art CONVERSATION



                  The Art of Conversation is the

                         Completely revised edition of The

                         Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation

                         Published in 1935.

                        Copyright MCMXXXV by:

                     Ethel Cotton Monahan, Revised

                     Edition Copyright @ MCMLXIX

                     By Conversation Studies, a division

                                    Of Career Institute, Educational Publishers

                     WHAT IS GOOD CONVERSATION?


Have you ever stopped to think that your happiness, as well as your success in life, depends to a great extent today upon your ability to carry on an interesting and intelligent conversation with anybody and everybody?


Do you realize that the people who receive salary increases and/or promotions to positions of power or who win popularity at social gatherings are usually people who can talk engagingly and distinctively to one and all?


It’s true. And when you stop to think about it, there is nothing surprising at all about this fact, for as we all know, conversation is the great universal need of mankind. You live in a world of people, and people relate to one another, do business with one another, and get to know one another by means of words. Conversation is the bridge which you must build to meet your fellow human beings.

In the morning, you converse with the members of your family at breakfast. During the day, you discuss business or professional matters on the job. At coffee breaks and at lunch you must converse with friends and/or fellow workers. At dinner, after dinner, on all sort of social occasions, you relate to other people by speaking and listening. There happens to be no time, no age, no occasion when you may not be called upon to converse. And by the quality of your conversation you help determine what your relationship to other people will be, both on or off the job.

Since you are sincerely interested in improving your conversational powers, you will be glad to know that there is a definite technique of conversation, a proven method that enables you to master this accomplishment and to express yourself with skill and confidence on any and all occasions. If you study, then follow the rules and suggestions provided in this course, you will feel more at ease in every possible gathering starting immediately. Furthermore, you will learn how to derive both benefit and pleasure from almost every human contact. In short, you will gain pleasure, increase your popularity noticeable, and improve yourself in the social, home, and business worlds.

          As an intelligent adult you desire three things:

                    !. Ability to make friends easily,

                    2. Freedom and confidence in self expression,

                    3. A sense of mental growth.

Courses of all sorts are given to satisfy these needs but of what value has the study of art, history, English, music, business or science, if, when you are with other people, you find yourself saying trite, tiresome, technical boring or depressing things, and failing to make new friends? The only worthwhile culture is that which can be expressed as a part of your unique personality.


Let us start by considering the fact that conversation is a game. Does that idea startle you? People play many games, you know, whether in business, in society, or in home life. Conversation is one of the oldest and most universal of games and, like any other game it has rules and objectives.

Conversation is a game of social contact in which we toss ideas back and forth for the twofold reward of pleasure and profit. Only those taking an active part can fully enjoy the exercise. By playing the game, you will sharpen your wits and develop more mental sharpness. Conversation is a sort of mental handball in which each player needs to have a great number of balls. Each ball, representing an idea, has the power of bouncing into any number of minds simultaneously. At the same time it remains with the sender. Conversation is thus a win-win game in which no one who plays it can lose.

Remember, we do not converse in this game to defeat an opponent. Quite the contrary! This is a most, the most, important point. We converse for the mutual pleasure, profit, and enlightenment of all the players. Because each player is most unique, we converse with others, not ever against them.

As in all games certain equipment is necessary. Our equipment for the game of conversation includes:

                    1. Ideas (varied and interesting)

                    2. Vocabulary (personal and extensive)

                    3. Voice (pleasing, normal and interesting)

                    4. Diction (clear and distinct)

After these basic items of equipment are acquired, however, ease in conversation is not automatically, or immediately forthcoming. Why should you expect it to be? Having the equipment is not the same as being skillful. If you were presented with a new set of golf clubs and given free access to a private golf course, you would not expect that to make you a golfer, would you? You would have to study the principles of the game and practice regularly before you developed skill. The same is true of the game of conversation. You must study the principles, follow the rules, and then practice daily until you are no longer self-conscious about the techniques. With perseverance comes skill, and with skill in any game comes satisfying pleasure of playing the game well

I must add still another word about the need for perseverance and patience in learning the game of conversation. This popular, international, game, unlike casual sports, is played with your personality. You must admit, right from the very start, that improving your skill in conversation means, in part, bringing about a growth in your personality. The person who listens, but never speaks has a passive personality. The person who fritters away conversation has a thoughtless personality. The person who talks well has an active-minded personality. So you can see that gaining skill in conversation will be, in part, a matter of making yourself less an object acted upon by people and circumstances, and more a person, socially outgoing and active. Does this suggest that learning how to converse will taker perseverance and patience in the beginning? Ah, but does it not also suggest the deep personal benefits which will come from the learning?

Follow the lessons diligently, then. Persevere! What you stand to gain is not only a much better relationship with all people, but also a more satisfactory you.


Let us begin by examining the four basic principles of the art of conversation.

                    1. Don’t be silent during the game

                    2. Don’t chatter (stay with the group)

                    3. Stay with the subject (for now)

                    4. Guide the conversation. (you’ll be told how)

Now, let’s see just what is involved in each of these principles.



First Principle: Don’t be silent.

Common courtesy demands that you speak! If you remain only a listener, people are just naturally apt to think (no; sure to think) one of two following things: either that you are real dull and so have nothing to say, or that, you are just unfriendly and/or uninterested and do not have, or care, to express your ideas. Now, on the other hand, if you do exchange ideas, you will gain a keener enjoyment of conversation, as well as an increased knowledge of fantastic human nature which may lead to a better understanding of life. You are playing the game of social contact ( a mental contact sport) , gaining pleasure, profit and popularity.


Certain rules of conversation follow from the observance of this first rule. If everyone should speak (and the first rule commands that this be true) then you must not only become a speaker yourself, but also encourage others to do the same. (You do remember; we converse with others, not against them?) In a skillful game of conversation a newcomer joining the group is immediately drawn in and put at ease. If the newcomer happens to be skillful, he will catch the topic of the game and follow it, instead of breaking in with a subject of his liking. In a skillful game of conversation, also, no player will speak twice until the others have spoken once, except to ask questions and “draw out” the silent members.


Second Principle: Don’t chatter.

The con in the word conversation means “with.” To converse is to talk with other people, not just to let your mouth chatter. If you choose to talk constantly and thoughtlessly, you will rapidly find yourself being shunned. (And quite properly, too!) Listening is a basic part, a part that is, of social relationships, and so it is essential that it be extended to the game of conversation as others will expect it.


To avoid monopolizing the conversation, you must find a subject of interest to the other person. (Proving that you are an expert is not the goal of the game.) This technique is especially valuable for conversationalist who tend to be shy or embarrassed. If you start the game by trying to find a subject which interests your conversational partner, and succeed in getting him/her to talk, you take your mind off yourself and ease any embarrassment for both of you. Now, after the other person starts talking you will find it easier to join it.


To avoid chattering, you must know the difference between a good subject for conversation and a silly or trivial subject. This is so important that I have given it a heading of its own, and you will find it discussed later in this Lesson under the heading “What to Talk About.

                    For now just remember the principle. Let’s sum it up with a slogan.


                              SLOGAN: Does it matter?

                                                 Is it just chatter?


Third Principle: Stay with the subject!

If the conversation is to be dynamic, interesting, and valuable to all concerned, the ideas exchanged must be developed. Dull or, as it is often said, “ragbag” conversation is usually caused either by the introduction of unnecessary, minute details or irrelevant ideas, or by lack of intelligent selection and order in the first place. The game of conversation should never move in circles, not jump from subject to subject. It should lead to a conclusion, if one is expected or desired, or, at least, make an unnoticed neat segway to a topic that moves forward.


Now, listen carefully to the conversational topics presented. This will cultivate alertness in you and make you a much better player. Catch the first thought which is of general interest to the players, and while staying with that main subject, add your own thoughts or opinion and toss it back into the mix. The friend who catches your thought will probably add his opinion and/or comments and toss it off then to another member of the group. (Just like a hot potato) If he fails to respond as you expected, or say you get no fast response, ask a question to draw out the quiet, silent members. (They will respond if questioned openly. Believe me.)


A worthwhile topic should grow as different players add their ideas. It is for you to guide and/or control the subject so that everyone will become eager to express his or her opinion. After a well-ordered conversation you all will know more about the subject discussed than you did when it was introduced. You may even change your viewpoint or modified your opinion a little. Hopefully, you will have a broader view and knowledge if various angles of a subject have been presented. In a group of eight or fewer each person should be permitted, even encouraged, to express himself on the subject at hand. No one should introduce a new subject until each player has had an opportunity to offer his opinion, no matter how stupid. This creates general interest.


But if you think it is easy to stay with a subject, try it at the dinner table tonight. If you succeed in getting even a small group to stay on one subject for thirty minutes, with no digression, you should be greatly encouraged! You are a master already!


Fourth Principle: Guide the conversation.

Even though the subject may be of interest to the person wh introduced it, unless the idea presented will have value on the morrow for others in the group, it is a courtesy to change the topic of conversation. Many people relish telling others morbid details and/or reminiscing about disease or disasters, past, present. or future. To a listener, however, such subjects are valueless and most depressing.


Using the following question as an aid in deciding whether a subject is really worth talking about: “Will this conversation have any real value tomorrow?” If you think it will, go ahead, add your idea. If not, the topic should be changed.


A student told me of calling on a friend who at once began to describe a recent operation. (Sound familiar?) There were three other guests present. Though all of them appeared bored, the hostess stuck to the topic that interested herself. The caller listened more or less patiently, then led the conversation to the subject of modern science (in connection with surgery). Again, the convalescent began her personal reminiscence. The caller then mentioned the value of a sea trip, discussed different boats, countries to visit, and similar topics. “But after such a serious operation!” the convalescent exclaimed, on her pet subject again.


“Six times during the remainder of the afternoon that woman began the same story,” my student reported. “She was becoming more melancholy with each repetition, but evidently enjoyed her misery. She kept me busy finding ways to head her off. I thought perhaps she would resent my interference, but fortunately she didn’t even seem to notice it. It was very satisfying, however, to see her become a little more cheerful as the conversation finally flowed into healthier channels. When I left, she told me she felt much better and asked me to please again often.


A great deal of tack is required in changing a topic which has been introduced. The conversation must be guided so diplomatically that the person who introduced the original subject will not realize that it is actually being changed. You must not get the idea that changing the subject is something you do to enable you to satisfy your own love of power; but, neither must you allow anyone to feel that the discussion is being dominated by one person. Yu have an obligation to change the subject only when it is necessary for purely cultural purposes. Everyone, including a bore, will enjoy a conversation which does not leave him/her depressed, discouraged, embarrassed, or cynical.


A quick exchange of humorous experiences, rather real or a joke, or a serious discussion of any worthwhile subject by which you may clarify your thoughts, stimulates and inspires for many days to come. Leading the conversation softly, gently into optimistic, loving, thought-provoking channels calls for serious creative effort. You must always devise such interruptions as may seem natural or suddenly unavoidable to entice the company into new paths.


Ask yourself.”What subject could be substituted right now that really would be of value, as well as of general interest?” Finding answers, when you first start trying it, will require much study and imagination on you part. Remember, tact, courtesy, judgement, sympathy, curiosity, an open mind, and humor are all necessary. I will discuss these attributes at length in later Lessons.


For now; three ways of changing a subject are listed below. Start by using the method or combination of methods which best fit the situation and your own natural ability. As you acquire confidence and skill, you may create other devices of your own.

          A. “That reminds me” method. Associate a new idea with the topic which must be changed. For example, eight of us were at the beach. One, a new member of the group, was not acquainted with the universal laws of the game of conversation. The day was foggy, very foggy, but it had not occurred to any of our group that it was necessary to announce that fact. We have found that some of the very most tiresome conversations develop from someone’s presenting the obvious and then expecting others to become interested or excited about it. The new member didn’t know this basic rule, so he began, “It really has been very cold this summer, we seldom have such a long stretch of cold weather without a few warm days thrown in between.”


Someone politely agreed and then said.”By the way, speaking of weather, did you know that a Columbia professor has evolved the theory that eventually the intelligence of people may be definitely measured by the temperature of the country in which they live?” “That really sounds farfetched! How does he explain it? This came from an argumentative friend. “He says that climate affects intelligence more than race or education does.” It did not matter whether or not we agreed. It did matter that a useless conversation had been diverted into an interesting discussion that led to heredity, environment, racial traits, economic pressure, and other subjects far, far removed from the topic of weather.


          B. “Will you help me? method. Halt a bore in mid-sentence, as it were, by asking his advise about something. Note: This must be done carefully and with the proper apologies for interrupting. The wish for advise must appear sincere. The degree of this sincerity will be recognized by the interrupted speaker. Who amongst us would not willing stop in the middle of his favorite subject if he felt his advice was really needed, at once, on an all-important matter? This is an excellent , time-proven method for diverting an enthusiast who is talking shop or a mother extolling the unbelievable merits of her children


I do not mean that you must never permit people to talk “shop” or “children”. If, however, you have listened to similar remarks made by the same person many times before, you are justified, (no. obligated by the rules of the game.) in changing the subject, especially if, by doing so, you are making the conversation more enjoyable for all the players. Here is an example: “Children are so cute when they are four or five years old,” said the fond mother, Mrs. Billings. “Johnnie gets more precocious every day. This morning ........” “Oh, before I forget, Mrs. Billings, will you tell me the date of our next PTA meeting? I wasn’t able to attend last week.” “It is on the 12th ,” said Mrs. Billings absently, while deciding just what particular mark of Johnnie’s genius she should discuss first. Before she had time, however, to revert to her favorite subject, her friend continued, “And the speaker at the next meeting?” “Professor Bacon is going to speak on Child Psychology.” “I’m glad,” answered her friend. “I wonder if you would have time to read a part of “Everyday Problems of the Everyday Child,’ by Thom, and prepare a list of questions we may present at the open forum following the lecture? Here’s the book. Suppose we look over the table of contents now and decide which seem to be the most important chapters.” “OK?” This they then proceeded to do. After which an interesting conversation followed regarding the necessity of parents understanding child psychology so that they may know the best modern methods of training their children.


          C. “Isn’t it beautiful?” method. While walking or driving with a group, you can change the subject, if you desire, by attracting the speaker’s attention to some object sufficiently interesting to justify the interruption, Then tactfully guide the talk along more constructive lines, linking it; perhaps, if clever enough, with the object you just pointed out.


A good example of this is the following: We had driven through the beautiful military reservation, the Presidio, at San Francisco, California and reached the cliff road overlooking the Golden Gate bridge. Before us rolled the broad Pacific ocean, the sun glinting on its waves. Across the bay Mount Tamalpais reared its head above the friendly Marin Hills. This scene has inspired poets and painters and awed even confirmed globe-trotters. But it did not inspire one of our group enough to stop the following remarks, which bubbled forth endlessly: “It’s pretty, isn’t it? We have seen some pretty spots on other vacations. But, somehow we have had such disagreeable weather. It’s rained when it wasn’t supposed to, and it’s been cold even in the summer, though I believe that weather is changing all over the country. My husband says that the North is getting warmer and the South is getting colder. Of course, this is the West, and I don’t know what we are supposed to expect here — – —“ and so on and on until somebody said: “Oh, excuse me, but there is the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Isn’t it a beautiful building? Suppose we go in for a few minutes and look it over. The building itself is worth a visit, and there is usually an art exhibit going on.” We visited the Palace and returned to our cars. Other members of the group took up the conversation, which included the history of the building, its architectural beauty, and the various exhibits which had been held there during recent years. That conversation was guided tactfully but firmly during the rest of the afternoon. Though we changed the subject which our visitor had introduced, she had a more interesting drive than she had been permitted to ramble on undisturbed.




You have undoubtedly noticed, in my development of the four basic principles, several hints about the kinds of topics which are for conversation. But this is so important a subject that I must give it a section of its own.


It is real easy to list the most obvious areas of discussion that should be avoided, at any and all costs. Disconnected, thoughtless remarks, personal, whining complaints; long descriptions of your illnesses or operations – these are not very promising topics, of course; in fact, they are boring and depressing. Another group of unpromising subjects is expressions of egotistical self-interest. Have you noticed that some people think that any detail about themselves will interest the whole world? As you pass their tables during the lunch time you may hear them spouting out little nuggets about themselves. “I never used to like walnuts, but now I do.” I can’t stand to wear wool.” “I wake up at six-thirty every morning, workday or holiday.” “Weather like this really depresses me.” “All my friends are dopes.”


Unless they are immediately broadened into topics of general interest, which they normally aren’t, these offshoots of egotism are conversation stoppers, dead-end streets leading nowhere. One person burst out angrily about a person who was always ready with such egotistical tidbits, “He’s not conversing, he’s looking in a mirror!”


Another kind of unpromising topic is one which is used simply to enforce the speaker’s prejudices or deep-seated bias. As you can see, this question of what to talk about is not just a matter of avoiding trite subjects; it is a question of what we are talking for. If we are talking only to exercise our mouth muscles and make a pleasant noise for our ears, that’s not conversation. If we have to verbalize our egotism, or tell the world how right we are to hate all foreigners or to despise a particular political party, that’s not conversation, either.


The art of conversation begins with our interest in people and in finding out more about the people we meet and the world we all live in. If the man who egotistically remarks that he always wakes up without an alarm clock can be pulled into a conversation about how people like him can set “internal alarm clocks” and thus wake themselves up, and each speaker adds something that helps us all to learn about the powers we have in our unconscious selves, we have ourselves a splendid conversation. And if you can be brought, by social contact with others and by listening to their ideas and observations, to stretch your mind, to examine your ideas, and even, perhaps, to change and expand your ideas, you have taken part in a conversation of the highest possible order. (Lucky you.)


Conversation is the exchange of ideas. Into this statement I have packed the whole secret of the selection of topics. If you really want to know what other people think and feel, if you want to exchange ideas, then almost any subject can be expanded into a conversation of general interest. A complaint about illness might lead to a discussion of medical science, or miracles, or insurance. A remark about the weather might lead to an exchange about the influence of climate on personality, or about the space program, or remarks made by Mark Twain that are well-known.


If you want to learn more about what other people do and just why they do it, if you want to know what they believe and why, then you will not be likely to throw out conversation stoppers; you’ll always look for ways to broaden a subject into an interesting exchange of ideas, (and pat yourself on the back for doing it.)


What about controversial subjects? Should we or should we not discuss racial issues, the UN, war and peace, political parties, Communism, homosexuals, etc? Should we avoid unpleasant or even tragic subjects? If we really want to get to know people, can we avoid those topics most loaded with emotion?


Here’s a question which requires all of our tact. It is true that if conversation stays polite and airy and avoids all disagreements, it will surely become boring. It also happens to be true that too much emotion turns into a shouting match and results in hard feelings for all concerned. Therefore, we must steer between these two extremes. (Requiring a great deal of tact)


Now, the less you know the people you are talking with, the more tactful you must be in feeling your way to a subject which will be meaningful but not objectionable. The very best conversations are the frankest, the ones in which everyone in the group really opens up and the speakers exchange ideas on matters which are most deeply and sincerely important to them. Such conversations must necessarily be rare, for people do not readily open their very hearts But it is still true, that the best of all conversational subject for any particular group is that subject which draws people out, which most involves them, without upsetting them or making them react too emotionally. In any group finding this level of subject matter requires real tact.


The very best rule that I can give you is to start with an interest in the other person, and then to broaden the subject very tactfully to something in which everyone can become involved. As you develop the ability to do this, (and you rapidly will) finding the level of involvement in any group you happen to be in, people will find it increasingly pleasant and stimulating to converse with you.




Progressive Conversation

The principal of a large school definitely guides the conversation at the luncheon table by leading it into channels of general interest, encouraging the teacher to talk about things rather than people. He saves clippings and articles about subjects on which he knows certain teachers are particularly informed and draws the other uninterested ones into the discussion. Art news, travel notes, or descriptions of unusual inventions are sometimes read aloud to stimulate conversation. This starts a worthwhile discussion. The teachers return to their afternoon routine refreshed and stimulated.


In a Family Hotel (a Boarding house)

John Brandon lived in a family hotel. He was one of a group of five men and one woman, Nell White, who always dined at the same table. For weeks during the football season conversation had been exclusively about sports. The season end, as they all do, and talk threatened to become even less interesting. John was just starting to practice conversational guidance. He estimated that each dinner afforded about forty-five for him to use or waste. The current talk, chiefly consisting of the usual flippant personal remarks, you well know the type, intended to impress Nell with the speakers’ cleverness. John decided to make an effort to bring the table talk to a higher level.


Next evening, before anyone could even start the usual general banter he turned to Nell White. “I had a remarkable experience last night. I spent a most unusual evening.” “What in the world did you do?” Nell asked. “I was invited to a home where the group was small enough to carry on and interesting, enlightening, and most pleasant conversation. We talked all night about the world outlook for humanity.” “Is that very unusual?” Asked Ben. “Well, I’ve been in this town now for six years, and this is the first time it has ever happened to me. We really listened to one another. Not only did we refer to things, but we also had time to talk about them. That certainly was a surprise. I enjoyed it.”



“O’Henry liked little groups, “ Arthur volunteered. “I believe he once told a friend that he never wanted to be anyplace where he had more than three faces to watch.” “That’s an idea,” Tom broke in. “Do we watch faces when we are with people?” “We do if we are really interested in what they are saying,” John answered. “Not always,” Ben disagreed. “Self-conscious people don’t like to look people in the eye, and I don’t think self-conscious people like to be watched either.” “But if they did watch, and did get more interested in other people and what they were saying, they wouldn’t be so self-conscious,” John insisted. Jim didn’t agree with that statement, and promptly explained why. The others entered eagerly into the discussion, which then lead to self-confidence, courtesy, tolerance, aging, and other traits of character. At no time was here any unanimity of opinion, but all present chatted in a friendly way. The conversation moved on. As John Brandon afterwards stated. “I had no idea we could cover so much ground in just forty-five minutes.”


A Weekend in the Mountains. 

All of you have had at least one experience, I know, of enjoying a conversation with a small friendly group. Don’t you remember that weekend you spent with Marion and George in the mountains? Of course, you enjoyed the horseback rides , walking the trails, swimming and fishing, etc., but what stands out most vividly in your memory today? Wasn’t it that intimate, friendly, relaxed conversation after the strenuous members of the party had all gone to bed? Just a few of you sat around the fireplace and talked and joked far into the morning.


You learned to know your friends that night. Right? You can recall now how George looked when he told you he had always been interested in reform schools and prison conditions. Imagine! Just because he got into that scrape when he was a youngster, when he had almost landed in jail himself. So, that’s why he hangs around the juvenile courts so much! Good old George! And there was Bess, Marion’s unmarried sister. You knew she was a teacher of some kind. You had always thought her dull. You now know that she has ideas! Her eyes really blazed when you said.”You botanists are all for labeling things. I liked trees, and don’t think it makes any difference whether I know the genus or species.” “Genus or species!” Bess exploded. “If that’s what you think botany is, if that’s what you think we’re interested in, no wonder you don’t appreciate the scientific approach.”

Then she calmed down a little, and you gradually drew her out, you finally saw what her work meant to her. It was really a great night.


Of course, our conversation wasn’t all heavy scientific talk. It wouldn’t be, with Bill around. After he got started, the rest of you seemed to remember the most ridiculous experiences you’d gone through. All these experiences, and even the way your friends told them on themselves, helped you to now know these friends better.


Around the Fire. 

I remember a particularly enjoyable conversation one evening when we were settled around a big, blazing fire. Someone, mentioned how cold it was outside, but before anyone had a chance to emphasize this fact, Edith broke in:I believe there’s an old gypsy superstition that if you turn your backand then look at the fire through

crossed sticks in a mirror to do it, you’ll see your fate. “Heavens!” Veryl ejaculated. “I wouldn’t dare! I might draw Bill again. “I wish Bill could hear that.” Mabs laughed. “Hear what?” Bill questioned, as he joined in. “Something that would do you good, Bill,” Veryl explained. “Too much adoration is bad for any man’s liver.” “I guess Bill is safe,” Ted consoled. “Don’t you know gypsies told Veryl to marry Bill?” “Good stuff!” Bill agreed. “They knew their job, those gypsies.”


After the bantering had died down, Edith said, “Jack told me only this morning that a few carloads of those wanderers are camping right outside town. Isn’t it a pity that the old gypsy tribes and their lovely legends have died out?” “Well, the tribes haven’t quite disappeared.” Jack explained. “But I guess we don’t hear very much about their legends any more. I always thought the patrin was the most romantic thing about gypsies.” The patrin?” said Ted. “Wasn’t that what gypsies left to show what way they had gone?” “Yes. for one thing. Some signs – flowers or something I remember seeing them outside the village when I was a kid. But also, I remember my father showing me marks they left on the fence post at the corner of the house. Or it might be made on the garage or shed. The sign told the others that followed just what the weakness was of the owners. They knew if you should work for food, read the lady’s palm, talk religion, etc. to get to the point real fast.”


“But just where did the gypsies get their custom of leaving a patrin behind them?” asked Mabs. Somebody suggested that ut was in Hungary in the 16th century. We discussed this idea for a while and then chatted about the gypsies we had known as children. Gypsies are real common in the summertime throughout all of Wisconsin to this very day. We had an unusually good time in front of the fire that night, all because someone had changed a dull subject of conversation into one full of life.


“Ragbag” Conversation: In the city.

One of my students reports the following example of “ragbag” conversation which she purposely did not guide. Previous to this experience she had felt that guidance was unnecessary. She believed that any conversation, however trite, would inevitable drift to some subject worth discussing.


As the guests assembled on this particular evening, the conversation opened with a discussion of the weather. “My dear, isn’t it cold?” Said Mrs. Jones. “Yes, perfectly bitter!” answered Mrs. Bristol. “Terrible weather!” chimed in Mrs. Roberts. “Of course, we usually have a cold December,” contributed Mrs. Jones.

“Yes, but I think it wasn’t so cold last year, don’t you?” “Well.....I really don’t know. But, five years ago we certainly had the coldest December I’ve ever known.” Mrs. Jones disagreed, hold out that three years ago, while Mrs.Bristol was sure the coldest December was six years ago. “I’ve had such a cold,” continued Mrs. Bristol. “Lots of sickness going around now,” Mr. Rivers announced. “Well, I’ve been luck so far.” admitted Mrs. Jones, “though I have felt a cold coming on me these last few days.” Now – add the various favorite remedies with segways to epidemics of something or other, cancer (very popular subject) , followed by a brief moment to discuss football, leading to college sport segway to girls performance at school, helped by teachers; segway to PTA. And so the evening went by, without anyone’s expressing one really imaginative idea about anything that mattered.




Vocabulary. Come word-adventuring with me. (Editor’s note: For the serious, dedicated members only! Return to “main menu.” Click on to Books Hall of Fame Under the 1st classification you will see “Highly Recommended” which shows you “Word Power Made Easy.” Click and read excerpt.) Through these exercises you will add new words to your vocabulary. You will learn how to select new words to properly express your exact meaning. You will find new values in words. As your ideas become more varied and interesting, your vocabulary will grow a pace. You will acquire a new abundance reserve of words to clothe your thoughts fittingly.


The more interesting, as well as the simplest, way of increasing your vocabulary; (a lifetime task, by the way) is to note the words which are used by you way too often and substitute other words for them. Take the word “nice” for instance. We talk of “nice” weather, “nice” people and friends, “nice” jobs, “nice” cafes, “nice “ clothes, “nice, nice, nice” until “nice” loses all its personality and descriptive value and quality. DROP “nice” from your vocabulary entirely. E n t I r e l y!    GONE! When ever you even think about using it – STOP – decide to substitute another word which more clearly expresses your meaning. Just for example, say: --------“invigorating” weather, “intelligent” friends, “creative” jobs, “smart”.clothes. and “real unique” café; now wouldn’t that be nice? (I mean interesting)


Then advance this principle to all overworked words and phrases, whether you actually use them yourself or are irritated when you hear them used in your presence. (You know what I mean) Such phrases as “each and every one” can also be eliminated from your vocabulary entirely with no loss to the English language. Include “you know, you know, ...... “ (you know, what?)


Slang expressions have no value to you unless you originate them yourself. That means yourself-----create your own phrases if you would be a distinctive, interesting speaker. Above all, a void trite, commonplace words and phrases which have long since died a natural death along with their color or meaning.




Anyone who is interested in other people, in the why and how of things, and in the growth of his own personality, will find things to say. But there are some more immediately practical instructions on this important subject. Let’s get down to business and look at practical techniques.


First, to acquire and remember material for conversations, you must keep a notebook. Each day, during the day, you must take time to jot down at least one (two’s better) useful idea. Divide your notebook into four parts, using the following headings:


                    A. The Media (newspapers, TV, radio, movies, magazines)

                    B. The arts & sciences.

                    C. My speciality

                    D. What I do & think.


Under “A” enter interesting items of information, events, elements of movies, plays or books, and news items. (Remember what these are for: they should not supply you with information for idle chatter but with lead-ins, illustrations, examples fit to toss into social gatherings to start the game of conversation. Remember you just start the game.)


Under the “B” heading enter items of interest to you in either the arts or the sciences. This will vary greatly, depending on your sex and who you are, what habits you have, and who the people are that you normally talk with. Try, if it fits, notes on recent novels, new plays, movies, paintings, etc. (Enough only to start the game.) Some of you will be uncomfortable in the arts and will prefer to keep notes on current developments in biology, space travel, conservation of water, pollution of the air, etc. 


Under the “C” heading in your notebook, keep your specialty or even specialties. Please don’t tell me you have no specialty! It should be part of your ambition, to be knowledgeable in some field, to know more than your friends do about something, no matter what. Everyone should be an expert, to some degree, on something. That’s all part of being really alive, of being a special you. Follow up on your favorite specialty in any manner of your choosing. But just realizing that you know a good deal about one field is good for you, and sooner or later you’ll get the chance to bring your knowledge out on purpose if you play the game.


Now, the “D” heading. “What I do and Think.” comes last on my list because I want you, as a matter of fact, to play it down too. It is good to keep notes about your own thoughts and about amusing or illuminating things that happen to you, But you know, because I have already said egotistical concerns with your own affairs, if not broadened into topics of general interest, are boring, really boring, so do not overwork “D.”


In addition to making your daily notes, read all the references in your notebook daily for one month. The sooner they become a part of you through memory the more valuable and permanent they become as tools of the game of conversation. (That is the purpose of all this, remember?)


This plan of gathering material has two distinct values. First, it stimulates observation and mental alertness, as well as a sense of what is worthwhile. You may perhaps say, quite honestly too, “Some days pass and nothing worth remembering come to my mind.” In answer to that remark I must impress upon you this vital thought: If you should permit a single day to go by without thinking of anything, hearing anything, seeing anything, or reading anything which you consider of vital interest , then you are in a very dull state, hardly fit company for yourself, let alone other players in the game of conversation. You need help, real fast.


Dare you risk appearing among others so unprepared? You remind me of what my father told me one day; “I refuse to participate in a game of wits with an unarmed man!” Since you know by now that you cannot hope to successfully participate in the game of conversation without ideas, you can readily see the value of this exercise in stimulating observation and alertness. Practice will quicken your powers to observe and to record the incident or thought. ( worth remembering later.)


The second value of taking notes daily is that, by referring to the ideas in abbreviated form, you are compelled to think out the subject imaginatively when you read the notes over...In this way you strengthen your ability to recall specific details. Never allow a day to go by without writing in your note book something worth remembering.




The next time you have the opportunity, watch a panel discussion on television. Watch closely and notice how the different speakers affect you, and see if you can relate their effect to the way they speak. I mean this in the broadest sense. For example; do the speaker’s words come quickly or slowly? Is his voice loud or soft? Pleasant or unpleasant? How does he sit? What does he do with his hands? How does his facial expression change? Does he appear happy to be there?


If you make a habit of watching, really watching, people speak----and especially on television, so that you can observe without having to take part-----you will soon start noticing that people who speak effectively and make their points well and often are not simply stating interesting ideas. They are saying things in an interesting way!

They know how to make their voices sound pleasant and brisk. They know how to make the words come through clearly so that each word can be heard. They know how to sit, listen, and what to do with their face and hands.


In fact, you see, there is really a lot of truth to the old saying, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” The saying goes too far of course. We are very much concerned in these Lessons with what you say. In each of my Lessons, however, I am going to take some time to discuss with you the very important subject of how you say it. You must be prepared to challenge and even to change some of your habits----perhaps even some deeply ingrained habits. This will require faithful practice and patience, but you will be gratified by the final results.


I shall start by challenging you to check up on the way you pronounce the “A” sound and to do something about it, if necessary, for the “A” sound is extremely important in good English speech.


The ugly “A”

Going into a party, I noticed a lovely young lady dressed in the height of fashion. She looked as if she would be fun to meet, and before long I had made an excuse to speak to her. The minute she began talking, however, her elegant image was dispelled. “Howdjdo,” she said. “Kin ye believe this paerty? I haeven’t laeffed so haaard on yers.” (To read her words so they sound the way she said them, sound the “A” harshly so “party” comes out “paaarty.” This is like the bleat of a goat: “A-a-a-a!”) This is no exaggeration. The “A” sound has been abused more than any other sound in the English language, especially in the Midwest, where people to make it hard and metallic or nasal.


Although several regional dialects are considered acceptable (Midwestern is one of these), and many words can be pronounced in more than one way, the nasal “A” is not acceptable and should be avoided. The nasal “A” is unpleasant, and it is extremely hard to listen to because it is so irritating. But it is difficult to detect this fault in yourself, especially if most of your close associates speak the same way you do.


If at all possible, you should use two tools with your voice exercises as you progress in your Lessons: an ordinary television set for listening to other people’s speech, and a tape recorder for hearing yourself speak. Buy them, borrow them, or rent them (your library may have tape recorders available). You can get along without a tape recorder if you must, of course, but one would be helpful indeed.


Listen to the sound of your own voice on tape. It will probably shock you at first, for very few of us have any idea how we sound to others. Slowly read the list of words at the end of this Lesson, and then listen to yourself. Listen especially for the “A” sound. Keep the tape on hand. Next, listen to your favorite newscasts on television to evaluate the newsmen, listening especially to the “A” sounds. Can you detect a difference between your “A” and theirs?


To supplement the tape recorder, or to take the place of one if none is available yet, work in front of a mirror. Watch your mouth as you pronounce words with the “A” sound. Concentrate on the position of your lips as you say “my father.” If you are pronouncing the “A” sound correctly, you lips will be slack and will not have changed position, except for the pronunciation of the “M” and the “F”. If your lips curve downward as you say “father, “ you are probably saying “faether.” As you say the words your tongue should be touching the back of your lower teeth and lying flat in your mouth. If you are nasalizing the “A” sound, your tongue will be near the roof of your mouth.


Finally, put your hand on your jaw. Let the jaw drop down as you say “father.” If there is no dropping of the haw, you are probably nasalizing the “A.” Now try to concentrate on your lips, tongue, and jaw at once to see if you are making the correct sound. Try this exercise once a day for about ten minutes, making sure your “:A” is not nasal. The “A” may sound exaggerated at first, but if you practice it enough, it will become very natural. Keep trying.


Here is a list of “A” words for you to practice.

         after                   answer               ask            aunt           basket

blast          can’t                  chance               dance        draft

         example             fancy                  France                glass          grass

half           fast                     last            pass           blast          raft

         vast           prance                lance


           art CONVERSATION




                           Contents Lesson 2.

                                    Strangers Can Be Friends.


                           Contents Lesson 3.

                                    Handling Traits That Irritate.


                           Contents Lesson 4.

                                    Too Tired To Talk.


                           Contents Lesson 5.

                                    Humor – The Saving Grace


                           Contents Lesson 6.

                                    Down with Inhibitions


                           Contents Lesson 7.

                                    Literature and Drama – Topics For Talk.


                           Contents Lesson 8.

                                    The Art of Vivid Description.








Editor’s note.

For the serious, interested people still with us , there will appear following immediately, selected portions of the eight Lessons to tease you as to just how interesting this course might be so that you exert yourself and get all the material at once and start making improvements in your own life.


First of all, you must start with the right mental attitude. You must be alert to the mood, the reactions, and the interests of the other people you will meet. “A good offense is the best defense.”


Second Principle: Groom your mind

If a gathering is important to you, you will naturally want to look your best. Courtesy, as well as good taste, makes you give care to your personal appearance. Give like attention to your mind.


You must be keenly and sensitively alert to the moods and reactions of others. The game of conversation is a two-way street.


Fifth Principle: Don’t argue


Accustom yourself to thinking in broad categories by remembering these six main lines of thought.

          1. History: what man has done

          2. Philosophy: what man has thought

          3. Art: what man has created.

          4. Natural Science: what man has discovered about nature

          5. Social Science: what man has discovered about man.

          6. Literature: what man has felt and expressed in words.


The Theater

I have found that in discussions of plays conversation usually runs in one of two main channels. The lighter topics are: the scenic effects, the acting, or the personalities of the actors. The serious topics are: the playwright’s philosophy and purpose, the reaction of the audience, and the educational value of the production.



Let us divide the subject of music into three parts: popular or “light” music, classical music, and the constantly changing category which includes folk music, country and western, rock and roll, and “folk rock.” “Light music, has the least content and is therefore the least useful for purposes of the game of conversation. People who like :”light” music don’t listen to it with any very important involvement; they just want to relax to a simple, pleasant sound.



In a broad sense art has more conversational appeal for the untrained person than music. Of course, I include practical or applied art. interior decorating, architecture, weaving, and ceramics in my idea of art.


People are naturally social beings.” A well-known psychologist once said to me. “They should be able to get along with each other naturally. The reason they don’t is that one or the other sets up barriers.”


First Principle: Study the cause.

When a person annoys or irritates you in any way, whether by positive statements, verbosity, tactless remarks, or nervous habits, study the cause which brought about the condition. To use a popular phrase, ask yourself, “How did he get that way?” In seeking the cause, you will be less likely to resent the effect. Here are some possible answers to the question of “how he got that way.” Remembering these answers will lead to understanding and tolerance.


         1. You will find that people who are not quite sure of themselves are apt to make overly positive statements, fearing that their opinions will not otherwise have weight.


2. People who feel repressed in certain company usually talk too much when they do find sympathetic listeners. This will help you to understand the overly wordy people.


3. People who make tactless statements or who gossip usually lack imagination and do not realize how their remarks sound to others. Since tactless people are seldom malicious, but more often lack judgement, you should regard them with sympathy, rather than condemnation. It is very probably that these people gossip because they have thought of nothing better or worthwhile to say. They need guidance.


          4. Annoying habits are usually caused by nervousness or self-consciousness. Make a person feel at ease, and you will find that he is less likely to exhibit restless, nervous habits.


Third Principle: Seek the admirable trait.

Look for one good point in each individual, and mention indirectly your admiration of that particular trait. This has usually a very salutary influence. Unconsciously, perhaps, the person in question will seek to develop the trait that has brought forth commendation and, in so doing, will often minimize his more unpleasant characteristics,



Lord Chesterfield, the famous 18th -century diplomat, wrote a large number of letters to his son, telling him how to be effective in the world. His key advice can be summed up thus: Always stand by your beliefs and let people know what they are. BUT, always do this politely, softly, and thoughtfully, with the assumption that other people are really entitled to their own opinions. In this way you will win the respect and trust of others and will be in the very best position to make your opinions count for something, even among people who would have been repelled by them if you loudly blurted them out and defended them intolerantly. Lord Chesterfield, by the way, also told his son that knowledge is like a diamond; its value is unknown until it is cut and polished by manners. To dissolve the barriers of fixed opinions, you must first start by studying your own opinions, making sure that they are not blocking conversation by repelling people unnecessarily.


There is a possible danger that we may seal ourselves in with our prejudices and allow no evidence to enter our minds. Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you express yourself as firmly fixed in you opinion, modest, sensible men will leave you in possession of your error.” Back of all conversation there should always be the desire for pleasure and for cultural or material profit. If you keep this in mind, you will carefully avoid unnecessary criticism, even when asked for an honest opinion. There really is such a thing as being disagreeably honest. When you are tempted to be brutally frank, ask yourself the following questions: “Is it true?” Is it necessary?” Is it KIND/


A quick-witted woman once remarked, “It is not usually the little white lies that hurt one’s feelings. It is more often the cold, unvarnished truth which need not have been expressed.”


Here is a poem by Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels.



                              Conversation is like carving.

                              Give no more to each guest

                              Than he’s able to digest.

                              Give him always of the prime,

                              And but little at a time.

                              Carve to all but just enough

                              To let them neither starve or stuff,

                              And that you may have your due,

                              Let your neighbor carve or you.



Vary your style. Monotony is the use of words makes or dullness. With pencil and paper make an extensive lists of descriptive adjectives which apply to a specific object. -------- For instance a mountain might be:

tall, rugged, violet, dignified, broad, craggy, green, impressive, towering, steep, brown, ghostlike, statuesque, precipitous, gray, snow-capped, awe-inspiring, dome-shaped, cloud-hung, barren, high, purple, mysterious, fertile, lofty, blue, grand, impassable.


The need or a wide and varied vocabulary is apt and wittily illustrated in the following verses by Berton Braley.


                    Oh, she was a cutie whose accents were fluty 

                    With talk that ran on like a rill;

                    Each speech was a spasm of enthusiasm

                    Which she was just aching to spill.

                    Her vocabulary, however, was very

                    Restricted in words that would suit;

                    To show how excited she was, or delighted,

                    She had just one adjective, “cute.”


                    A fan or a fountain, a mouse or a mountain

                  Were simply as cute as could be;

                    A dog or a drama, a lamb or a llama

                    Were cute in an equal degree.

                    A heavyweight brute or a wrestler was “cutter,”

                    And when she was trying to voice

                    The ultimate phrase to express her amaze,

                    Why, “cutest,” of course was her choice!


                    She captured a man with this cute little word,

                    But, after some years had gone by,

                    He longed to salute each reiterate “cute”

                    With a cute little sock in the eye;

                    For his cuticle grew very sensitive to

                    The “cutes” of his Cutie – no question --

                    And they riled him inside till he finally died

                    With a case o aCUTE indigestion!


(Editors’ note. If this happens to remind you how pleasant a little poetry can be from time to time – go back to the main menu - click onto poetry)


Slogan. Some things can’t be changed, it’s true.

                One thing you can change is you!


To get the fullest joy out of life you must cultivate a spirit of enthusiasm. A genius, we are told, is one who retains the enthusiasm of a child. He sees old things always with new interest. When your days work is over you must cultivate this child-like spirit of adventure, the “What-next” attitude – the eager, anticipatory spirit. Continue this line of thinking until you realize that you obtain pleasure or profit only to the degree that you give your ALERTNESS, INTEREST, and UNDERSTANDING


How to Use Your Energy Constructively

Never lose sight of the fact that resentment, irritation, and worry use up energy. It takes more energy to worry about things than it does to do something about them. It takes energy to be blue; so when you sit and worry a and feel miserable, you are using up energy but doing nothing constructive with it.


The great psychologist Carl G. Jung tells us, “The mind is a very small island on the vast ocean of the unconscious.” Dr. Suzuki says, “The dimension of a man cannot be estimated.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We lie in the lap of vast intelligence.” David Thoreau put it this way: “Behind every human being there rises and falls a tide that could float the British Empire like a chip.” Consider the advice of the psychologist Dr. Duncan Blewett, who tells us that the conscious mind, the intellect, can handle as many as seven different impressions at once every one-hundredth of a second, but that the whole brain is constantly receiving and dealing with millions of impressions every one-hundredth of a second. (How did you manage to make yourself into a creature composed of three trillion cells, when you started with only one?)


Topics to Avoid.

1. Never introduce into a game of conversation the topics of sickness, operations, or disease.

2. Do not discuss personal losses or describe unhappy conditions.

3. Do not flatly contradict anyone, even if you can prove he is wrong.

4. Do not emphasize your strong dislikes and resentments unless you are sure that a majority of the others in the group share them with you.

5. Do not make cynical remarks about people or repeat unfounded gossip, ever.

      (In short, do not take a negative, complaining attitude towards life.)




There is no one quality that so much attaches man to his fellow man as cheerfulness. Talent may excite more respect, and surely, virtue more esteem, but the respect is apt to be distant and the esteem cold. It is far otherwise with cheerfulness. It endears a man to the heart, not the intellect or the imagination. There occurs a kind of reciprocal diffusiveness about this unique quality that recommends its possessor by the very effect it produces. There is a mellow radiance in the light it sheds on all social intercourse, which pervades the soul to a depth that the blaze of intellect can never reach.

                  I......have never deemed it sin to gladden

                    this vale of sorrow with a wholesome laugh.

                                                                        ----Oliver Wendell Holmes


Lose your temper and you shorten your life. Flying into a rage poisons the brain, strains the heart, unstrings nerves. Humor is literally a saving grace. When a situation is embarrassing or tense, just try to see its ludicrous elements. Believe me, every situation, no matter what, has its funny side, just look for it. Always compare the things that annoy you with something vital, and the minor irritation will shrink into nothingness real fast.


The sense of humour is the just balance of all the faculties of man, the best security against the pride of knowledge and the conceits of the imagination, the strongest inducement to submit with a wise and pious patience to the vicissitudes of human existence.


To understand how humor works, we must listen to the psychologists, who tell us that all humor includes three elements: playfulness, bisociation, and insight. (The word bisociation was invented by Arthur Koestler in his interesting book, The Act of Creation, which has a long section devoted to humor.) Bisociation means that two frames of reference are always brought together by an expert in humor. Insight indicates that humor is never completely meaningless; it always has to make some kind of a comment on a given situation.True humor springs not more from the head than from the heart; it is not contempt----its essence is love.” Humor is the savor that gives conversation flavor.


When you meet a stranger, your first step towards understanding him is to consider his background. There are five important angles to which you must give thought:

                    1. Nationality

                    2. Environment

                    3. Educational background

                    4. Business or profession

                    5. Home life.


It is simply a training of the will to do the thing which will produce the condition you desire. If you always do - what you’ve always done. You’ll always get - what you’ve always got.


Memorize the following verse by Edwin Markham. It will help you to hold constantly the “universal friendly feeling.”

                              He drew a circle that shut me out—

                              Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

                              But Love and I had the wit to win:

                              We drew a circle that took him in.


The clumsy enjoy, there and there only, the delights of the dance, the infinite delicacies of motion, he to whom beauty never gave aught but a contemptuous side glance may come out from his shadow and bask in her noonday radiance; and he whom society found too uncouth or strange, for want either of frock-coat or an air to wear it, may pass at his ease among dukes and countesses; and he whose tongue is hobbled may engage in repartee with the wits of the age. GOOD LUCK!

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