Hannah More

Thoughts on conversation

It has been advised, and by very respectable authorities too, that in conversation women should carefully conceal any knowledge or learning they may happen to possess. I own, with submission, that I do not see either the necessity or propriety of this advice. For if a young lady has that discretion and modesty, without which all knowledge is little worth, she will never make an ostentatious parade of it, because she will rather be intent on acquiring more, than on displaying what she has.

I am at a loss to know why a young female is instructed to exhibit, in the most advantageous point of view, her skill in music, her singing, dancing, taste in dress, and her acquaintance with the most fashionable games and amusements, while her piety is to be anxiously concealed, and her knowledge affectedly disavowed, lest the former should draw on her the appellation of an enthusiast, or the latter that of a pedant.

In regard to knowledge, why should she for ever affect to be on her guard, lest she should be found guilty of a small portion of it? She need be the less solicitous about it, as it seldom proves to be so very considerable as to excite astonishment or admiration: for, after all the acquisitions which her talents and her studies have enabled her to make, she will, generally speaking, be found to have less of what is called learning, than a common school-boy.

It would be to the last degree presumptuous and absurd, for a young woman to pretend to give the ton to the company; to interrupt the pleasure of others, and her own opportunity of improvement, by talking when she ought to listen; or to introduce subjects out of the common road, in order to shew her own wit, or expose the want of it in others: but were the sex to be totally silent when any topic of literature happens to be discussed in their presence, conversation would lose much of its vivacity, and society would be robbed of one of its most interesting charms.

How easily and effectually may a well-bred woman promote the most useful and elegant conversation, almost without speaking a word! for the modes of speech are scarcely more variable than the modes of silence. The silence of listless ignorance, and the silence of sparkling intelligence, are perhaps as separately marked, and as distinctly expressed, as the same feelings could have been by the most unequivocal language. A woman, in a company where she has the least influence, may promote any subject by a profound and invariable attention, which shews that she is pleased with it, and by an illuminated countenance, which proves she understands it. This obliging attention is the most flattering encouragement in the world to men of sense and letters, to continue any topic of instruction or entertainment they happen to be engaged in: it owed its introduction perhaps to accident, the best introduction in the world for a subject of ingenuity, which, though it could not have been formally proposed without pedantry, may be continued with ease and good humour; but which will be frequently and effectually stopped by the listlessness, inattention, or whispering of silly girls, whose weariness betrays their ignorance, and whose impatience exposes their ill-breeding. A polite man, however deeply interested in the subject on which he is conversing, catches at the slightest hint to have done: a look is a sufficient intimation, and if a pretty simpleton, who sits near him, seems distraite, he puts an end to his remarks, to the great regret of the reasonable part of the company, who perhaps might have gained more improvement by the continuance of such a conversation, than a week’s reading would have yielded them; for it is such company as this, that give an edge to each other’s wit, “as iron sharpeneth iron.”

That silence is one of the great arts of conversation is allowed by Cicero himself, who says, there is not only an art but even an eloquence in it. And this opinion is confirmed by a great modern, in the following little anecdote from one of the ancients.

When many Grecian philosophers had a solemn meeting before the ambassador of a foreign prince, each endeavoured to shew his parts by the brilliancy of his conversation, that the ambassador might have something to relate of the Grecian wisdom. One of them, offended, no doubt, at the loquacity of his companions, observed a profound silence; when the ambassador, turning to him, asked, “But what have you to say, that I may report it?” He made this laconic, but very pointed reply: “Tell your king, that you have found one among the Greeks who knew how to be silent.

”There is a quality infinitely more intoxicating to the female mind than knowledge—this is Wit, the most captivating, but the most dreaded of all talents: the most dangerous to those who have it, and the most feared by those who have it not. Though it is against all the rules, yet I cannot find in my heart to abuse this charming quality. He who is grown rich without it, in safe and sober dulness, shuns it as a disease, and looks upon poverty as its invariable concomitant. The moralist declaims against it as the source of irregularity, and the frugal citizen dreads it more than bankruptcy itself, for he considers it as the parent of extravagance and beggary. The Cynic will ask of what use it is? Of very little perhaps: no more is a flower garden, and yet it is allowed as an object of innocent amusement and delightful recreation. A woman, who possesses this quality, has received a most dangerous present, perhaps not less so than beauty itself: especially if it be not sheathed in a temper peculiarly inoffensive, chastised by a most correct judgment, and restrained by more prudence than falls to the common lot.

This talent is more likely to make a woman vain than knowledge; for as Wit is the immediate property of its possessor, and learning is only an acquaintance with the knowledge of other people, there is much more danger, that we should be vain of what is our own, than of what we borrow.

But Wit, like learning, is not near so common a thing as is imagined. Let not therefore a young lady be alarmed at the acuteness of her own wit, any more than at the abundance of her own knowledge. The great danger is, lest she should mistake pertness, flippancy, or imprudence, for this brilliant quality, or imagine she is witty, only because she is indiscreet. This is very frequently the case, and this makes the name of wit so cheap, while its real existence is so rare.

Lest the flattery of her acquaintance, or an over-weening opinion of her own qualifications, should lead some vain and petulant girl into a false notion that she has a great deal of wit, when she has only a redundancy of animal spirits, she may not find it useless to attend to the definition of this quality, by one who had as large a portion of it, as most individuals could ever boast:

’Tis not a tale, ’tis not a jest,
Admir’d with laughter at a feast,
Nor florid talk, which can that title gain,
The proofs of wit for ever must remain.
Neither can that have any place,
At which a virgin hides her face;
Such dross the fire must purge away; ’tis just,
The author blush there, where the reader must.

—Cowley.

But those who actually possess this rare talent, cannot be too abstinent in the use of it. It often makes admirers, but it never makes friends; I mean, where it is the predominant feature; and the unprotected and defenceless state of womanhood calls for friendship more than for admiration. She who does not desire friends has a sordid and insensible soul; but she who is ambitious of making every man her admirer, has an invincible vanity and a cold heart.

But to dwell only on the side of policy, a prudent woman, who has established the reputation of some genius will sufficiently maintain it, without keeping her faculties always on the stretch to say good things. Nay, if reputation alone be her object, she will gain a more solid one by her forbearance, as the wiser part of her acquaintance will ascribe it to the right motive, which is, not that she has less wit, but that she has more judgment.

The fatal fondness for indulging a spirit of ridicule, and the injurious and irreparable consequences which sometimes attend the too prompt reply, can never be too seriously or too severely condemned. Not to offend, is the first step towards pleasing. To give pain is as much an offence against humanity, as against good breeding; and surely it is as well to abstain from an action because it is sinful, as because it is impolite. In company, young ladies would do well before they speak, to reflect, if what they are going to say may not distress some worthy person present, by wounding them in their persons, families, connexions, or religious opinions. If they find it will touch them in either of these, I should advise them to suspect, that what they were going to say is not so very good a thing as they at first imagined. Nay, if even it was one of those bright ideas, which Venus has imbued with a fifth part of her nectar, so much greater will be their merit in suppressing it, if there was a probability it might offend. Indeed, if they have the temper and prudence to make such a previous reflection, they will be more richly rewarded by their own inward triumph, at having suppressed a lively but severe remark, than they could have been with the dissembled applauses of the whole company, who, with that complaisant deceit, which good breeding too much authorises, affect openly to admire what they secretly resolve never to forgive.

I have always been delighted with the story of the little girl’s eloquence, in one of the Children’s Tales, who received from a friendly fairy the gift, that at every word she uttered, pinks, roses, diamonds, and pearls, should drop from her mouth. The hidden moral appears to be this, that it was the sweetness of her temper which produced this pretty fanciful effect: for when her malicious sister desired the same gift from the good-natured tiny Intelligence, the venom of her own heart converted it into poisonous and loathsome reptiles.

A man of sense and breeding will sometimes join in the laugh, which has been raised at his expence by an ill-natured repartee; but if it was very cutting, and one of those shocking sort of truths, which as they can scarcely be pardoned even in private, ought never to be uttered in public, he does not laugh because he is pleased, but because he wishes to conceal how much he is hurt. As the sarcasm was uttered by a lady, so far from seeming to resent it, he will be the first to commend it; but notwithstanding that, he will remember it as a trait of malice, when the whole company shall have forgotten it as a stroke of wit. Women are so far from being privileged by their sex to say unhandsome or cruel things, that it is this very circumstance which renders them more intolerable. When the arrow is lodged in the heart, it is no relief to him who is wounded to reflect, that the hand which shot it was a fair one.

Many women, when they have a favourite point to gain, or an earnest wish to bring any one over to their opinion, often use a very disingenuous method: they will state a case ambiguously, and then avail themselves of it, in whatever manner shall best answer their purpose; leaving your mind in a state of indecision as to their real meaning, while they triumph in the perplexity they have given you by the unfair conclusions they draw, from premises equivocally stated. They will also frequently argue from exceptions instead of rules, and are astonished when you are not willing to be contented with a prejudice, instead of a reason.

In a sensible company of both sexes, where women are not restrained by any other reserve than what their natural modesty imposes; and where the intimacy of all parties authorises the utmost freedom of communication; should any one inquire what were the general sentiments on some particular subject, it will, I believe, commonly happen, that the ladies, whose imaginations have kept pace with the narration, have anticipated its end, and are ready to deliver their sentiments on it as soon as it is finished. While some of the male hearers, whose minds were busied in settling the propriety, comparing the circumstances, and examining the consistencies of what was said, are obliged to pause and discriminate, before they think of answering. Nothing is so embarrassing as a variety of matter, and the conversation of women is often more perspicuous, because it is less laboured.

A man of deep reflection, if he does not keep up an intimate commerce with the world, will be sometimes so entangled in the intricacies of intense thought, that he will have the appearance of a confused and perplexed expression; while a sprightly woman will extricate herself with that lively and “rash dexterity,” which will almost always please, though it is very far from being always right. It is easier to confound than to convince an opponent; the former may be effected by a turn that has more happiness than truth in it. Many an excellent reasoner, well skilled in the theory of the schools, has felt himself discomfited by a reply, which, though as wide of the mark, and as foreign to the question as can be conceived, has disconcerted him more than the most startling proposition, or the most accurate chain of reasoning could have done; and he has borne the laugh of his fair antagonist, as well as of the whole company, though he could not but feel, that his own argument was attended with the fullest demonstration: so true is it, that it is not always necessary to be right, in order to be applauded.

But let not a young lady’s vanity be too much elated with this false applause, which is given, not to her merit, but to her sex: she has not perhaps gained a victory, though she may be allowed a triumph; and it should humble her to reflect, that the tribute is paid, not to her strength but her weakness. It is worth while to discriminate between that applause, which is given from the complaisance of others, and that which is paid to our own merit.

Where great sprightliness is the natural bent of the temper, girls should endeavour to habituate themselves to a custom of observing, thinking, and reasoning. I do not mean, that they should devote themselves to abstruse speculation, or the study of logic; but she who is accustomed to give a due arrangement to her thoughts, to reason justly and pertinently on common affairs, and judiciously to deduce effects from their causes, will be a better logician than some of those who claim the name, because they have studied the art: this is being “learned without the rules;” the best definition, perhaps, of that sort of literature which is properest for the sex. That species of knowledge, which appears to be the result of reflection rather than of science, sits peculiarly well on women. It is not uncommon to find a lady, who, though she does not know a rule of Syntax, scarcely ever violates one; and who constructs every sentence she utters, with more propriety than many a learned dunce, who has every rule of Aristotle by heart, and who can lace his own thread-bare discourse with the golden shreds of Cicero and Virgil.

It has been objected, and I fear with some reason, that female conversation is too frequently tinctured with a censorious spirit, and that ladies are seldom apt to discover much tenderness for the errors of a fallen sister. If it be so, it is a grievous fault.

No arguments can justify, no pleas can extenuate it. To insult over the miseries of an unhappy creature is inhuman, not to compassionate them is unchristian. The worthy part of the sex always express themselves humanely on the failings of others, in proportion to their own undeviating goodness.

And here I cannot help remarking, that young women do not always carefully distinguish between running into the error of detraction, and its opposite extreme of indiscriminate applause. This proceeds from the false idea they entertain, that the direct contrary to what is wrong must be right. Thus the dread of being only suspected of one fault makes them actually guilty of another. The desire of avoiding the imputation of envy, impels them to be insincere; and to establish a reputation for sweetness of temper and generosity, they affect sometimes to speak of very indifferent characters with the most extravagant applause. With such, the hyperbole is a favourite figure; and every degree of comparison but the superlative is rejected, as cold and inexpressive. But this habit of exaggeration greatly weakens their credit, and destroys the weight of their opinion on other occasions; for people very soon discover what degree of faith is to be given both to their judgment and veracity. And those of real merit will no more be flattered by that approbation, which cannot distinguish the value of what it praises, than the celebrated painter must have been at the judgment passed on his works by an ignorant spectator, who, being asked what he thought of such and such very capital but very different pieces, cried out in an affected rapture, “All alike! all alike!”

It has been proposed to the young, as a maxim of supreme wisdom, to manage so dexterously in conversation, as to appear to be well acquainted with subjects, of which they are totally ignorant; and this, by affecting silence in regard to those, on which they are known to excel.—But why counsel this disingenuous fraud? Why add to the numberless arts of deceit, this practice of deceiving, as it were, on a settled principle? If to disavow the knowledge they really have be a culpable affectation, then certainly to insinuate an idea of their skill, where they are actually ignorant, is a most unworthy artifice.

But of all the qualifications for conversation, humility, if not the most brilliant, is the safest, the most amiable, and the most feminine. The affectation of introducing subjects, with which others are unacquainted, and of displaying talents superior to the rest of the company, is as dangerous as it is foolish.

There are many, who never can forgive another for being more agreeable and more accomplished than themselves, and who can pardon any offence rather than an eclipsing merit. Had the nightingale in the fable conquered his vanity, and resisted the temptation of shewing a fine voice, he might have escaped the talons of the hawk. The melody of his singing was the cause of his destruction; his merit brought him into danger, and his vanity cost him his life.

(1777)

MLA Citation

More, Hannah. “Thoughts on conversation.” 1777. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 20 Oct 2008. 17 Oct 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/more/thoughts_on_conversation/>.

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