Avoiding Irritating And Boorish Habits In Conversation

We are all acquainted with those people who have not sense enough to keep a conversation flowing smoothly.  They have never been taught the conversational arts; they have nothing of consequence to talk about; and they try to compensate for these deficiencies by taxing the patience of their interlocutors.  I have noticed a sharp rise in such boorish behavior in recent years; and it shows every indication of continuing its upward trend.  I felt motivated to write a few lines on this subject, if for no other reason than to record my own displeasure.

Let us first deal with the up-talker.  This is the person who can find no other way to end his sentences but with a rising vocal intonation.  It was a speech habit once confined to young girls, and seems to have originated in southern California; but it is everywhere now, and has even captivated the minds of many younger men.  I find it inexcusably effeminate in a man.  Beyond this, it is an intrusive, aggressive, and discourteous form of speech:  for it forces the other participant constantly to register his agreement to nearly ever sentence he hears.  The up-talking lilt at the end of every idea forces you to keep repeating, “Yes,” or “Yeah,” or “Hmm-hmm,” over and over again.  You are being shanghaied into participating in a dance you want no part of.  This is why I call it rude and discourteous.  The best way to deal with this sort of thing is to make no response at all.  When the up-talker addressing you hits his bell-ringing lilt at the end of his idea, just look at him with an emotionless stare.  Do not join in the charade.  You are not obligated to humor his or her narcissistic preening.

The other irritating conversational habit that is enjoying a renaissance is the “conversationalist” who thinks he has the right to pepper you with staccato questions, one after the other.  To him, grilling is dialogue.  He does not understand that a conversation is like a dance:  both parties must have something to offer, and both must be trained in the art of the dialogue.  At times one man may lead; and at times another party may lead.  It is a human interaction, one that arises out of a shared sense of respect and obligation.  I think the Roman rhetorician Fronto said it best in a letter to the emperor Marcus Aurelius around A.D. 140:

Unless discourse is adorned with seriousness of speech, it becomes openly impudent and shameless. [Oratio nisi gravitate verborum honestatur, fit plane impudens atque impudica.]

And this is certainly true.  There are some people whose idea of a dialogue is to rattle off a series of vague questions, and then wrap up the sentiment with a one-word question like “Thoughts?”  As if you are obligated to write a book report, or give a lecture, to him in response!  It is a demanding, presumptuous pattern of behavior that springs from a lack of appreciation of the art of conversation.  There is something seriously wrong with the sense of boundaries and social calibration that some people have; you almost feel mugged by their streams of verbiage.  Rapid-fire questions are not conversation.  A man feels put-upon, or put to the question, so to speak.  This is exactly what Samuel Johnson meant when he exploded in anger one evening at one of his guests in London in 1778.  His biographer James Boswell tells us the anecdote:

He sometimes could not bear being teazed [i.e., pestered] with questions.  I was once present when a gentleman asked so many as, “What did you do, Sir?” “What did you say, Sir?” that at last he grew enraged and said, “I will not be put to the question.  Don’t you consider, Sir, that these are not the manners of a gentleman? I will not be baited with what, and why.  What is this?  What is that?  Why is a cow’s tail long?  Why is a fox’s tail bushy?”  The gentleman, who was a good deal out of countenance, said, “Why, Sir, you are so good, that I venture to trouble you.”  JOHNSON.  “Sir, my being so good is no reason why you should be so ill.

I laughed out loud when I first read this.  After seven hundred pages of Boswell, I felt almost as if I knew Dr. Johnson personally, and was one of his dinner-companions.  I could understand his frustration and anger at being put to the question.  We must be on our guard never to do this to a conversation partner.  There is a right way, and a wrong way, to be a good participant in a dialogue.  There is nothing wrong with asking questions, I want to emphasize.  None of this should be interpreted as discouraging a person from asking sincere questions in pursuit of knowledge.  It is just that it has to be done courteously.  Plutarch, in his essay On Listening, said:

Expressing approval, to be appropriate, also calls for care:  the mean must be found, because too much or too little approval are both crass.  A person who greets everything that is said with obdurate impassivity is a contemptible nuisance in the audience:  he oozes hollow conceit and the deep-rooted self-aggrandizement of assuming he could improve on what is being said…[On Listening 13.  Trans. by R. Waterfield]

So we must find a way of guiding the conversation forward, without seeming to be too imposing or intrusive.  It is an art that can only be acquired with practice; and it takes a considerate, good-mannered person to carry it through.  To be a good conversationalist, one should first strive to be a decent person.  We do not need to be eloquent; it is a nice adornment if we can do it, but it is not necessary.  Fronto himself says, in a short essay De Eloquentia (On Eloquence), sent to Antoninus Augustus around A.D. 162:

You should act similarly when it comes to eloquence.  You should not seek it out too much, or be averse to it too much:  nevertheless, if a choice has to be made, you should very much more prefer eloquence to idiocy. [Simile igitur in eloquentia servandum:  non opere nimio concupiscas igitur, nec opere nimio aversere:  tamen, si eligendum sit, longe longeque eloquentiam infantiae praeferas.]

In other words, you should neither chase after, nor avoid, eloquence; but it is far better to be eloquent than to be an inconsiderate boor.


Learn what a real dialogue sounds like in On Moral Ends: