The Art of Conversation

By Daniel van Voorhis


The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard”- William Hazlitt

Did you see what Jim posted on his Facebook page? Can you believe Tina posted that one photo? OMG! But, did you see Derrick’s response to that one guy that is friends with Joe? Damn! He NAILED it.

Every time I hit that little blue Facebook icon on my phone, I see the likes of what you just read ad nauseam.

This past week (Late June, 2015) there have been a number of things in the news, from Confederate Flags and Supreme Court rulings to a Lionel Ritchie renaissance and sharks eating half the beach going population on the East Coast.  And thus, the art of conversation is dying a thousand deaths in the form of comments, posts, and blogs devoted to (what often reads like) wagging fingers and (what this author believes to be) contrived righteous indignation.

Here at The Man About Town column, general rules are laid down regarding fashion and culture, but always with the caveat that you can ignore them. Seriously. That’s part of the fun of back and forth communication.  A few of you suggested that wearing ties was a thing of the past, or that wedding etiquette exists in the mind of the beholder. I dig the back and forth.  And if you want to use slang, text speak, emoji’s, or the Queen’s English, I can abide by your choice of self representation.


Don’t get me wrong, internet manners are important. But, if some have suggested that the internet is ruining civilization and our our ability to have civil discourse, I would like to suggest that the internet has simply amplified the problem already present.

I’ll let those more qualified discuss gay marriage and Lionel Ritchie and shark attacks, but I’ve got a few tips on starting the conversation. Just as dignified dress doesn’t guarantee a dignified person, social skills don’t guarantee a sociable or pleasant person. But, as always… it’s good to know a few of the rules that have guided past generations before we decide to break them.

I keep a number of older books on style and etiquette at my house for leisurely reading. I’m not trying to make myself a 1930’s Dandy, but old and forgotten takes are as fresh as new ones. One book I especially like is Arthur Martine’s Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness. In 1866 Martine wrote on whole host of topics, but he began with the art of conversation. He thought that how we spoke, commented, made our opinions known, etc… was the beginning of being truly fashionable and a good host or guest. Dig this quote:

“As the object of conversation is pleasure and improvement, those subjects only which are of universal interest can be made legitimate topics of pleasantry or discussion. And it is the gift of expressing thoughts and fancies in a quick, brilliant, and graceful manner on such topics,—of striking out new ideas, eliciting the views and opinions of others, of attaching the interest of all to the subject discussed, giving it, however trifling in itself, weight and importance in the estimation of the hearers, that constitutes the great talent for conversation. But this talent can never, we may safely aver, be displayed except in a good cause, and when conversation is carried on in a spirit of genuine charity and benevolence.”


In short, how does Mssr. Martine help us out 129 years after he published his book? First: talk or write to your audience about things they might find pleasurable or useful. Don’t talk (or post) to show how smart you are or because you think they should take interest. It might not be their bag. And unless the shark is about to eat their kid, maybe find a different topic.

Make the conversation snappy. Offer a point and allow for counterpoint. If your conversation partners are not offering counterpoints, ask them what they think. By inviting them to speak you do not have to guess whether they are bored or just shy.

Be charitable and benevolent. Don’t try and trap your conversation partners into contradicting themselves. Don’t try to lead the conversation in a way that you think might lead back to your being able to bring up that tennis championship you won back in ’88 again.

Perhaps the easiest rule of thumb is to remember to ask more questions of others than you offer opinions of your own. If nothing else, you are allowing your social circle the opportunity to self realize through their own monologue.


And as much as we have the opportunity to have more conversations online than ever before, practice the in-person type more often. This may be difficult if you are an introvert or a narcissist. But with eye contact, body language, and real human contact we might find ourselves more empathetic in our conversation than with hypothetical figures hidden behind avatars and emoji’s.

Feel free to comment below, or swing by the University for an actual conversation.

All the Best,

The Man About Town

Written While Listening to:

“5 Spanish Songs” by Destroyer (2013)