There is no conversation so graceful, so varied, so sparkling, as that of an intellectual and cultivated woman. Excellence in this particular is, indeed, one of the attributes of the sex, and should be cultivated by every gentlewoman who aspires to please in general society.
In order to talk well, three conditions are indisputable, namely—tact, a good memory, and a fair education.
Remember that people take more interest in their own affairs than in anything else which you can name. If you wish your conversation to be thoroughly agreeable, lead a mother to talk of her children, a young lady of her last ball, an author of his forthcoming book, or an artist of his exhibition picture. Having furnished the topic, you need only listen; and you are sure to be thought not only agreeable, but thoroughly sensible and well-informed.
Be careful, however, on the other hand, not always to make a point of talking to persons upon general matters relating to their professions. To show an interest in their immediate concerns is flattering; but to converse with them too much about their own arts looks as if you thought them ignorant of other topics.
Remember in conversation that a voice “gentle and low” is, above all other extraneous acquirements, “an excellent thing in woman.” There is a certain distinct but subdued tone of voice which is peculiar to only well-bred persons. A loud voice is both disagreeable and vulgar. It is better to err by the use of too low than too loud a tone.
Remember that all “slang” is vulgar. It has become of late unfortunately prevalent, and we know many ladies who pride themselves on the saucy chic with which they adopt certain Americanisms, and other cant phrases of the day. Such habits cannot be too severely reprehended. They lower the tone of society and the standard of thought. It is a great mistake to suppose that slang is in any way a substitute for wit.
The use of proverbs is equally vulgar in conversation; and puns, unless they rise to the rank of witticisms, are to be scrupulously avoided. A lady-punster is a most unpleasing phenomenon, and we would advise no young woman, however witty she may be, to cultivate this kind of verbal talent.
Long arguments in general company, however entertaining to the disputants, are tiresome to the last degree to all others. You should always endeavor to prevent the conversation from dwelling too long upon one topic.
Religion is a topic which should never be introduced in society. It is the one subject on which persons are most likely to differ, and least able to preserve temper.
Never interrupt a person who is speaking. It has been aptly said that “if you interrupt a speaker in the middle of his sentence, you act almost as rudely as if, when walking with a companion, you were to thrust yourself before him, and stop his progress.”
To listen well is almost as great an art as to talk well. It is not enough only to listen. You must endeavor to seem interested in the conversation of others.
It is considered extremely ill-bred when two persons whisper in society, or converse in a language with which all present are not familiar. If you have private matters to discuss, you should appoint a proper time and place to do so, without paying others the ill compliment of excluding them from your conversation.
If a foreigner be one of the guests at a small party, and does not understand English sufficiently to follow what is said, good breeding demands that the conversation shall be carried on in his own language. If at a dinner-party, the same rule applies to those at his end of the table.
If upon the entrance of a visitor you carry on the thread of a previous conversation, you should briefly recapitulate to him what has been said before he arrived.
Do not be always witty, even though you should be so happily gifted as to need the caution. To outshine others on every occasion is the surest road to unpopularity.
Always look, but never stare, at those with whom you converse.
In order to meet the general needs of conversation in society, it is necessary that a gentlewoman should be acquainted with the current news and historical events of at least the last few years.
Never talk upon subjects of which you know nothing, unless it be for the purpose of acquiring information. Many young ladies imagine that because they play a little, sing a little, draw a little, and frequent exhibitions and operas, they are qualified judges of art. No mistake is more egregious or universal.
Those who introduce anecdotes into their conversation are warned that these should invariably be “short, witty, eloquent, new, and not far-fetched.”
Scandal is the least excusable of all conversational vulgarities.
In conversing with a woman of rank, do not too frequently give her her title. Only a lady’s-maid interlards every sentence with “My Lady,” or “My Lord.” It is, however, well to show that you remember the station of your interlocutor by now and then introducing some such phrase as—“I think I have already mentioned to your Grace”—or, “I believe, Madam, you were observing—“
A peer or baron may occasionally, as in an address, be styled “My Lord,” but a lady of equal rank must only be addressed as “Madam.” In general, however, a nobleman or lady of high rank should only be addressed as you would address any other gentleman or lady. The Prince of Wales himself is only styled “Sir” in conversation, and the Queen “Madam.”
This is taken from Routledge's Manual of Etiquette.
Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved