illustration by JIMMIE HENSLEE
Let’s talk about talking — the simplest form of entertainment, whether at dinner with friends or a formal societal affair. There are many rules for the so-called art of conversing, laid out in 1922 by the empress of etiquette herself, Emily Post. Read the book: Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home. But so often do I see — rather, hear — Post’s edicts ignored that I find myself wishing to cover my ears or leave the dinner table mid-entrée after suffering through one-too-many minutes with a table of offenders.
Even the most polite person can be a victim or perpetrator of a conversational crime. It is just as easy to slip into the role of offensive over-chatterer as it is to be confronted by the kind of person that Post bluntly refers to as the Door Slammer. Says Post of those avoidable types: “There are people whose idea of conversation is contradiction and flat statement.”
So how does one avoid committing conversational faults? And what can be done when one is confronted with an appalling violation of conversational code? Post was right when she said that “the rule is merely to stop and think.” Don’t chat mindlessly. Avoid the assumption that your counterpart has the same passion for the things that excite you. Ahead of time, educate yourself about the person you’ll be speaking with — or do it on the fly, as you converse. Ask questions and raise topics that you are certain will engage them.
Above all, don’t pretend to know things that you haven’t a clue about. This includes feigning to have mutual acquaintances you don’t even know. (Before allowing any white lie to pass through your lips, remember that Post thought this: “Only the very small mind hesitates to say ‘I don’t know.’”) There are other tips for talking. Be willing to agree to disagree. Quit when the conversation turns to gossip. Be a good listener. But of all the chatter counsel, the following rule will save even the most elementary conversationalist from error: Don’t over-share. Mind Ms. Post, because she said, “The faults of commission are far more serious than those of omission; regrets are seldom for what you left unsaid.”
What can be done if you are on the receiving end of a conversational delinquent’s crimes? Master the art of escape. A consummate host I know used to have a difficult time dealing with hangers-on, those ill-mannered partygoers who fail to realize they should not talk to any host for more than a minute or two, thereby monopolizing said host’s time. How to loosen the Clinger’s grip so you can talk to the rest of your guests? The hostess in question has developed a tactic: She introduces them to — thereby depositing them with — another guest. She then quickly slips away and greets the other attendees. There are other ways to gracefully escape the stronghold of the Hanger-On. Invite him or her to check out the bar or buffet. Excuse yourself to check on the waitstaff, or to see to your many other hosting duties. There is, in fact, one sure way to avoid the phenomenon from happening at all: Institute, at parties big or small, a receiving line. Don’t give a Hanger-On even the slightest chance to monopolize. Instead, usher him or her through the line with a quick, “Lovely to see you.” All in the name of good manners, of course. —Anonymous