INQUISITIVENESS

There is, perhaps, no accomplishment which will add so much to your
character and influence, as the art of conversing agreeably and well.
To do this, however, requires a cultivated mind, richly stored with
a variety of useful information; a good taste; a delicate sense of
propriety; a good use of language; and an easy and fluent expression.

The most of these requisites can be acquired; and the rest, if
naturally deficient, can be greatly improved. An easy, fluent
expression is sometimes a natural talent; but, when not joined with
a good understanding and a cultivated mind, it degenerates into mere
loquacity. But, in order to be prepared to converse well, you must not
only have your mind _well stored_, but its contents, if I may so speak,
_well arranged_; so that you can at any time call forth its resources,
upon any subject, when they are needed.

One of the principal difficulties, in the way of conversing well, is
a hesitancy of speech–a difficulty of expressing one’s ideas with
ease and grace. This may arise from various causes. It may proceed
from affectation–a desire to speak in fine, showy style. This will
invariably defeat its object. You can never appear, in the eyes of
intelligent and well-bred people, to be what you are not. The more
simple and unaffected your style is, provided it be pure and chaste,
the better you will appear. Affectation will only make you ridiculous.
But the same difficulty may arise from diffidence, which leads to
embarrassment; and embarrassment clouds the memory, and produces
confusion of mind and hesitancy of speech. This must be overcome by
degrees, by cultivating self-possession, and frequenting good society.
The same difficulty may, likewise, arise from the want of a sufficient
command of language to express one’s ideas with ease and fluency. This
is to be obtained by writing; by reading the most pure and classic
authors, such as Addison’s Spectator; and by observing the conversation
of well-educated people. In order to have a good supply of well-chosen
words at ready command, Mr. Whelpley recommends selecting from a
dictionary several hundred words, such as are in most common use, and
required especially in ordinary conversation, writing them down,
and committing them to memory, so as to have them as familiar as the
letters of the alphabet. A professional gentleman informs me, that he
has overcome this difficulty by reading a well-written story till it
becomes trite and uninteresting, and then frequently reading it aloud,
without any regard to the story, but only to the language, in order to
accustom the organs of speech to an easy flow of words. I have no doubt
that such experiments as these would be successful in giving a freedom
and ease of expression, which is often greatly impeded for want of just
the word that is needed at a given time.

There is no species of information but may be available to improve and
enrich the conversation, and make it interesting to the various classes
of people. As an example of this, a clergyman recently informed me
that a rich man, who is engaged extensively in the iron business, but
who is very irreligious, put up with him for the night. The minister,
knowing the character of his guest, directed his conversation to
those subjects in which he supposed him to be chiefly interested. He
exhibited specimens of iron ore, of which he possessed a variety;
explained their different qualities; spoke of the various modes of
manufacturing it; explained the process of manufacturing steel, &c.;
interspersing his conversation with occasional serious reflections on
the wisdom and goodness of God, in providing so abundantly the metals
most necessary for the common purposes of life, and thus leading the
man’s mind “from Nature up to Nature’s God.” The man entered readily
into the conversation, appeared deeply interested, and afterwards
expressed his great admiration of the minister. The man was prejudiced
against ministers. This conversation may so far remove his prejudices
as to open his ear to the truth. But all this the minister was enabled
to do, by acquainting himself with a branch of knowledge which many
would suppose to be of no use to a minister. By conversing freely with
all sorts of people upon that which chiefly interests them, you may
not only secure their good-will, but greatly increase you own stock
of knowledge. There is no one so ignorant but he may, in this way,
add something to your general information; and you may improve the
opportunity it gives to impart useful information, without seeming to
do it.

RULES FOR CONVERSATION.

I. Avoid _affectation_.–Instead of making you appear to better
advantage, it will only expose you to ridicule.

II. Avoid _low expressions_.–There is a dialect peculiar to low
people, which you cannot imitate without appearing as if you were
yourself low-bred.

III. Avoid _provincialisms_.–There are certain expressions peculiar to
particular sections of the country. For example, in New England, many
people are in the habit of interlarding their conversation with the
phrase, “_You see_.” In Pennsylvania and New York, the same use is made
of “_You know_.” And in the West and South, phrases peculiar to those
sections of the country are still more common and ludicrous. Avoid all
these expressions, and strive after a pure, chaste, and simple style.

IV. Avoid all _ungrammatical_ expressions.

V. Avoid _unmeaning exclamations_, as, “O my!” “O mercy!” &c.

VI. Never speak unless you have _something to say_.–“A word fitly
spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”

VII. Avoid _prolixity_.–Make your language concise and perspicuous,
and strive not to prolong your speech beyond what is necessary,
remembering that others wish to speak as well as yourself. Be sparing
of anecdote; and only resort to it when you have a good illustration
of some subject before the company, or when you have a piece of
information of general interest. To tell a story well, is a great art.
To be tedious and prolix in story-telling, is insufferable. To avoid
this, do not attempt to relate every minute particular; but seize
upon the grand points. Take the following specimen of the relation of
the same incident by two different persons:–“You see, I got up this
morning, and dressed myself, and came down stairs, and opened the
front door; and O, if it didn’t look beautiful! For, you see, the sun
shone on the dew,–the dew, you know, that hangs in great drops on the
grass in the morning. Well, as the sun shone on the dewdrops, it was
all sparkling, like so many diamonds; and it looked so inviting, you
see, I thought I must have a walk. So, you see, I went out into the
street, and got over the fence,–the fence, you know, the back side of
the barn. Well, I got over it, and walked into the grove, and there
I heard the blue jay, and cock-robin, and ever so many pretty birds,
singing so sweetly. I went along the foot-path to a place where there
is a stump,–the great stump, you know, James, by the side of the path.
Well, there,–O, my!–what should I see, but a gray squirrel running up
a tree!”

How much better the following:–“Early this morning, just as the sun
was peeping over the hill, and the green grass was all over sparkling
with diamonds, as the sun shone upon the dewdrops, I had a delightful
walk in the grove, listening to the sweet music of the birds, and
watching the motions of a beautiful gray squirrel, running up a tree,
and hopping nimbly from branch to branch.” Here is the story, better
told, in less than half the words.

Never specify any particulars which would readily be understood
without. In the relation of this incident, all the circumstances
detailed in the first specimen, previous to entering the grove, are
superfluous; for if you were in the grove early in the morning, you
could not get there without getting out of your bed, dressing yourself,
opening the door, going into the street, and getting over the fence.
The moment you speak of being in the grove early in the morning,
the mind of the hearer supplies all these preliminaries; and your
specifying them only excites his impatience to get at the point of your
story. Be careful, also, that you never relate the same anecdote the
second time to the same company; neither set up a laugh at your own
story.

VIII. Never interrupt others while they are speaking. Quietly wait
till they have finished what they have to say, before you reply. To
interrupt others in conversation is very unmannerly.

IX. You will sometimes meet with very talkative persons, who are not
disposed to give you a fair chance. _Let them talk on._ They will be
better pleased, and you will save your words and your feelings.

X. Avoid, as much as possible, _speaking of yourself_.–When we meet a
person who is always saying _I_, telling what he has done, and how he
does things, the impression it gives us of him is unpleasant. We say,
“He thinks he knows every thing, and can teach every body. He is great
in his own eyes. He thinks more of himself than of every body else.”
True politeness leads us to keep ourselves out of view, and show an
interest in other people’s affairs.

XI. Endeavor to make your conversation _useful_.–Introduce some
subject which will be profitable to the company you are in. You feel
dissatisfied when you retire from company where nothing useful has been
said. But there is no amusement more interesting, to a sensible person,
than intelligent conversation upon elevated subjects. It leaves a happy
impression upon the mind. You can retire from it, and lay your head
upon your pillow with a quiet conscience.

The inhabitants of New England have the reputation of being inquisitive
to a fault; and perhaps with some justice. This disposition grows out
of a good trait of character, carried to an extreme. It comes from
a desire after knowledge. But this desire becomes excessive, when
exercised with reference to matters which it does not concern us to
know. When it leads us to pry into the concerns of others, from a mere
vain curiosity, it becomes a vice. There are some people who can never
be satisfied, till they _see the inside of every thing_. They must
know the why and the wherefore of every thing they meet with. I have
heard an amusing anecdote of this sort. There was a man who had lost
his nose. A _Yankee_, seeing him, desired to know how so strange a
thing had happened. After enduring his importunity for some time, the
man declared he would tell him, if he would promise to ask him no more
questions; to which the other agreed. “Well,” said the man, “_it_ _was
bit off_.” “Ah,” replied the Yankee, “_I wish I knew who bit it off!_”
This is a fair specimen of the morbid appetite created by excessive
inquisitiveness.

When inquisitiveness goes no farther than a strong desire to obtain
useful information, and to inquire into the reason of things, or when
it desires information concerning the affairs of others from benevolent
sympathy, then it is a valuable trait of character. But when the object
is to gratify an idle curiosity, it is annoying to others, and often
leads the person who indulges it into serious difficulty. And the more
it is indulged, the more it craves. If you gratify this disposition
till it grows into a habit, you will find it very difficult to control.
You will never be able to let any thing alone. You will want to look
into every drawer in the house; to open every bundle that you see;
and never be satisfied till you have seen the inside of every thing.
This will lead you into temptation. It can hardly be supposed that
one who is so anxious to _see_ every thing should have no desire to
_possess_ the things that are seen. Thus, what began in curiosity
may end in coveting and thieving. But if it does not lead you so far
astray as this, it will bring you into serious difficulty with your
parents, or your friends whose guest you are; for they will not be
satisfied to have their drawers tumbled, packages opened, and every
nice article fingered. This disposition, too, will lead you to inquire
into the secrets of your friends; and this will furnish a temptation
to tattling. What you have been at such pains to obtain, you will find
it difficult to keep to yourself. You will want to share the rare
enjoyment with others. And when the story comes round to your friend or
companion, whose confidence you have betrayed, you will, to your great
chagrin and mortification, be discarded. A delicate sense of propriety
will lead you to avoid prying too closely into the affairs of others.
You will never do it from mere curiosity. But if any of your friends
so far make you a confidant as to lead you to suppose that they need
your sympathy or aid, you may, in a delicate manner, inquire farther,
in order to ascertain what aid you can render. You may, also, make some
general inquiries of strangers, in order to show an interest in their
affairs. But beyond this, you cannot safely indulge this disposition.

It often requires great courage to say NO. But by being able promptly,
on occasion, to utter this little monosyllable, you may save yourself
a deal of trouble. If mother Eve had known how to say _no_, she might
have saved herself and her posterity from ruin. And many of her
children, who have lost their character and their all, might have been
saved, if they had only had courage promptly to say NO. Your safety and
happiness depend upon it.

You are importuned by some of your companions to engage in some
amusement, or to go on some excursion, which you know to be wrong. You
resolutely and promptly say NO, at the outset, and there is the end of
it. But if you hesitate, you will be urged and importuned, until you
will probably yield; and having thus given up your own judgment, and
violated your conscience, you will lose your power of resistance, and
yield to every enticement.

Joseph has cultivated decision of character. He never hesitates a
moment when any thing wrong is proposed. He rejects it instantly. The
consequence is, his companions never think of going to him, when they
have any mischievous scheme on foot. His prompt and decisive NO they
do not wish to encounter. His parents can trust him any where, because
they have no fears of his being led astray. And this relieves them of a
load of anxiety.

Reuben is the opposite of this. He wishes to please every body,
and therefore has not courage to say _no_ to any. He seems wholly
unable to resist temptation. He is, therefore, always getting into
difficulty,–always doing something that he ought not, or going to some
improper place, or engaging in some improper diversions, through the
enticement of his companions. His parents scarcely dare trust him out
of their sight, they are so fearful that he will be led astray. He is
thus a source of great anxiety to them, and all because he cannot say
NO.

Now, let me beg of you to learn to say NO. If you find any difficulty
in uttering it,–if your tongue won’t do its office, or if you find
a “_frog in your throat_,” which obstructs your utterance,–go by
yourself, and practise _saying_ no, NO, NO! till you can articulate
clearly, distinctly, and without hesitation; and have it always ready
on your tongue’s end, to utter with emphasis to every girl or boy,
man or woman, or evil spirit, that presumes to propose to you to do
any thing that is wrong. Only be careful to say it respectfully and
courteously, with the usual _prefixes_ and _suffixes_, which properly
belong to the persons to whom you are speaking.

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