We should learn to speak as soon as we learn to talk. I hope the reader forgive me for the wordplay, but more often than not, we find out that our friends and colleagues do not listen to themselves – and if they did, they would not be pleased! A Gentleman and his speak is very distinct. Perfect for the occasion and distinct in its nuances, art of conversation is certainly a hallmark of a gentleman.
Whether you are attending a formal dinner, a cocktail party or hosting an informal dinner, the art of conversation is a skill that can be mastered. People who have will thrive at work events and are likely to climb the career ladder much faster than the ones who don’t. We will try to offer you today a brief history of the art of conversation, suggestions and some tools besides important dos and dont’s.
The earlier known rules about conduct and content for informal conversations were put down in 44 BC by Cicero and was believed to be the basis of good conversation ever since. More on artful conversations were refined by the French Salons and British Coffeehouses building our egalitarian notions of informal conversation. The bourgeois and nobleman alike mingled here. The basic skills included amongst others, politesse (sincere good manners) and enjoument (cheerfulness). Humour too became important. A deftly delivered bon mot, for example was expected.
Switching back to a more recent history, the best piece comes from Jonathan Swift who dwelled on polite conversation. In one of the Gulliver’s Travels author last works, A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (published in 1738), Jonathan Swift compiles a list of mortal sins against the art of conversation, which remain valid these days. Some of it is highlighted below.
- Lack of attention from the listener – This is rather common than we think and is akin to saying rudely to the speaker that “what is on my mind is more important than what you are speaking. So, the first rule of Gentlemen in conversation is throw away the smart phone, computer, television or whatever it may be and look at the interlocutor.
No matter how dull the topic may be, pull up your focus and show that your are interested. That is the minimum decorum the interlocutor deserves. Active listening requires a considerable amount of effort to enable us to concentrate on the verbal communication and body language of our interlocutor.
- Interrupting the speaker or speaking at the same time – Yes, I know most people are in a hurry. More so today than ever before. But doing so shows that you have more important things to say than hearing the interlocutor which is just too rude for a gentleman. Try to control your anxiety and allow the conversation to end before making your argument. In a formal setting, it makes more sense to take notes and compile your thoughts to speak out when your turn comes and you are better ready. A sign of poise and maturity distinctly worn by gentlemen.
- Dominating a conversation – It seems that everybody is out to be a “leader“, even in conversations. A gentleman convinces the interlocutor with arguments and elegance; he does not raise the volume of his voice to force a point: it is annoying, not elegant. As Glenn O’Brien says in How to Be a Man,
“How often have we encountered a fellow with an “outdoor voice” and wished he had a volume-control knob? Talking too loudly is a basic offence, like standing too closely: it violates the physical conventions of human interaction. Of course, the loud talker is probably unaware of his offence, and it may actually result from his being hard of hearing, but as often as not it results from a bombastic temperament given to boast and bluster.”
- Avoid Pedantry – It may be a teacher’s or professor’s habit to correct the students, but if you are not in a classroom, control the impulse. In a professional setting, do not correct your colleagues in front of others, even if you are hierarchically above them. Ask for a private meeting and you may say something like, “I believe you may have mistake on this point. Could you help me by checking the details or numbers yet again? Your confirmation would be helpful”
- Showing off one’s wit or culture – Unless your name is google, stop acting like your know everything. You may have limited or “almanac” knowledge of some subject trying to show off without possibly knowing that the expert is sitting on the other side of the table! The expert may cut you down to size anytime and you may never feel good about it. I am reproducing a famous incident from the times before the Cuban embargo at the Saks on the Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. “Upmanns” was one of the most coveted names in the Cigar world. This is how the narration goes…“When I went into Saks and asked if they had any Upmanns, the salesman said he had a few left. I told him to trot them out, as I’d like to sample one. Which I did. But after a couple of puffs, I pronounced, ‘this is not an Upmann.’ The salesman, a very polite young man, insisted that it was. ‘Well, it doesn’t taste like an Upmann,’ I told him. Now there was a guy with a little mustache sitting on a couch nearby. He interrupted me and said, ‘that’s an Upmann.’ Well, I got testy and cracked, ‘who asked you? I’m buying cigars, and I’m an expert on Upmanns. And I can tell you this is not an Upmann. I don’t know what it is, but this is not an Upmann.’ The guy on the couch said, ‘but I can tell you it is an Upmann.’ Finally, I turned to him and yelled, ‘will you shut up? I’ve had enough of you. Who the hell are you, anyway?’ And he turned to me with a straight face and said, ‘my name is Upmann. H. Upmann. And my father started the Upmann Cigar Company.’ I was never so embarrassed in my life. I felt like crawling out of the place.”
- Egoism – Needless to say a good enjoyable and memorable conversation is a two way talk. Whatever may be the level of proficiency and experience you may carry, everyone has their own nice and even fascinating story to tell and deserve a chance to do so in a conversation.
- Lack of Continuity in a Conversation – Some people like to take a break in the middle of a conversation. It could be like take a short smoke break or taking a call in the middle of a conversation. This is a conversation killer and blocks the flow of thoughts and ultimately the fruitfulness of a conversation. Too rude to be befitting a gentleman in any case
- Bringing in Personal subjects risks the conversation – The interests of the many outweigh the interests of the few. Try to keep the conversation around general interest themes.
- Slangs and Jargon – Avoid slangs as they are generally specific to certain groups of people and not appreciable to all types of people. Another bad habit to watch out for is the use of “filler” words or sounds. You may be doing unknowingly sometimes.. Using words like “umm”, “you know”, “like”, “here is the thing” etc.
- Themes to avoid – Since everybody today lives under a certain stress, it is wise to avoid heavy, destructive, negative or unpleasant subjects: diseases, bankruptcy, neighbourhood violence, etc. Learn to understand country specific topics of interest and disinterest. Also ensure you are not a spoil sport. Yes some people like and enjoy their drink, or say keen on a juicy steak, their smoke etc. If you have managed to quit your tobacco habit or turned vegan, good for you. But don’t turn your victory into somebody else’s gloom!
- Avoid Dead End Answers – Use simple Yes and No as answers only if you wish to shut a conversation. Otherwise elaborate on your answers in a way to keep the exchange going. You may be out of context in your replies and you may never get to know with short single word answers on what you are missing.
- Avoid Racist or Sexist jokes – Not because they are just in poor taste or demeaning but more so because they are not true. Once it is not true it is no longer funny. Do not encourage if someone does make an attempt with such jokes. Certainly avoid a joke competition. Gentlemen have grown well beyond that.
So, how exactly do we master the art of communication as a gentleman?
A self assessment in knowing your skills will take you very far in making good and polite conversations. Be someone who believes in self while conversing and not a braggart. Get to have feedback from trusted friends especially on how they react, what do you do well etc.
Some very essential dos for a good communication or dialogue are
- A well mannered person is seldom verbose and allows others to speak
- He gives due regard to subject matter and shows “due gravity” during serious conversations and light heartedness in an amusing topic
- Keep the focus on the topic and ensure it remains within the planned realm of discussions by bringing back to the core area every time the discussion meanders away.
- The conversation must never reveal personal character flaws. No gossip ever!
- Avoid subjects that does not interest your listeners
- Above all, ensure your anger is never out in the open to ruin the taste of a pleasant conversation
- Learn to end a conversation tactfully. This is very important to ensure that the memories of the conversation is sweet and lingering
In the same vein while listening a conversation, what is expected from a gentleman? I would like to use a Sanskrit word “rasa” which means the extract/ juice to summarise the expectation of what a listener must do.
R – Receive (pay complete attention to the speaker and his words)
A – Appreciate by making appropriate sounds ( yes, Okay, umm, or even nodding in affirmation)
S – Summarize (this can confirm your understanding of the speaker’s words and intention)
A – Ask queries when the speaker is doing with his talk to clarify your received message or augment your understanding of the intent of the speaker
Develop a Sense of Humour
Humour can win friends and break the ice like nothing else. It helps throw the inhibitions people may have and allows to begin conversations on a light note. We may not all be comedians to make people laugh
but we can make ways to make people laugh. One such way could be through self deprecation. Bring in some lighter moments to keep people engaged in a conversation and perhaps to even correct course if you have been overboard.
Summary: All of us may not have been a valedictorian of our class, but that does not stop us from finding out tips of good, gentle and polite communication with people around us in any situation. Good manners, right words, right demeanour and body language always vibes right. Gentlemen leave behind sufficient subtleties in every way to be remembered for long and for good reason. They make it a pleasure to be talked to as much as it is to listen to them and their manners.