"Silence is one of the great arts of conversation."

-Marcus Tullius Cicero

“Years ago, I tried to top everybody, but I don't anymore, I realized it was killing conversation. When you're always trying for a topper you aren't really listening. It ruins communication.”

-Groucho Marx

"To chatter is easy. To talk resultfully with the hostile, suspicious, indifferent or even friendly is an art."

-Milton Wright

It was not too long ago that I worked as the front door man at a burlesque club in Los Angeles. This was at the beginning of the revival of burlesque and I worked at the place that was responsible for the renaissance. This was not an ordinary bar, and it was far from what one would assume a burlesque club would be like. Every night we had a parade of celebrities in attendance and a horde of papparazzi in the street. People lined up for blocks to get in, and for good reason.

It was the job of myself and one other to man the front door. We checked ID's, managed the line, and more or less presented the face of the club. We wore suits and were expected to behave as gentlemen. We were not bouncers in the common sense.

One night, as we were working the front door, my coworker and I got to talking about how to pick up girls. He said to me, "Tom, all you have to do is listen to what they say, and ask them questions about what they're saying."

This was not a new concept. For years movies, magazine articles, books, tv, had all been saying the same thing: a girl just wants a man who will listen. But to put it into such practicable terms took me aback. Surely it was not so simple, but seeing that we were working the front door, and I had a line of people waiting to get in, I thought I would try a little experiment.

I didn't have to wait long before a very attractive girl came to the head of the line. A girl that I would have, under any normal circumstance, avoided talking to mostly out of intimidation.

But since I was running an experiment, I had no need to be afraid or intimidated. The worst thing that could happen would be that she confirmed my hypothesis and would ignore my conversation altogether. So I, with the confidence of a scientist unafraid of failure, approached her.

I introduced myself and asked a question to get things rolling. "How's it going tonight?" She said it was going "good": a grammatical error that goes right through me. I shook off the annoyance and I asked what brought her out. She said she was out with work friends. I asked what she did...

We carried on in this manner for quite some time. My questions getting more detailed as I learned more, and her responses getting longer and longer as she became more comfortable and entrenched in the conversation. Before I knew it, her friends had come back out the door and were ready to leave. This young woman, who again was quite beautiful, had just spent her entire night talking to me. With a club full of celebrities and all of her friends inside, solely by asking questions and listening to her responses, I had created a situation that was more attractive to her than the good time that waited just inside the door. Furthermore, to this day I still remember that conversation almost in its entirety. There are not many conversations that I can say that about. Not even ones I had yesterday.

And it was then that it occured to me: conversation is a living, breathing thing. And like all life, it must be cared for and sustained. Furthermore, the secret to remembering the details of a conversation, including the person with which you are having said conversation, lays in paying attention. All of those times that I have forgotten someone's name, or I have failed to remember what it was they said, could have been avoided merely by paying attention.

I became conscious of the way that I spoke at people. Through only the most remedial analysis, it was clear that I sucked as a conversationalist. I didn't pay attention to the conversation as a whole. I would instead grab hold of a single thought or principle, and then wait for my turn to speak. I would rarely pay attention to what the other person was saying and because I was so focused on being profound or witty, often times I would interrupt in order to change the subject to my will.

My skills in conversation lay almost entirely in manipulation. I had spent years figuring out ways to take an exchange and move it in the directions I wanted in order to be able to say what I wanted to say.

This is not a good path to quality conversation, nor is it very gentlemanly at all.

When asked about the purpose of conversation, the average person will tell you that it is the way in which we exchange ideas. The dictionary definition is not much different than this, adding other words like "informal" and "spoken". But conversation is so much more. No other means of communication can convery so much about you in so little time. Your grammar, vocaublary, style and behavior all lend themselves to defining you as a person.

Yes, conversation is about the exchange of ideas, but how you express those ideas, how you deliver your counterpoints, the way in which you listen, and the purpose for which you speak, all tell the world around you who you are in a million different ways.

Even the vocabulary you use comes into play.

As gentlemen, it is important to take the time to learn the proper way in which to converse. This is not difficult and in fact, is one of the easier transformations to undertake. It's true that it does take some adjustment and in the beginning you will have to pay attention to your actions, but eventually practice iwill become habit and you will be able to succesfully and politely converse without giving it a second thought.

What follows are some basic ground rules that I have gleaned from other sources, formulated from other's writings, and developed from my own experience. This is not the end all be all list of how to maintain a brilliant conversation. But it is a good starting point. No doubt you, dear reader, will be able to expand upon it, and I invite you to feel free to do so in the comments section. One cannot have a conversation without the exchange of ideas.

Rules of Conversation:

  • Never negate the speaker. To outwardly tell someone they are wrong is insulting, rude, and frankly, invites conflict into the conversation. No one likes being told they are wrong, especially if they are. If you know a person to be misinformed, either keep it to yourself or politely present your beliefs as a contrary point of view as opposed to a correct one.
  • Pay attention. It is evident when your mind has drifted. Your eyes glaze over and your face stops reacting. In extreme cases, you may even miss a direct question. This tells the speaker that you find them to be boring. If you find the conversation to be dull, either continue to ask questions of the speaker until youi find yourself more engaged, or politely excuse yourself.
  • Avoid assertion. Asserting a point in a conversation is to state something as fact without any sort of evidence or respect for counterpoint. Assertion essentially tells the listener that you don't care to have a discussion.
  • Ask questions. As long as they are on topic, It furthers the conversation and informs the speaker that you are truly listening. Should you begin to ask questions that are off topic, your partner will know you are drifting.
  • Counter point with proposals. Instead of starting an argument, invite the speaker to see things another way. This is far more effective that telling him to see it another way. "That's very interesting, Barnaby, but if we follow your line of thought, wouldn't that mean that..." This allows your partner time to contemplate the counterpoint instead of feeling threatened and becoming aggressive.
  • Avoid using the first person. It weakens your stance and leads you down the path of self promotion. It is much stronger, and less narcissistic, to say "You bring up an interesting point, but have you read..." This allows you not only to bring up a counter point with a proposal, but to present it with evidence as well.
  • Summarize what your associate has just said if you are unclear. A conversation will quickly derail if you become bored, and you will quickly become bored if you fail to understand. Repeating back what your associate has just said not only shows that you have been listening, but that you understand.
  • Build upon ideas already present in the conversation. This is easily done after a summary has been presented and accepted. Introducing a completely new talking point again shows that you are bored.
  • Invite others to join if you believe it will improve the overall quality of the conversation. If you happen to be talking about the odd shapes that skulls take on, and there is a phrenologist not three feet away, why not include them?
  • Never attack, defend, or challenge. Inevitably, you will find yourself in a conversation that touches you on an emotional level. Emotion is one of the worst elements to allow into a conversation. As any man who has been in a relationship will tell you, the second a conversation is based in emotion is the second all logic goes out the window. If you feel your ire rising, either fall back on cold and calculating logic, or if you fail to do that, propose a change in topic, or perhaps venue. The Russians are wonderful with this. When a conversation begins to get heated, someone in the group will propose a toast. Everyone will drink and once that is done, the anger has subsided and the conversation can continue in a civilized manner and in a different direction. My father had another technique. Whenever the conversation would get hot, he would say "Well clearly neither one of us knows enough about this topic to have an intelligent conversation." While entertaining, I do not recommend this.
  • Avoid conversational narcissism. Sociologist Charles Derber in his book, The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life observes that "conversational narcissism is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America," He goes on to describe what he dubs "the shift response." This is when someone makes a point, and you respond with a comment about you. For example, your friend Ringo says he's hungry and you reply "Well I haven't waten since thursday." This is bad. Don't do it.
  • Do not say anything negative. Do not speak ill of anyone. This includes yourself. To speak ill of others makes you look petty and jealous. To speak ill of yourself is to direct attention to your flaws. Studies have shown that without our help in bringing them to light, only a small fraction of our personal flaws would ever be noticed.

Changing yourself is not easy. Nor is it something that should be done all at once. But given enough time, even the mightiest mountains will succumb to the persistant waves.

Take one or two of the rules outlined above and really think about them. Then, in your next social interaction, pay attention to the things you say and do. You'll find that just by trying the techniques above, you will be far more engaged in the conversation. And this will only lead to good things.

Until next time, be a gentleman.