that can be brought forth from these keys. But there are more than 100,000 words in the current “Webster’s New International Dictionary.” Children and primitive people use only a few hundred words. Well- educated people use only 3,000 or 4,000. Even Shakespeare used only 15,000 words. Though our stock of words is small, consider the infinite number of combinations we may make to express every shade and gradation of meaning and emotion.

Words play a major role in our lives, in helping us to communicate with other people, to understand other people, to persuade other people. They help us to get along with people and to get along in the world. A competent survey shows an adequate vocabulary to be the characteristic most common to successful men. Many people collect stamps, coins, or antiques; but more interesting and much more profitable is the hobby of collecting words.

Most people just pick up words in a haphazard way as they go along and make no especial effort to accumulate a good stock of them. It seems no more than common sense that we should go at the important matter of vocabulary building in a more systematic way and that we should know the exact meaning of each word we use so that we may not be wide of the mark, vague, uncertain, or confusing in our attempts to communicate with or persuade other people.

There we suggest the simple notebook-dictionary method of writing down every new word you see, and, later, of looking up its meaning in the dictionary and writing down the definition after the word. Wide and varied reading helps tremendously. If a person combines this with the note book plan, he will be delighted at how amazingly his stock of usable words goes up. A youngster who began this at the age of fifteen soon overwhelmed his listeners by the rare, picturesque, and academic words that rushed out every time he opened his mouth.

“Is that good?” you ask. No, not especially. In the case mentioned, time and maturity cured the youth’s excess, as they cure many other excesses.

We may note that stilted, bookish, and technical words should be used with some care. Naturalness has a charm. Even in academic circles, the tendency is toward informal expression.

An old friend of ours, a writer, advised his son, a university student, to read Dr. Rudolph Flesch’s “The Art of Plain Talk.” He spoke of avoiding complex words, holding sentences to around twenty words, and following other suggestions contained in this excellent book.

“Now, pop,” remonstrated the son, “you send me to college to learn sentence structure, qualifying clauses, subjunctive moods, and all that. After I struggle through all that, do I have to come down to ‘plain talk’?”

“That’s right,” said his father. “You have to go through a lot of study before you can effectively manhandle the language. Learn a great deal, then simplify. Words are just tools. A resourceful man will constantly find new, simpler, more direct ways to use them. You may break the rules only if you know the rules; and you never can be forceful or effective if you feel bound by the rules.”

So, although one may use comparatively few words in every day talk, it is pleasant and reassuring for a person to know he has a large reserve. It will interest and stimulate your listeners, if you can occasionally drop into an otherwise commonplace conversation a crisp word or phrase, used in a fresh, new way.

In everyday conversation we may sharpen up what we have to say by giving thought to our choice of words. This is a habit. It is the reverse of the habit of slovenly speech, the habit of using tired, worn-out, drab words. Take “got,” for instance. It isn’t a pretty word, not a very meaningful word. In fact, its best use is, occasionally, for emphasis. Yet “got,” with its corruption “gotta,” is the most overworked and misused word in the language. “I got me a new hat,” “When you gotta go, you gotta go,”—you hear the word and it’s ill-begotten offspring “gotta” until your stomach turns. So with the other down—at-the-heels members of this tribe: “yeah,” “mad,” “cute,” “nice,” “swell,” “awful,” “OK,” and the impossible “okey-dokey.”

We are not talking about slang expressions which in the beginning nearly always pick up and add color to conversation and sometimes become useful, permanent additions to the language. In fact, as H. L. Mencken points out in his “The American Language,” much of the vitality of American talk and writing is due to the ingenuity and boldness with which we coin and use new words and phrases. The warning is against the lazy habit of using bleached-out, won-out words, that were not very effective in the first place, that have become so blunted by constant use that they don’t cut into the mind.

Right along with that habit is the one of slurring over words: saying “jools” for jewels, or “winda” for window, and the habit of dropping the “g” on the suffix “ing.” “I was thinkin’ we oughta get goin’,” for a tiresome example. There is not much distinction, stimulation, or inspiration in expressions of that kind. Let’s avoid word-fatigue. If words are tools in thinking, let’s consider the level of our thinking as it may appear to others when we use words such as these.

Before we leave this phase of the subject, we must mention briefly what Ethel Cotton, author of “Keeping Mentally Alive,” calls “rag-bag” conversation. This is talk about commonplace things without concentration on any one topic—just chatter about the insignificant happenings of one’s workaday life. The subjects are generally household troubles, sickness, business irritations, and such unpleasantries. This is the un thinking talk of the person who talks to relieve his feelings. And it is quite depressing and futile, and leaves one with a sense of confusion.

Miss Cotton regards the sort of conversation that follows as an abomination, too:

Two men meet and shake hands heartily.

“Well, Ed, how are you?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“O.K. How’s the missus and the family?”
“All well. How’s yours?”
“Fine. Well, how are things?”
“Oh, you know. Just the same as usual.”
“Yeah! It’s pretty quiet.”
“Well, I gotta run along now. Give my regards to the folks.”
“Sure. Mine to yours. Give me a ring some time.”
“Sure will. So long, Ed.”
“S’long, Bill.”

Well, there’s no point in it, but it is, in effect, a cordial greeting and it’s better than being grumpy. Not all such conversations end so pointlessly. Many that begin with remarks about the weather, for example, turn out to be entertaining or in formative. The main thing is to switch from the conversational icebreakers as quickly as possible into something new, refreshing, interesting, and worth-while.

But to do that one has to have something to say. Frank J. Taylor, the magazine writer, says that one of the first requirements of a good writer is the habit of being observant. The same habit is of first importance to the conversationalist. Reading, travel, and mixing with people are helpful, but these things should be done with an alert, observant attitude. Look for things of interest and you’ll find them.

But this has to be a habit, We think, in this connection, of a man who had had seemingly every advantage of education and travel. He came from a family of what are considered cultivated people. He attended two universities and graduated as a modem language major. He traveled widely and lived for several years in Europe. Yet this man, who finally settled down to farming, could talk of little beyond the petty happenings and irritations of his workaday life. His wide experiences never became a part of him. With all his education and experiences, he failed to acquire the habit of observing, which, combined with a personal philosophy and sense of humor, makes a person an informative and entertaining conversationalist.

Some years before the Second World War a couple made a trip through Eastern Europe and the Near East. We awaited their return eagerly, expecting to enjoy with them their observations in this colorful and little-known-to-us region of the world. But what a disappointment! They talked of the bad food they had in Athens, the colds they caught on a trip down the Danube, the night the wife wore the wrong dress and had a dismal time at a big party in Budapest. So far as we could see, they might have had a better and more interesting time on a trip to the grocer’s.

By contrast, a few months later a salesman of our acquaintance dropped in to see us. At first we were thinking of how we might quickly get rid of him. But he began to tell us about the trip he had recently taken over virtually the same route that had been traveled by our friends. He was bubbling over with items and comment of lively interest: the old mosque he attended in a little-visited part of Istanbul, the fig wine he drank with a family on the island of Cyprus, the Greek peasant suit, with a skirt, he bought for himself in Delphi, the wedding he witnessed in Sofia. He took us right along with him. He gave us plenty of intervals to comment or ask questions. Further acquaintance with this man revealed a habit of acquiring interesting information and a talent for amusing or penetrating comment. He has become a welcome visitor because of his interested, alert, sympathetic, and good-humored attitude to ward all his experiences and toward all the people he meets including us.

Let’s turn now to the simple problem of conveying information. Obviously, a person must talk in terms the other person will understand. He must use words familiar to the other per son. One time a visitor, talking to our Sunday school, asked, “Children, do you know what money is?” Then he told them, “It’s a medium of exchange.” As you may surmise, there was no 1i up of little faces after that explanation. Let’s use words familiar to the persons addressed.

A person can understand only in terms of that which he al ready knows. We go gradually from the familiar to the new. The old example, of the over-all description of Italy, comes to mind: “Italyis shaped like a boot.” Your listener begins to understand at once. He knows what a boot looks like, and with the familiar bootlike outline in his mind is ready for you to fill in the detail. This is important in helping your listener, and it saves you time and nervous energy. Talk in terms that the other person understands.

People jockey back and forth and waste a vast amount of time because they lack in the beginning a clear understanding of the issue being discussed. Haven’t you noticed how an argument goes on full tilt in a group or conference until, finally, some clear-minded person speaks up with a sharp statement of just what the issue is, that then there is often an immediate agreement? Half the arguments in life come about because people don’t have a common understanding of what they’re talking about.

Two things may well be borne in mind when we seek to persuade. First, is the basic rule in all human relations: Speak in terms of the other person’s interest. Indicate to him how he will benefit. Second, put the proposition in the form of a mild suggestion. “Gentle words, quiet words, are after all the most powerful words,” it has been said. “They are more convincing, more compelling, more prevailing.” People, don’t want to be persuaded, don’t want us to change their minds. If they change, they want it to be of their own free will. So, let’s just state the facts clearly and offer, very mildly, a suggested course of action, perhaps ask a question that suggests it. This is the theory of low-pressure selling. To persuade, present the facts and offer a mild suggestion.

In connection with the mild suggestion, we may note here that many people fall into the habit of overemphasis. Especially women, men often say. George Jean Nathan, the drama critic, speaking from the detached but perhaps frustrated viewpoint of a bachelor, says outright that no woman who speaks emphatically can be lovely. Extreme expressions carry no special force, Dr. Fink points out in his book “Release from Nervous Tension.” “They bore or disturb your friends and excite only yourself. But in understatement there is charm.” So it’s a safe generalization to say, Talking at the top of your voice, either literally or in violence of expressions, and exaggerated facial contortions are distasteful.

While women may seem often to talk of trifles in world- thrilling hyperbole, men are apt to be too slow and ponderous. The strong silent man may be only dull and silent.

People want you to participate in their interests. They want you to talk with them. They resent it if you don’t.

Here are a lot of further suggestions:

In joining a new group, it is best not to switch the conversation immediately to something new. People will resent it if we Talk to all those present, don’t direct yourself solely to one.

Touchy subjects such as divorce are to be avoided. Criticizing the firm or occupation of the other fellow is not good manners.

Avoid prying into private affairs.

Before being “brutally frank” to anyone, let’s ask “Is it true, kind, or necessary, and what good will it do?” Let’s remember, few acts are more delicate, more often resented, than telling somebody “something for his own good.”

Draw children into the conversation. They are human beings, too. Talk to them as human beings; it will delight them and their parents. If they are timid, it will help bring them out. If they are brattish, the pleasant recognition may help cure the resentment against having been badly handled that possibly caused them to be brats.

Animation kindles a spark in others. If you want to have a good time yourself, don’t be a ‘wet blanket. Possibly the worst attitude one may take in a conversation is that of cynical superiority.

Talk about people is all right. People are the most interesting subjects in the world, as newspaper editors and many others have found out to their own profit; but malicious gossip is poisonous. Speak of people with tolerance for their weaknesses; take the generous attitude. Gossip reveals a small, mean person who, in attempts to tear down another, reveals his own feeling of inferiority. Seek the admirable trait and comment on it.

People’s hobbies or special interests make good conversation. People love to tell you about their woodworking, gardening, dogs, aft, clubs, photography, music, reading. Encourage them to talk. You may get some useful or interesting information.

A touch of humor is welcomed by everyone. One may well add it to any discussion of current events. A light touch lightens the ‘weight of heavy subjects.

Depressing, distressing topics are to be avoided. W talk about your ailments unless your listener reasonably might do something to help you?

If you are going to tell a joke, be sure to have the ending clearly in mind. The punch line comes at the very end of the last sentence. Puns are welcomed, even by the people who groan at them. In fact, a groan is the proper response. A perfectly pat pun is apt to be poor; like borsch, it has to be slightly sour. One cannot be a punster if he thinks beforehand. Just let it go and groan along with your listeners.

Clear articulation helps. Open the mouth and speak out. Don’t mumble. Keep the hands away from the mouth.

Speak just loud enough to be distinctly heard by the listener. Use the lower registers of the voice. The twangers, nose talkers, and shrill talkers are as hard on themselves as they are on other people.

The “talking with” theory of conversation is aimed at bringing about harmony. This involves respect for others’ opinions.

There are two reasons for us to follow this rule—always. First, people feel that we treat them with contempt when we flout their opinions by saying, “I don’t agree with you” or “you’re wrong about that.” Among the favorite precepts of Ellis J. McClanahan, Standard Oil marketing vice-president, is this, “One should build on what another man says, not overturn it.” To get cooperation, he points out, a person has to find areas of agreement with the other person.

On the other hand, if we brusquely disagree with people, many will try to pay us back for our lack of respect with some injury. Not even the best friendship nor the most affectionate family relationship will stand the strain of a flat contradiction.

“But you’re mistaken, I’m sure,” a certain woman is in the habit of saying. “I happen to know the people personally concerned,” and so on, following with the definite facts and dates that show you to be wrong. She is a smart person, well in formed, and it causes you no pain to observe her face or figure. Nevertheless, she is by way of being the social pariah of the society in which she moves, because she contradicts people.

Never put another person in the wrong is a sound precept of human relations.

One of the most popular and successful men in his field was known to his associates as “the great harmonizer.” He enjoyed the help and good opinion of everyone. In private conversation he was an attentive listener. When he spoke, he built on what the other person had said. If he found it necessary to disagree, he would mention some phase, actual or implied, of agreement with the other person, and ask a question that would open further discussion, leading often to a complete understanding.

In a business conference, “the great harmonizer” would sit and listen until all the others had spoken. Then he would say something to this effect: “It seems to me, gentlemen, there are three (or whatever the number) main issues developed at this meeting. Would it not be reasonable to adopt such-and-such a part from point number one, such a part from number two, and work these together with a part of number three, leading us to an effective course of action upon which we all can agree?”

Through his talent for recognizing the viewpoints of others, this man, of no especial brilliance except in human relations, acquired a great reputation for sound judgment. His associates not only had confidence in his wisdom but were all disposed to act with him and in his behalf.

The same principle applies as effectively in personal or social-group conversation as in business. The person who selects the best of each and acts to bring harmony out of diverse facts and opinions, to make a point that is significant or interesting, wins the good will and the admiration of all.

To summarize:

1. Conversation is a two-way deal. Let’s let the other fellow talk with us.

2. Since words are the tools of speech, we should have an adequate kit. A person may build a big vocabulary by writing down every unfamiliar word he sees, with its definition.

3. Avoid trite, worn-out words, slovenly speech, “rag-bag” conversation, and depressing subjects.

4. Words have different meanings for different people. Watch the semantics.

5. Start persuasion from the other person’s existing beliefs. To persuade, present the facts and offer a mild suggestion.

6. One’s attitude, actions, and manner make for acceptance or rejection of what we have to say. We speak with our personalities as well as with words.

7. Unless people believe in us they will not believe what we say.

8. The aim in discussion should be to bring about a sense of harmony and mutual understanding. Don’t contradict, but add another light on what the other person says.

9. To explain or describe, proceed from the familiar to the new.

10. To be an interesting conversationalist, be observant.

11. Animation adds interest, but loud voice, violent expressions, and exaggerated facial expressions are to be avoided except in extreme situations.

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