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The Habit of Highly Successful Conversationalists

The Habit of Highly Successful Conversationalists

Words, like music, can create harmony or discord. Words, like certain fine instruments, can refine and beautify or, like blunt tools, can break and smash.

The art of living requires sensitivity to the choice of words, to the tone of voice, and to the manner of speech.

While a person should not mince words to sacrifice honesty and compromise truth, he should not use harsh language, talk in a strident voice, or adopt a tactless manner. St. Francis de Sales, a master of savoir-faire, explains that living a devout life always obliges thoughtfulness in matters of speech: “Your language should be restrained, frank, candid, unaffected, and honest.

“Be on guard against equivocation, ambiguity, or dissimulation.” He explains further that chastity and modesty in the use of the body correspond to restraint and self-control in matters of speech: “In like manner those who have modesty and chastity, the angelic virtue, within their hearts, always speak chaste and modest words.”

The Gift of Speech

A chivalric, noble knight follows a code of honor that demands courteous speech. In “The Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes the knight as a warrior renowned not only for bravery in battle, but also as a gentleman who “held chivalry/ In his heart, and honor, and truth, and courtesy/ And grace”–one “never free in his speech.” In the original Middle English, Chaucer writes, “He nevere yet ne vileynye ne sayde” (He never used vulgarity or obscenities in his language.)

All who encounter Don Quixote in his quest to restore knight-errantry to the crass Iron Age find his discourse filled with kind compliments and poetic charm: “I beseech your ladyships, do not flee, nor fear the least offence. The order of chivalry… doth not permit me to do injury to any one, and least of all to such noble maidens as your presences denote you to be.” Gracious words, modest speech, kind compliments, and beautiful language elevate and refine life.

Homeric heroes exemplify the Greek ideal of virtue and education that make men both “doers of deeds” and “speakers of words.” So often in the Odyssey, the civilized man uses this gift of speech to settle delicate issues that require the special sensitivity and tact that only the right words, proper tone, and gentle manner can negotiate.

When Odysseus finds himself washed ashore on a foreign land, he awakes exhausted and famished. Observing a maiden and her servants washing clothes by the shore, he pleads for succor with words that impress the princess and distinguish him as a courteous gentleman rather than a coarse vagabond: “Here I am at your mercy, princess—are you a goddess or a mortal? . . . Compassion—princess, please! . . . Show me the way to town, give me a rag for cover . . . And may the good gods give you all your heart desires.” Often the most difficult and impossible of tasks require the power, beauty, and eloquence of words for the healing touch.

Multiplying Courtesy

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice illustrates the wide range of speech and words that either win or alienate the hearts of others.

  • Mrs. Bennet, who talks too much boasting about her daughter Jane’s beauty and speaks indiscreetly in public about private matters, embarrasses her family and complicates the romances of her daughters by her lack of restraint.
  • Mr. Darcy, who does not deign to speak to others beneath his social class at dances and never initiates conversation, offends by his aloofness and snobbery.
  • Mr. Wickham, who gossips and reveals personal matters to new acquaintances, defames the reputations of others to put himself in a favorable light.
  • Mr. Collins, who is constantly apologizing and making pompous, long-winded speeches full of repetition, bores all who listen.
  • Lydia Bennet, who constantly interrupts conversations and makes impertinent remarks, always leaves a bad impression. Just as kind words and thoughtful speech add graces to human relationships, careless remarks and unrestrained, indiscriminate conversation hurt feelings and spoil social events.

Blessed Cardinal Newman defines the conduct of a gentleman as the good judgment of avoiding inappropriate subjects or provoking unproductive arguments: “He guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome.”

The gentleman avoids confrontations in social situations and “shrinks from what are called scenes” to make the occasion pleasant and harmonious for all in attendance, and in his choice of words “he is one who never inflicts pain,” always conscious of the obligation never to “cause a jar or jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast” by some insensitive comment or reference to some embarrassment in the past.

The art of living, then, recognizes the power, grace, and beauty of words to do good, to win hearts, and to civilize human life. Like music, art, and beauty, words too adorn, ennoble, and enrich human existence. Proper forms of address, appreciative compliments, cheerful conversation, and good taste in the choice of words and remarks make a world of difference and have surprising effects.

What Austen calls “delicacy” and Cardinal Newman “fastidiousness” mean a keen sense of discrimination between casual language and appropriate diction, saying too much or saying too little, speaking to please others and to take an interest in them or talking to boast of oneself and be the center of attention, using words to bring music to the heart or to sow discord and foment arguments.

As written in the Book of Sirach, “A pleasant voice multiplies friends, and a gracious tongue multiplies courtesies.”

About Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian

The son of Armenian immigrants, Dr. Kalpakgian has taught at Simpson College, Christendom College and Wyoming Catholic College. He has authored several books and written for many Catholic publications. Meet Dr. Kalpakgian | See his Books
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