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The Art of Civilized Conversation: A Guide to Expressing Yourself with Style and Graceby Margaret Shepherd
Are Made Of
Sweet discourse, the banquet of the mind.
--John Dryden, Fables Ancient and Modern, 1700
Only connect!" In the novel Howard's End, E. M. Forster considered what it would mean to "live in fragments no longer." A century later, in an even more fragmented world, you may have only a few minutes to connect with someone new or reconnect with a friend. You can make the most of these happy opportunities by knowing what goes into making good conversation. Whether you're aware of it or not, you already have the rich resources that you need to converse well. You simply have to tap in to them.
Tools of the Trade: Your Voice, Face, and Body
Every expressive art begins with a set of tools. In the art of conversation, you are both the artist and the tool kit. Though some things about you can't be changed, you can learn to make the best use of your voice, facial expressions, body, and body language. Most people will respond to the things about you that you have chosen, like your smile, your posture, and your clothes. The people who are worth talking to will not focus on the things you can't change, like your height, your face, and your race.
How You Sound
Your tone of voice and facial expressions are much more important than how pretty or stylish you look. Many of the nicest words don't work if the tone is wrong, whereas many awkward phrases will be forgiven if you smile and speak pleasantly. Sometimes the difference between a minor blooper and a real insult is the speaker's intonation and the look on his face. For instance, "congratulations" means one thing if enunciated with a low-pitched voice through gritted teeth, quite another if pitched higher with a sincere smile. Go one octave higher, however, and you will ring insincere. "You deserve each other" is an insult in an ironic tone and a compliment in a caring one. In the movie Donnie Brasco, actor Johnny Depp uses tone of voice to give at least half a dozen different meanings to the phrase "forgetaboutit."
Likewise, take care to put the emphasis on words so that you mean what you say. For instance, a friend who shows up late will hear a different message depending on where you place the emphasis in: Where have you been? Where have you been? Where have you been? Where have you been?
Pay attention to how loud you speak, and be willing to change your volume when you need to. Notice whether people are backing off and bracing themselves for the blast, or leaning in and straining to hear.
If you mumble, you risk not only being misunderstood, but frustrating your audience as well. Never drop your voice to a breathy whisper in an effort to get people to pay closer attention to you. That may have worked for Marilyn Monroe, but if you want to be taken seriously, speak up.
How You Look
Be pretty if you can, witty if you must, and pleasant if it kills you.
--Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Town on the Prairie, 1953
When Prince Charles was introduced to the actress Susan Hampshire in 1973, she was wearing a very low-cut dress. He said to her, "Father told me that if I ever meet a young lady in a dress like yours, I must look her straight in the eye." People will enjoy conversing with you more if they are not distracted by what you're wearing. Do your homework. If you're going to a party, check the dress code. If you think you need a shower, you probably do. If high heels make you feel that you loom over people, wear flats. If people don't treat you seriously, dress like a grown-up! If you want your own Prince Charming to remember your face, cover up the rest a bit. Don't be afraid to present the real you--not more, not less.
Although you don't want to offend people, there's no need to be completely neutral in how you dress. You don't need to keep your profile too low. In fact, if what you wear gives clues to who you are, you will appeal to like-minded people. Express yourself with a conversation piece like a ring, a piece of antique jewelry, or another accessory item. I have a very funny-looking purse of red fur, designed for me by my daughter at age fourteen. It's comfortable to carry and easy to keep track of, and as a conversation piece it really works. At a recent fundraising party for a dance group, a total stranger rushed up to me with a smile on her face. "You're the lady with the purse! I saw you last month in the post office and a week later I saw you at the book fair, and now here you are!" This coincidence, which was not particularly meaningful to anyone but her, was enough to introduce us to each other, and our common interest in the dance group then led to a very lively conversation.
Before you arrive anywhere, tuck in your shirt, smooth down your hair, and check your teeth for spinach. If you clean up, dress with care, stand up straight, smile, and make eye contact, you're already on your way to making others more comfortable and receptive. Your self-confidence that you look appealing will make you appeal to people.
How You Move
When you meet new people or go to another country, don't assume that others share your customs for handshaking, touching, and personal space. Be sensitive to how people are reacting and to the ways in which your motions may be misinterpreted. A good rule of thumb is to keep an arm's length of distance between yourself and the person with whom you are speaking. Don't throw yourself at people who are not "huggers" or recoil if a kisser tries to plant one on you--or laugh if they give you two or three kisses on the cheek or in the air.
Finally, while you tone down your own distracting habits, try to forgive them in others--if someone's accent puts you off, try to listen through it; if someone doesn't make eye contact, try to establish some other kind of connection. Forgive as you would like to be forgiven.
Once you're comfortable with the physical tools that can make you a confident artist in conversation, you can consider how to transform everyday words into something extraordinary. Conversation has a basic format that anyone can learn. The following suggestions will help you begin, shape, and end a good conversation and fix its most common problems.
Greetings and Introductions
All conversations begin before words are exchanged. The energy that you convey when you enter a room--or when another person does--can set the tone. At an absolute minimum, face the other person, look into his or her eyes, and show evidence of goodwill and respect. Smile, but don't bare your teeth.
When you make a new acquaintance, start off with your best manners. You can always ease into informality as you get to know each other, but it's awkward to retreat into formality. Once you've said "Hey, Mandy, how's it going?" it's difficult to go back to a more reserved "Hello, Mrs. Delacourt."
Practice old-fashioned courtesy: stand up, especially if you are a man, if you are younger than the other person, or if you have less status. When you're introduced, use the person's title and last name (e.g., Mr. O'Brien) until you are invited to be on a first-name basis, particularly with older people.
Remember to set an appropriate physical distance. Get down to the eye level of a child or a wheelchair user. Speak at an audible but not overpowering volume, and take turns speaking. Don't interrupt or contradict except to correct someone who gets your name wrong. Now you're off on the right foot.
How to Say Hello
Dolly: Hello! Hello there, how are you? Oh Hello!
Horace: You know too many people.
Dolly: Total strangers!
Horace: Then why do you greet them?
Dolly: It makes me feel good to have so many friends.
Horace: Oh, say hello for me too then.
Dolly: I already did.
--From the film Hello Dolly, 1969
When you greet someone, smile as you address him or her.
You might say:
-How do you do?; Hello.
-Pleased to make your acquaintance; Pleased to meet you.
-Good morning; Good afternoon; (and maybe) Good evening.
-It's good to see you; It's good to meet you.
-Hey, you over there . . . ; Hey, handsome; 'Sup?; S'happening?; Yo!
-I'm so excited to meet you; I can't believe I'm talking to you! (These greetings force the other person to respond with either false modesty or fatuousness.)
How to Introduce Yourself
Dr. Livingstone, I presume?
--Sir Henry Morton Stanley, How I Found Livingstone, 1871
To introduce yourself to a new person, you can start with "Hello. My name is Sally" or "I'm Sally (or Sally Suave)" or "I'd like to introduce myself. I'm Sally." In a group, a handshake plus your name is acceptable.
People you don't know are not a big, amorphous crowd of strangers. Although in a group they may seem like an imposing solid brick wall, it may be better to think of a crowd as a wall of individual windows that can each offer you a different view of life. If you follow the many tips and small strategies contained in this book, even self-introduction can be a pleasure.
When you introduce yourself by saying your own name, don't use your title. Even if other people call you Mrs. Murray, introduce yourself as Eleanor Murray or Eleanor. However, with children who need help knowing what to call you, you can introduce yourself as Aunt Eleanor or Grandma Ellie if you want them to call you that.
A teacher introduces himself to his students with the title he would like them to use--Mr. Goodge or Dr. Goodge--but writes his whole name on the board: George Goodge. In intellectual circles, an inverse snobbery restrains professors from injecting their titles into introductions ("Hello, I'm Fred Mayhem"), though others may add them ("Hello, Dr. Mayhem.")
You will be on safe ground if you address both current and retired military, ambassadorial, clerical, and judicial people by their profession (Colonel Smith, Ambassador Smith, Reverend Smith, Father Smith, Justice Smith) or simply "sir" or "ma'am" until you are very sure of protocol in their worlds. When in doubt, ask. Aristocratic titles may call for a quick check of the etiquette books.
After you have said hello and your name, you may wish to expand on your introduction with pleasantries such as "Good to see you," "Nice to meet you," or "Nice to see you again."
If another person is introducing you, just make eye contact and offer to shake hands when you are being introduced. If your introducer has mangled your name, say it again clearly for your new acquaintance.
If you aren't clear of the other person's name, as you say something along the lines of "Nice to meet you," say the name again with an inquiring expression to let him or her correct what you think you heard. If you want to start right in on a first-name basis, just repeat your first name.
Once the other person has introduced himself, use the person's title and last name (e.g., Mr. Smith) until you are invited to be on a first-name basis.
to reintroduce yourself to a brief former acquaintance (if you do not remember the person's name), say "Hello. My name is ___ ." Then the person will most likely respond with his or her name. If not, you can say "I remember you, but I've forgotten your name," or "You may not remember me; I'm Rafik." Always reintroduce yourself to young children who may have forgotten which one of the grown-ups you are in the interval since they saw you last.
If you wish to introduce yourself to someone who is of greater status or age, simply use good manners: "Good morning, sir. My name is Matt Frieberg; I'm your wife's student."
If you are the person with higher status, pay attention to the person who has made the effort to introduce himself to you. You, too, should use your best manners and be civilized. Don't let a seemingly unimportant person turn you into a snob. My English-born father often told of a conversation he'd overheard: A humble young academic who was visiting a hidebound English university skirted protocol and had the gall to introduce himself to a professor at a gathering (rather than wait for a mutual friend to introduce them). "Good afternoon, sir, my name is Eric Kincaid," he said as he extended his hand. "Oh, really?" drawled the older man in his best upper-crust Etonian voice, and then he turned away.
A truly great human being does not commit cruelty by being uncivil to a person with lesser status. Give everyone you chance to meet at least three minutes of your time and attention. Be kind.
How to Remember Names
A gifted conversationalist seems to remember every name, every time. With a little help and some practice, you can too.
1. Gather your wits before you meet a new group of people. If you can, do your homework ahead of time with a list of names that you will then connect to faces.
2. When you are introduced, pay attention to the other person's name. Say it out loud as you make eye contact, say it at least once during the conversation, and say it again when you part.
3. Say the name over a few times in your mind and link it to a visual image: if her name is Mary Jane, imagine her wearing Mary Jane shoes. Or connect the person with others who have that name; visualize the Ben Lincoln you've just met standing next to Abe Lincoln.
4. Use rhyming: "Tall Paul" or "Nate the waiter." (Just don't say it out loud.)
5. Follow up. Reinforce your memory by looking at his name tag, asking him for a card, and writing his name down as soon as you get home.
How to Introduce Others
A senator once took Will Rogers to the White House to meet President Coolidge. Inside the Oval Office, the senator introduced the two men. "Will Rogers," he said, "I'd like you to meet President Coolidge."
Deadpan, Rogers quipped, "I'm sorry, but I didn't catch the name."
--Steve Goodier, Joy Along the Way, 2002
Another way to initiate a courteous conversation is to be attentive to occasions when introductions are in order. When you find yourself in a group of people who require introductions, first say the name of the woman, the older person, or the higher-ranking person. Repeat this rule over and over, and rehearse it with a friend if it is a stumbling point: the lady, the elder, or the honored person comes first. For example:
-Mom, this is my friend Matt Chang. Matt, this is my mother, Lynda Weber. (Matt's response will be "Hello, Mrs. [or Ms.] Weber" or "Hello, Lynda [if you said only her first name].)
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