The Drawing Room - Company - Conversation

The grand object for which a gentleman exists, is to excel in company. Conversation is the mean of his distinction,--the drawing-room the scene of his glory. 

When you enter a drawing-room, where there is a ball or a party, you salute the lady of the house before speaking to any one else. Even your most intimate friends are enveloped in an opaque atmosphere until you have made your bow to your entertainer. We must take occasion here to obelize a custom which prevails too generally in this country. The company enter the back door of the back parlor, and the mistress of the house is seated at the other extremity of the front parlor. It is therefore necessary to traverse the length of two rooms in order to reach her. A voyage of this kind is by no means an easy undertaking, when there are Circes and Calypsos assailing one on every side; and when one has reached the conclusion, one cannot perhaps distinguish the object of one’s search at a coup d’oeil. It would be in every point of view more appropriate if the lady were to stand directly opposite to the door of the back parlor. Such is the custom in the best companies abroad. Upon a single gentleman entering at a late hour, it is not so obligatory to speak first to the mistress of the ceremonies. He may be allowed to converge his way up to her. When you leave a room before the others, go without speaking to any one, and, if possible, unseen.

Never permit the sanctity of the drawing-room to be violated by a boot.

Fashionable society is divided into sets, in all of which there is some peculiarity of manner, or some dominant tone of feeling. It is necessary to study these peculiarities before entering the circle.

    In each of these sets there is generally some gentleman, who rules, and gives it its character, or, rather, who is not ruler, but the first and most favored subject, and the prime minister of the ladies’ will. Him you must endeavor to imitate, taking care not to imitate him so well as to excel him. To differ in manner or opinion from him is to render yourself unfit for that circle. To speak disrespectfully of him is to insult personally every lady who composes it.

    In company, though none are “free,” yet all are “equal.” All therefore whom you meet, should be treated with equal respect, although interest may dictate toward each different degrees of attention. It is disrespectful to the inviter to shun any of her guests. Those whom she has honored by asking to her house, you should sanction by admitting to your acquaintance.
If you meet any one whom you have never heard of before at the table of a gentleman, or in the drawing-room of a lady, you may converse with him with entire propriety. The form of “introduction” is nothing more than a statement by a mutual friend that two gentlemen are by rank and manners fit acquaintances for one another. All this may be presumed from the fact, that both meet at a respectable house. This is the theory of the matter. Custom, however, requires that you should take the earliest opportunity afterwards to be regularly presented to such an one.

    Men of all sorts of occupations meet in society. As they go there to unbend their minds and escape from the fetters of business, you should never, in an evening, speak to a man about his professions. Do not talk of politics with a journalist, of fevers to a physician, of stocks to a broker,--nor, unless you wish to enrage him to the utmost, of education to a collegian. The error which is here condemned is often committed from mere good nature and a desire to be affable. But it betrays to a gentleman, ignorance of the world—to a philosopher, ignorance of human nature. The one considers that “Tous les hommes sont, gaux devant la politesse:” the other remembers that though it may be agreeable to be patronized and assisted, yet it is still more agreeable to be treated as if you needed no patronage, and were above assistance.

    Sir Joshua Reynolds once received from two noblemen invitations to visit them on Sunday morning. The first, whom he waited upon, welcomed him with the most obsequious condescension, treated him with all the attention in the world, professed that he was so desirous of seeing him, that he had mentioned Sunday as the time for his visit, supposing him to be too much engaged during the week, to spare time enough for the purpose, concluded his compliments by an eulogy on painting, and smiled him affectionately to the door. Sir Joshua left him, to call upon the other. That one received him with respectful civility, and behaved to him as he would have behaved to an equal in the peerage:--said nothing about Raphael nor Correggio, but conversed with ease about literature and men. This nobleman was the Earl of Chesterfield. Sir Joshua felt, that though the one had said that he respected him, the other had proved that he did, and went away from this one gratified rather than from the first. Reader, there is wisdom in this anecdote. Mark, learn, and inwardly digest it: and let this be the moral which you deduce,--that there is distinction in society, but that there are no distinctions.

    The great business in company is conversation. It should be studied as art. Style in conversation is as important, and as capable of cultivation as style in writing. The manner of saying things is what gives them their value.

The most important requisite for succeeding here, is constant and unfaltering attention. That which Churchill has noted as the greatest virtue on the stage, is also the most necessary in company,--to be “always attentive to the business of the scene.” Your understanding should, like your person, be armed at all points. Never go into society with your mind en dishabille.  It is fatal to success to be all absent or distrait. The secret of conversation has been said to consist in building upon the remark of your companion. Men of the strongest minds, who have solitary habits and bookish dispositions, rarely excel in sprightly colloquy, because they seize upon the thing itself,--the subject abstractly,--instead of attending to the language of other speakers, and do not cultivate verbal pleasantries and refinements. He who does otherwise gains a reputation for quickness, and pleases by showing that he has regarded the observation of others.

    It is an error to suppose that conversation consists in talking. A more important thing is to listen discreetly. Mirabeau said, that to succeed in the world, it is necessary to submit to be taught many things which you understand, by persons who know nothing about them. Flattery is the smoothest path to success; and the most refined and gratifying compliment you can pay, is to listen. “The wit of conversation consists more in finding it in others,” says La Bruyre, “than in showing a great deal yourself: he who goes from your conversation pleased with himself and his own wit, is perfectly well pleased with you. Most men had rather please than admire you, and seek less to be instructed,--nay, delighted,--than to be approved and applauded. The most delicate pleasure is to please another.”

    It is certainly proper enough to convince others of your merits. But the highest idea which you can give a man of your own penetration, is to be thoroughly impressed with his.

    Patience is a social engine, as well as a Christian virtue. To listen, to wait, and to he wearied are the certain elements of good fortune.

    If there be any foreigner present at a dinner party, or small evening party, who does not understand the language which is spoken, good breeding requires that the conversation should be carried on entirely in his language. Even among your most intimate friends, never address any one in a language not understood by all the others. It is as bad as whispering.

Never speak to any one in company about a private affair which is not understood by others, as asking how that matter is coming on, &c. In so doing you indicate your opinion that the rest are de trop. If you wish to make any such inquiries, always explain to others the business about which you inquire, if the subject admit of it.

    If upon the entrance of a visitor you continue a conversation begun before, you should always explain the subject to the new-comer.

    If there is any one in the company whom you do not know, be careful how you let off any epigrams or pleasant little sarcasms. You might be very witty upon halters to a man whose father had been hanged. The first requisite for successful conversation is to know your company well.

    We have spoken above of the necessity of relinquishing the prerogative of our race, and being contented with recipient silence. There is another precept of a kindred nature to be observed, namely, not to talk too well when you do talk. You do not raise yourself much in the opinion of another, if at the same time that you amuse him, you wound him in the nicest point,--his self-love. Besides irritating vanity, a constant flow of wit is excessively fatiguing to the listeners. A witty man is an agreeable acquaintance, but a tiresome friend. “The wit of the company, next to the butt of the company,” says Mrs. Montagu, “is the meanest person in it. The great duty of conversation is to follow suit, as you do at whist: if the eldest hand plays the deuce of diamonds, let not his next neighbor dash down the king of hearts, because his hand is full of honors. I do not love to see a man of wit win all the tricks in conversation.”

    In addressing any one, always look at him; and if there are several present, you will please more by directing some portion of your conversation, as an anecdote or statement, to each one individually in turn. This was the great secret of Sheridan’s charming manner. His bon-mots were not numerous.

    Never ask a question under any circumstances. In the first place it is too proud; in the second place, it may be very inconvenient or very awkward to give a reply. A lady lately inquired of what branch of medical practice a certain gentleman was professor. He held the chair of midwifery!

    It is indispensable for conversation to be well acquainted with the current news and the historical events of the last few years. It is not convenient to be quite so far behind the rest of the world in such matters, as the Courier des Etats-Unis. That sapient journal lately announced the dethronement of Charles X. We may expect soon to hear of the accession of Louis Philippe.

In society never quote. If you get entangled in a dispute with some learned blockhead, you may silence him with a few extemporary quotations. Select the author for whom he has the greatest admiration, and give him a passage in the style of that writer, which most pointedly condemns the opinion he supports. If it does not convince him, he will be so much stunned with amazement that you can make your escape, and avoid the unpleasant necessity of knocking him down.

    The ordinary weapons which one employs in social encounter, are, whether dignified or not, always at least honorable. There are some, however, who habitually prefer to bribe the judge, rather than strengthen their cause. The instrument of such is flattery. There are, indeed, cases in which a man of honor may use the same weapon; as there are cases in which a poisoned sword may be employed for self-defense.

    Flattery prevails over all, always, and in all places; few are beneath it, none above it: the court, the camp, the church, are the scenes of its victories, and all mankind the subjects of its triumphs. It will be acknowledged, then, that a man possesses no very contemptible power who can flatter skillfully.

    The power of flattery may be derived from several sources. It may be, that the person flattered, finding himself gratified, and conscious that it is to the flatterer that he is indebted for this gratification, feels an obligation to him, without inquiring the reason; or it may be, that imagining ourselves to stand high in the good opinion of the one that praises us, We comply with what he desires, rather than forfeit that esteem: or, finally, flattery may be only a marked politeness, and we submit ourselves to the control of the flatterer rather than be guilty of the rudeness of opposing him.

    Flattery never should be direct. It should not be stated, but inferred. It is better acted than uttered. Flattery should seem to be the unwitting and even unwilling expression of genuine admiration. Some very weak persons do not require that expressions of praise and esteem toward them should be sincere. They are pleased with the incense, although they perceive whence it arises: they are pleased that they are of importance enough to have their favor courted. But in most eases it is necessary that the flattery should appear to be the honest offspring of the feelings. Such flattery must succeed; for, it is founded upon a principle in our nature which is as deep as life; namely, that we always love those who we think love us.

    It is sometimes flattery to accept praises.

    Never flatter one person in the presence of another.

    Never commend a lady’s musical skill to another lady who herself plays.

    It has often, however, a good effect to praise one man to his particular friend, if it be for something to which that friend has himself no pretensions.

    It is an error to imagine that men are less intoxicated with flattery than women. The only difference is that esteem must be expressed to women, but proved to men.

    Flattery is of course efficacious to obtain positive benefits. It is of, more constant use, however, for purposes of defense. You conquer an attack of rudeness by courtesy: you avert an attack of accusation by flattery. Everyone remembers the anecdote of Dr. Johnson and Mr. Ewing. “Prince,” said Napoleon to Talleyrand, “they tell me that you sometimes speculate improperly in the funds. “They do me wrong then,” said Talleyrand. “But how did you acquire so much money!” “I bought stock the day before you were proclaimed First Consul,” replied the ex-bishop, “and I sold it the day after.”

    Compliments are light skirmishes in the war of flattery, for the purpose of obtaining an occasional object. They are little false coins that you receive with one hand and pay away with the other. To flatter requires a profound knowledge of human nature and of the character of your subject; to compliment skillfully, it is sufficient that you are a pupil of Spurzheim.

    It is a common practice with men to abstain from grave conversation with women. And the habit is in general judicious. If the woman is young, gay and trifling, talk to her only of the latest fashions, the gossip of the day, etc. But this in other cases is not to be done. Most women who are a little old, particularly married women—and even some who are young—wish to obtain a reputation for intellect and an acquaintance With science. You therefore pay them a real compliment, and gratify their self-love, by conversing occasionally upon grave matters, which they do not understand, and do not really relish. You may interrupt a discussion on the beauty of a dahlia, by observing that as you know that they take an interest in such things you mention the discovery of a new method of analyzing curves of double curvature. Men who talk only of trifles will rarely be popular with women past twenty-five.

    Talk to a mother about her children. Women are never tired of hearing of themselves and their children.

    If you go to a house where there are children you should take especial care to conciliate their good will by a little manly tete-a-tete, otherwise you may get a ball against your skins, or be tumbled from a three-legged chair.

To be able to converse with women you must study their vocabulary. You would make a great mistake in interpreting never, forever, as they are explained in Johnson.

    Do not be for ever telling a woman that she is handsome, witty, etc. She knows that a vast deal better than you do.

    Do not allow your love for one woman to prevent your paying attention to others. The object of your love is the only one who ought to perceive it.

    A little pride, which reminds you what is due to yourself, and a little good nature, which suggests what is due to others, are the pre-requisites for the moral constitution of a gentleman.

    Too much vivacity and too much inertness are both fatal to politeness. By the former we are hurried too far, by the latter we are kept too much back.

    Nil admirari, the precept of stoicism, is the precept for conduct among gentlemen. All excitement must be studiously avoided. When you are with ladies the case is different. Among them, wonder, astonishment, ecstasy, and enthusiasm, are necessary in order to be believed.

    Never dispute in the presence of other persons. If a man states an opinion which you cannot adopt, say nothing. If he states a fact which is of little importance, you may carelessly assent. When you differ let it be indirectly; rather a want of assent than actual dissent.

    If you wish to inquire about anything, do not do it by asking a question; but introduce the subject, and give the person an opportunity of saying as much as he finds it agreeable to impart. Do not even say, “How is your brother to-day?” but “I hope your brother is quite well.”

    Never ask a lady a question about anything whatever.

    It is a point of courtly etiquette which is observed rigorously by every one who draws nigh, that a question must never be put to a king.

    Never ask a question about the price of a thing. This horrible error is often committed by a nouveau riche.
If you have accepted an invitation to a party never fail to keep your promise. It is cruel to the lady of the house to accept, and then send an apology at the last moment. Especially do not break your word on account of bad weather. You may be certain that many others will, and the inciter will be mortified by the paucity of her guests. A cloak and a carriage will secure you from all inconvenience, and you will be conferring a real benefit.


This is taken from The Laws of Etiquette.





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