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London's PeopleVictorian Etiquette V: Conversation
Posted on Jun 02, 2005 - 05:18 AM by Bill McCann

The London Journal, launched in 1845, was one of the most widely read publications of nineteenth-century Britain. Its weekly appearance ushered in the period when mass-market reading, in a modern sense, was born. Between April 12 and August 30 1845, the Journal carried seventeen articles under the heading "Etiquette for the Millions," written by G.W.M Reynolds. They were clearly aimed at educating the mass readership (mostly the newly emerging middle-classes) in the behaviour expected of them in public. At times trenchant, the views expressed in the articles describe a view of society that is very, very different from that which we experience today. But, perhaps, one that many sections of modern society hanker after. In this lesson we are instructed on the rules which govern conversation in polite circles. Amongst other things we must never be ruffled by "ill breeding of a vulgarian, or the impertinence of the coxcomb."

If you wish to leave a favourable impression behind you at the house where you visit, be particularly careful in your discourse,

A well-bred man will studiously avoid a dispute: he will not even enter into n argument with another individual when by so doing the entire conversation would be engrossed by him and his opponent and the remainder of the company would be forced to remain silent listeners.

There are some persons who are particularly fond of setting forth peculiar opinions on all convenient occasions, and of entrapping others into arguments with them. Perhaps they have well studied their parts; or like Mr. Jenkinson in the "Vicar of Wakefield" have only one classical quotation at their command, but which they drag in at length as the knock-down argument that is to ratify their triumph. When you meet such persons as these, be distantly polite to them; hear all that they have to say; and do not suffer yourself to be led into a dispute. They will perceive that you are more regardful of the feelings and ease of the company than they are; and their disappointment will be a sufficient punishment for their pertinacious attempt to disturb the general harmony.

When you hear a person make a statement slightly inaccurate, it is not worth while to notice it; for he either erred through ignorance or wilfully; and, if the former, it is painful for him to be exposed; but, if the latter, he may probably endeavour to support his statement by bravado and involve you in a quarrel.

All conversation that might possibly lead to a quarrel in society, should be avoided, especially in the presence of ladies.

For this reason, politics and religion should never form the staple of the discourse in the presence of the fair sex. The dearest friends, if of opposite opinions in politics, are liable to quarrel; and no one has ever yet succeeded in convincing another in a religious argument. Moreover, if an individual entertains infidel notions with reference to religion, nothing can be more repugnant to good taste and even common courtesy, than to broach those sentiments in the presence of persons whose opinions or prejudices are strong on the side of belief.

A well-bred man, if called upon to lead the discourse, as it were, will be careful to adapt the topics to what he conceives to be the tastes or capacities of those present. Before ladies he will not introduce dry matters, such as sporting, agriculture, trade, etc.

If you fancy that you receive in company some insult which is not definite enough to resent, or some slight which is not marked enough to enable you to notice, do not seem in the least degree embarrassed; but continue to converseWith as much ease and self-possession as you can call to your aid. Always keep your temper as well as you can; and never let it be ruffled by the ill breeding of a vulgarian, or the impertinence of the coxcomb.

If, however, you receive in conversation an insult which is defined and palpable, you must act with considerable delicacy. If ladies be present at the time, take no notice of it, but redouble your efforts to make yourself agreeable to them, and thus efface from their minds any disagreeable reflections produced by the apprehension of a "scene." You can shortly seize an opportunity to withdraw; and your own discretion will teach you how to act. If the insult be conveyed when only gentlemen are present you can retire immediately.

Always speak in a properly modulated tone; nothing is more disagreeable than a loud voice. No man has a right to be authoritative in his discourse, whatever his rank or position; because, if the topic be a general one, others have as much right to their own opinions as he; and, if the topic be a special one, it is rude to appear dogmatic.

Nothing is more indicative of want of correct taste, than an endeavour to "show off" in conversation. Egotism is the worst species of conceit, because it is a nuisance to others. A man who endeavours to make himself the "lion of a party" is a contemptible coxcomb. An author should never expatiate on his own works, nor a professional man on his avocations. A tradesman should avoid all allusions or observations which savour of "the shop." But of all kinds of vulgar obtrusiveness, that of boasting of great connexions or fine acquaintances is the most insufferable. The man who is constantly vaunting his friendship with Lord This, of the Honourable Mr. That, or Mr. Alderman So-and-so, is literally proclaiming his own conviction that he is in reality inferior to his high acquaintances; because no man is ever supposed to be proud of the acquaintance of his equals. He cannot be proud of that which he enjoys as a species of right: he is only proud when he is elevated to a sphere above his own.

Never flatter persons in conversation. Flattery to a lady is an insult to her understanding, because it implies a belief on your part that she is characterised by the "weakness" of the sex:" and flattery, when addresses to a man, is odious and mean. In whatever society you find yourself, always conduct yourself with an ease indicative of your conviction that you are in your proper sphere. Flattery, in this case becomes unnecessary, because you should not allow those with whom you find yourself to think that you are very grateful for being tolerated by them.

If you be annoyed with any person, never talk at him: such conduct manifests a little mind and is cowardly. Moreover, it may lead to dispute or quarrel, which, as before observed, must always be avoided.

In talking to your equals, never say "Sir" or "ma'am;" but mention the name of the person whom you are addressing. Even this must not be done too often. When you speak of your children, never call them Master This, or Miss That, nor Mr. so-and-so. Allude to them by their Christian names; or you may say "My eldest son John," or "My second daughter Mari." It is not however correct to relate anecdotes of the nursery, nor to make your children, whether infantine or grown up, the subject of your discourse.

Never indulge in loud laughter, nor be the first to laugh at your own witticism. Do not interlard your conversation with puns: puns and such-like attempts at humour are all very well for drinking parties of men, where with may serve as the olives to the Port-wine; but, in the presence of ladies, that constant chase after a play upon words becomes insufferably wearisome. Moreover, he who endeavours to "keep the table in a roar" (as the vulgar phrase is) commits a breach of that rule of propriety which forbids any one individual to engross the conversation.

Never talk largely on subjects with which you are only imperfectly acquainted. An error on your part, or a question from some one present, may make you appear particularly foolish.

Avoid sarcasm and satire as religiously as long stories. Do not affect cynicism, nor endeavour to pass as a wit. Do not seek to render yourself conspicuous by affecting one particular department of conversation rather than any others. Maintain a dignified complacency; let not your confidence in yourself be so over-weening as to verge on presumption; but always venture an opinion in a tone which shows that you have a respect for the opinions of others.

Married people should not address each other by the initial letter of their surname. Nothing can be more vulgar than for them to call each other Mr. N. or Mrs. N. It is equally incorrect to speak of an individual or a family as being "genteel." You may say that "Mr. so-and-so is a young gentleman of very pleasing manners;" or that "Mr. D---'s family is very well-bred." But never think of saying that "That the D---'s are very genteel people."

As general rules of conversation in society, we may observe that you should neither be awkward nor free-and-easy; neither bashful nor forward; neither timid nor too confident; neither truckling nor authoritative; neither reserved nor boisterous; neither unceremonious nor over-polite. There is a happy medium between all those alternatives which it behoves you to study and observe.

G.W.M. Reynolds.
The London Journal,
For the week ending May 10, 1845.



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