Pagina principale The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure

The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure

Reclaim the pleasures and possibilities of great conversation with this sparkling guide from the witty pen of an Englishwoman wise to its art

Every day we use cell phones and computers to communicate, but it's easy to forget that we possess a communication technology that has been in research and development for thousands of years. Catherine Blyth points out the sorry state of disrepair that conversation has fallen into-and then, taking examples from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, and popular culture, she gives us the tools to rebuild.

The Art of Conversation isn't about etiquette, elocution, or knowing how to hold your teacup with your little finger crooked just so. It's about something simple and profound: connecting. Conversation costs nothing, but can bring you the world, because it transcends the ability to talk to anyone. What transforms encounters into adventures is how we listen, laugh, flirt, and flatter. Blyth celebrates techniques for reading and changing minds, whether you're in a bar or a boardroom.

As Alexander Pope nearly wrote, "True ease in talking comes from art, not chance, as those move easiest who have learned to dance." When you have read The Art of Conversation, you'll not only know the steps, but hear the music like never before.
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Table of Contents

Title Page
Copyright Page
Chapter 1 - HELLO On Conversation’s Casting Couch
Chapter 2 - SMALL TALK, BIG DEAL On Striking Up a Tune
Chapter 3 - PAY HEED On the Acrobatics of Attention
Chapter 4 - THE REST IS SILENCE On Not Speaking
Chapter 5 - FIT SUBJECTS On Topics in Search of Good Homes
Chapter 6 - INTO THE GROOVE On Steering Controls
Chapter 7 - DO GO ON On Wrangling Boredom
Chapter 8 - WIT TO WOO On Humor as Social Engineering
Chapter 9 - HOW TO TELL A LIE On the Detection of Untruths
Chapter 10 - PILLOW TALK On the Languages of Love
Chapter 11 - THE FINE ART OF FLATTERY On Love in Measured Doses
Chapter 12 - SHOP TALK On Conversation as Work
Chapter 13 - CHOPPY WATERS On Navigating Difficult Conversation
Chapter 14 - SHUT-UP SHOP On How to Wage a Word War
Chapter 15 - ARE YOU RECEIVING ME? On Stitching Conversation into Your Life



Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England; Penguin Ireland,
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Published by Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First printing, January 2009
Copyright © 2009 by Catherine Blyth
eISBN : 978-1-440-68549-1
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We Need to Talk
We need to talk.
When did this become a threat rather than a statement of fact? Is it a fact?
Walk into an Internet café and you might think speech obsolete. Visit a bar with wide-screen sports,
eat in a Planet Hollywood, see if you can sneak a word through the Dolby Stereo barrier. On a bus, you
might have no choice but to hear conversation, in babel-like halves, but would you strike one up with a
stranger? Go on, I dare you.
Some say this is the age of information; others, the communication age. There is no question that our
ever growing means of keeping in touch have unleashed intelligence, creativity, passion, and fun,
offering countless new directions in which to stretch our hours. Yet these riches leave many of us feeling
not so much lucky as time-poor, as if life were hurtling by in a fuzzy stream of images glimpsed from an
accelerating car.
Fewer of us complain that conversation, especially face-to-face—for thousands of years the core of
human interaction—is being pushed to the sidelines. But we should. We are losing out on one of life’s
greatest, certainly most useful, pleasures. One that has the power to slow and enrich the passage of time,
rooting us in a shared moment as no other pastime can. Potentially.
Yet have you never sat at a dinner, waited for someone to speak, watched a glittering frost of smiles
seal the silence, and wondered how innocent cutlery can sound so very like the theme from Psycho?
What about Christmas with the family? Lunch with the boss? The mute couples who garnish restaurants,
pre-cocktails, on Valentine’s Day?
Surely someone had something to say. Each had a life, and a pulse, presumably. It’s tempting to
assume that they couldn’t be bothered. A more worrying possibility is that they hadn’t a clue where to
If you haven’t toiled in such deserts, lucky you. In my experience conversation breakdown is
increasingly common, and other people are bewilderingly tolerant of it. I have seen otherwise savvy
professionals struck dumb at supposed celebrations; been interviewed by Trappists posing as
publishers; witnessed parties lurch from awkward chat to addled oblivion, while hosts revolve the room
like circus plate spinners, frantic to keep it moving, their efforts drowned out by the crashing of bores.
Extreme measures are being taken. A friend’s annual office jamboree, a fancy, candles-and-cleavage
affair, was ruined by rude waiters. Until it was revealed that they were actors: the entertainment.
“But hey,” said my friend, “at least it gave us something to talk about.”
Fear is understandable. If great conversation enhances any situation, when it flounders, it can be hell.
I love to hate my screw-ups because friends laugh at the retelling; however, alone, at night, ancient
cringes still awaken spasms of shame.
So I feel for the man whom Samuel Johnson’s friend, Mrs. Thrale, mocked for having the ill-breeding
to complain:
“I am invited to conversations, I go to conversations, but, alas! I have no conversation.”
(He had acquired a fortune in—whisper it—trade.)


In his era conversation was a status symbol. Thankfully we needn’t take it so seriously, at least, not so
formally. Still, even casual chat requires a confidence that seems to be waning, and I’m sure that in many
blue-chip companies the con artist unmasked in G. K. Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades could,
with discreet marketing, coin it:
“A new trade,” repeated [the detective] Grant, with a strange exultation, “a new profession! What a
pity it is immoral.”
“But what the deuce is it?” cried Drummond and I in a breath of blasphemy.
“It is,” said Grant calmly, “the great new trade of the Organiser of Repartee . . . a swindler of a
perfectly delightful and novel kind. He hires himself out at dinner parties to lead up to other people’s
repartees. According to a preconcerted scheme (which you may find on that piece of paper), he says
the stupid things he has arranged for himself, and his client says the clever things arranged for him.
In short, he allows himself to be scored off for a guinea a night.”

Winning witty points may be old hat, but conversation remains an art as well as a social duty.
Somewhere along the way too many of us seem to have dropped the idea that it is something worth
striving to be good at—as if we are either born great conversationalists or not. If only.
Conversation works in ways infinitely more various, and devious, than you might suspect. Take a
closer look and you find an entertainingly candid portrait of the human animal, as well as a means to
almost everything that you could wish for in life.


When it works, conversation can come close to heaven. Be it sharing a laugh with a stranger,
transforming a contact into a friend; that joyful moment when you click, share a joke, or spark a new
idea; or just letting off steam with someone who knows how to listen—there are countless adventures
between minds out there, waiting to happen, in each encounter, each day of our lives.
Networking is part of conversation’s value, although the word sounds chilly and strategic.
Conversation is something bigger: It is the spontaneous business of making connections, whether for
work, friendship, or pure, fleeting pleasure.
Some writers have argued that it’s where the raw stuff of life is spun into art. Speech—the gift of
provoking thoughts in others’ minds by rapidly modulated outtakes of breath—is certainly a wonder, and
conversation a miracle upon that miracle. Indeed, if evolutionary psychologists are right, it fathered
language, out of grooming, the conversation of apes, when our ancestors sat about picking off fleas,
flirting, working out who was boss.
But I find simpler reasons to treasure it. Get on with others, you will get on in life, and enjoy it more.
Good talkers get dates, win contracts. They make job interviews fun, whichever side of the desk they are
on. Furthermore, the qualities of a satisfying chat—vitality, clarity, wit, relish, tact, a light touch—are
the same as we want of the people around us. Respect the rules of artful conversation and not only are
you on your way to being a better person, but learn to steer discussion, to entertain not dominate, and
you’re on the road to power.
Conversation is brilliant at both polishing thoughts and frothing up new ones, and although
professionalism encourages us to wring the maximum from meetings in minimum time, serendipity
produces many of the best ideas. Since information flows better through stories than through year-end
reports, censoring gossip—whether at the water cooler or on email—can dull a business’s cutting edge.
Just as monarchs had their favorites and Arab rulers their salaried nadim (“cup companions”) with
whom to trade jokes and keep track of the court’s mood, not to mention boost their own, so productivity
and morale shot up when a Puerto Rican tobacco company started paying a cigar roller the same hourly
rate to down tools, sit in the middle of the work area, read papers aloud, chatter, and clown.
There are other benefits. Paul McCartney loves talking as well as crooning to audiences because “I
remember stuff that I’d forgotten for thirty years in explaining it.” Holocaust survivor Alice HerzSommer, a 103-year-old concert pianist, would agree. Asked about her fizzing social life, she confided
she wasn’t avid to hear about “lives and problems” purely out of altruism or curiosity: “This is good for
the brain . . . better than a hundred pills.”
How come she was so skilled at conversation? “Chamber music is a discussion with your partner.
You have to listen.”
More than words, conversation is music: Its harmony, rhythm, and flow transcend communication,
flexing mind and heart, tuning us for companionship.
It doesn’t have to be grave to supply life’s turning points. When a young worker at Mother Teresa’s
Home for the Dying in Calcutta, novelist Jeffrey Eugenides was toying with taking up holy orders. But he
couldn’t work out why he lacked the spirit of his nice, somewhat oatmealy fellow volunteers. Until one
day, strolling with a non-volunteer, he rediscovered something they had not: humor.
A beggar approached and Eugenides spurted a piety:
I said, “Jesus said that whoever asks of you, you should give something.” And my friend said,
“Well, obviously Jesus has never been in Calcutta.”
Eugenides laughed, then quit.
At around six I had the most important conversation of my life, with a social worker who wanted to


know how my sister and I would feel about another sibling. In the excitement beforehand, planning what
to say, fantasizing about being a mini-Mum—painting an alphabet frieze in this new child’s bedroom,
reading her stories, teaching her words—on some level, I realized that just talking could change a life,
all our lives—or not, if this conversation didn’t work out. But it did, and we adopted Heidi.
And random collisions mean the world. A drunken chat with a writer transformed my love of books—
although this matters less to me than our friendship. A crack about the predigested look of the canteen
slop for which we were queuing began another; a journey on a minibus, yet another—one that led, in
time, to meeting my future husband.
Most thrillingly, conversation awakens us to one another, as in this rare happy tale from the wards of
the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability:
Young man with motorbike head injury in a coma. His mum, a keen evangelical, comes every day with
friends to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” by his bedside. She’s hoping to stimulate his brain into
action. It works: he comes round, but he can’t speak. So they fit him up with one of those Stephen
Hawking-type laptops, and the first words he speaks are: “For God’s sake, Mum, shut it!”

Two minds striking can kindle something magical. In his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,
Jean-Dominique Bauby, condemned to speak in eye blinks after a paralyzing stroke, snared it:
My communication system disqualifies repartee: the keenest rapier grows dull and falls flat when it
takes several minutes to thrust it home. By the time you strike, even you no longer understand what
had seemed so witty before you started to dictate it, letter by letter . . . I count this forced lack of
humour one of the great drawbacks of my condition.

In short, conversation is second only to sex, a lot less hassle, and it really matters.
Perhaps your meals are a respectful communion with a television set and perhaps you like that just
fine. Still, in the frame of human evolution, you’re a novelty, even a weirdo. Companionship (“the
sharing of bread”) has ever been, if not the bread of existence, then the spirit that refreshed it, and
conversation, once a broad term for “being together,” used to be considered so delicious as to be a sin.
Monasteries and convents forbade it and totalitarian states monitored it, because it is unruly, fun, and
seems utterly instinctive.
Casanova, visiting Louis XV’s palace, could hardly contain his laughter at the spectacle of the queen,
dining alone at “a table that could have seated twelve,” while a dozen courtiers stood watch in a silence
ruptured only by this solemn exchange, when she hailed a Monsieur de Lowendal:
“I believe that chicken fricassee is the best of all stews.”
“I am of the same opinion, madame.”

But solitary dining, and living, no longer appear so unnatural.


The irony of this communication age is that we communicate less meaningfully. Not despite but because
of our dizzying means of being in touch. So many exchanges are conducted via electronic go-betweens
that, what with the buzz, bleeps, and blinking lights, it is easy to overlook the super-responsive
information technology that is live-action; up-close-and-personal; snap, crackle, and pop talk—one that
has been in research and development for thousands of years.
Communication tools may bring us together, but equally they keep us apart, not least from the here and
now. Laptops, BlackBerries, and three billion mobile phones have perforated the division between
public and private, and we’re growing used to toting about portals of availability as if they were vital
electronic organs. Men, women, and children stride about, bellowing unself-consciously into
mouthpieces like deranged town criers, and entertainment permeates: Children watch films in the backs
of car seats; on buses, TV screens assail passengers with cod-celebrity news; motion picture ad boards
entice the riders of London underground escalators.
Today’s gizmogemony alters human experience in a way that trains, planes, automobiles, even the
wheel, did not—nibbling at the conditions in which we operate, confusing the real with the virtual.
Inevitably, this changes us.
Compared to face-to-face, Internet communication is two-dimensional. Yet the emphasis on
appearances is growing, redefining how we relate, and with it, ideas of what constitutes a relationship.
Many young people happily swallow the notion that textual exchange is interaction. Avid social
networker Henry Elliss claims:
It’s only fuddy-duddies who think it’ll kill socializing. Did they say that about the telephone, or
faxes? It’s building relationships. I wake up in a cold sweat sometimes—if Facebook disappeared,
those friends would be gone.

If that’s building, the foundations are weak. And where’s the time or space to socialize, if like him,
you have 453 friends to hold vigil over? You hire a barn? Or are these perhaps imaginary friends, pulses
of light on a screen?
As distractions multiply, fewer receive our full attention, and nuances are neglected. We don’t look at
the man selling us coffee, never mind shoot the breeze; we’re too busy fiddling with our iPod. I’ve
witnessed wedding guests with more qualifications than they have chromosomes text-messaging during
the vows.
Developments, yes, but progress? Although these innovations crowd out conversation, it isn’t
redundant; rather, like an ancient, still mighty beast, it is endangered unless we appreciate it, and carve
out space for it. The nuances are no less valuable to us than they were to our forefathers, nor are the
joys. Abandon them, and we miss out.
Admittedly, there are superficially sound commercial reasons why conversation should be whittled
away. Business disdains it because, unless flogging goods by that unsteady Zeitgeist vehicle word of
mouth, it is hard to monetarize (oh, woeful word). Worse, it guzzles airtime, face time, eye time;
attention that could be consumed consuming or ogling ads. So fast-food joints have their fast-forward
music, agitations of beats designed to drive you through your hapless meal and out the door as soon as
possible. And J. D. Wetherspoon, owner of 691 British pubs, has announced that families will be served
no more than two drinks:
Once they have finished the meal with the child, we would expect them to leave.


It is surprising formal restrictions should be necessary. Modern life may seem like a conspiracy
against conversation, but we are complicit, and if we learned its skills by osmosis, this is less likely to
be the case for our children. Psychologists fear that families are talking to each other less than ever, and
there is plenty of evidence to support this.
Two trends pull us away from conversation: Either it is under-appreciated or so highly rated that it
seems daunting—as if, compared to email, it were a luxury, couture form of communication, requiring
special training, perhaps at charm school (yes, these are back in vogue).
Technology plays a large part in this. We want our toys, but short-term pleasures too seldom serve
long-term interests. Nobel laureate economist Gary S. Becker observed:
Individuals maximize welfare as they conceive it, whether they be selfish, altruistic, loyal, spiteful, or
Many twenty-first-century delights are individualistic, not to say onanistic; distractions that narrow
horizons and, with them, social arteries. As Matthew Taylor of the Royal Society of Arts put it:
We have to ask ourselves why the internet is so good for wankers, gamblers and shoppers, and not so
good for citizens and communities.
If language was born of the evolutionary accident that our species thrived better in groups, then so, as
we cease operating that way, conversation becomes less incidental. It cannot flourish in isolation. Nor
can we.
A communication-fixated culture leads us to expect, by right, levels of understanding in our
relationships that our grandparents would hoot at. Unfortunately, we’re less practiced than they were at
the conversational give-and-take that might enable such understanding, and feel—irrationally—crushed,
even cheated, when our lofty aspirations aren’t met. This is so prevalent as to seem almost banal, rather
than what it is: sad.
Isolation magnifies disconnect and disenchantment. Many more of us live alone, frequently
bombarded by images of lifestyles to dream of, all of which feeds a sense of existence as a performance
that we’re failing at. Television scarcely features sociable conversation, because disagreement, like
horrifying news stories, makes better drama. So pundits joust with prefab sound bites, and too many talk
shows are either bland publicity exercises fluffed up by a comic, or non-celebrity fistfights.
Understandably, we enjoy watching a good dustup of an evening when, by day, service-industry
culture demands niceness to order. Shouting at reality TV’s latest Punch and Judy is sort of fun. But is it
any wonder we fear confrontation, or prefer to hide behind our screens?
We may be in touch, potentially, with anybody, anywhere on the planet. Nevertheless, what kind of
existence is lived 24/7, ever on-call? Naturally, we offset our accessibility with portable solitudes and
head-space expanders, first Walkmen, then iPods—to compensate for being packed cheek to butt in
overcrowded trains. But while a soundtrack makes life seem more exciting, it also takes you out of it.
It’s hardly surprising on-line activity should be addictive (and it is: in South Korea, the world’s most
plugged-in country, up to 30 percent of under-eighteens are thought to be at serious risk, with
government-sponsored boot camps to wean them off). Like the Latin utopia, the Internet is a “nowhere,”
and, like all drugs, it is unsatisfying, whetting appetites that it cannot fulfill, stimulating the mind’s eye as
it starves our other senses. In so doing, it depletes users’ sensibility and intuition, skills that may feel
instinctive, but, like language, are acquired through being together. That is, in conversation.
Arguably, this saps social confidence. Certainly, unlike the pixellated peacocks that strut the cyberplaygrounds, out and about, face-to-face, even in innocuous situations, growing numbers of us seem so
scared of saying the wrong thing that we say nothing. We think we’re shy. We don’t realize how arrogant,
selfish, and idle we seem.
It is glib to blame media scaremongers, drugs, images of violence for rising antisocial behavior.
Something deeper yet simpler is happening. Talk less and we understand each other less.


In 1958 philosopher Hannah Arendt pondered how bizarre it was that men could journey into space,
yet few could discuss these Promethean powers sensibly, because science had leapt ahead of human
intelligence, the spectrum of its possibilities beyond any single person’s ken, let alone everyday
conversation. For her, the fact that this development coincided with rising rudeness—complacent
“thoughtlessness” being “among the outstanding characteristics of our time”—was no coincidence:
It could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we were dwellers
of the universe, will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things
which nevertheless we are able to do. In this case, it would be as though our brain, which constitutes
the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now
on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking.

Unable to discuss the machinery that manufactures our human conditions, we’re forced into blindness, an
innocence that she feared would brutalize us:
If . . . knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then
we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how,
thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how
murderous it is.

An atomized society, returning humanity to a mental Eden, but in a world of atomic bombs?
What worried Arendt was that we’d lose the ability to question: Ethics, after all, derive from our
feelings, and if we don’t understand something, it is harder to sense whether it is right or wrong, let
alone argue against it. How many of us can comprehend, never mind democratically vote on,
nanotechnology, or genetically modified food, animals, embryos? Arendt may have been thinking
nuclear. But how about brain death by iPod?
Actually, you’re more likely to be flattened if you cross the road talking on your cell phone, according
to studies of pedestrians at a busy Chicago junction. Why?
Conversation absorbs more of our senses than listening to music.
I don’t hate technology: I used to thank Christmas I had television instead of a weekly gawk at
stained-glass windows, or whatever passed for entertainment in Granny’s day. (With TV, hell, who
needed imaginary friends?) But I slightly fear it. Computers and their ancillaries are evolving
exponentially faster than we human animals, supplanting our creature comforts, yet in no way altering
our Stone Age emotional or social needs.
Are we serving tools made to free us, like the conscientious gym slaves who, rather than eat less, burn
hours servicing the surplus calories of the low-input banquet that is the daily bread of the sedentary,
developed world? Whatever else, like it, hate it, in and out of cyberspace, we’re undergoing selfconsciousness hyperinflation.
Social psychologist Sonia Livingstone said of today’s image-conscious teenagers:
Celebrity is about people being interested in you when you fall over in the pub. . . . There’s an
element of them being their own self-production.

The change is as profound and spirit-pummeling as that brought by the mirror and the portrait, which
in the seventeenth century heralded new levels of self-fashioning, guardedness, and melancholy—to
historian Lionel Trilling, “a mutation in human nature.” Just as the camera and the moving image, for all


their inspiration, helped mass-produce self-awareness, alienation, and longing, making (with the aid of
mechanized murder) depression the black dog of the twentieth century.
But while we may feel splintered, juggling ten roles a day where our parents had two or three, we
need our distractions too: That is what other people are for. As social networking sites and three billion
mobile phones testify, we still crave to meet new people, hear what they have to say. And the joke is,
despite the loquacious pyrotechnics that passed for the conversational genius of Oscar Wilde,
conversation isn’t a performance. It takes two or more people and two things: attention and interest.
We can easily fold more of it into our life, and it’s imperative that we try, not just for ourselves. The
tide against conversation has a powerful undertow.


Manners are shaped by their times. At medieval revels communal dishes gave an incentive to greedy
guts with sharp knives and elbows. In ritzy Renaissance Italy, however, the new-minted fashion for
genteel meals, with individual place settings and multiplying forks and spoons, “reconfigured” pecking
orders and definitions of good behavior. This created a niche, and conduct manuals, like Stefano
Guazzo’s 1574 best seller, Civile Conversation, the earliest treatise on the subject, sprang up to fill it,
with advice on how to plug gaps between courses with suitably pitched chitchat.
Today, industrialization is on the march, social fragmentation litters its progress, and as manners thin
to accommodate over-stretched lifestyles, a time-paring, talk-sparing attitude is spreading, and it stinks.
If you’re watching the clock, awaiting a text, how easy is it to sit back, relax, and enjoy the present
company? Think of the cannibalistic romantic scene parodied in Sex and the City, where dates are
debated like commodity trades. Do you want to laugh or cry at the true story of Manhattan child Olivia
Gopnik, whose imaginary friend, Charlie Ravioli, too busy “grabbing lunch” to play, eventually hired an
“imaginary secretary” to keep Olivia at bay?
Yet some yearn for even fewer social niceties. Like Oscar-winner Halle Berry:
Being politically correct is bullshit. I want to know how someone really feels, what I’m dealing with.
I want to know who you really are, and then maybe we can have a conversation.
Sadly, her dream of transparency belongs in la-la land, and is far from universal.
Generally speaking, the more individualist a society, the more direct its manners. While many
Americans prefer an up-front approach, collectivist societies tend to favor indirectness. Such as urban
southern China, where laoshi (“simple and honest”) is a cuss-word for country bumpkins, and the
highest term of praise is congming—“clever,” in the Ancient Greeks’ sense of mētis or “cunning” (think
Odysseus, not Achilles). Why?
To respect the maxim at polite behavior’s core: Do not embarrass the other person. Analyst Robin
Lakoff explained the logic behind the three styles of being polite:
Don’t impose (distance)—formal
Give options (deference)—hesitant, euphemistic
Be friendly (camaraderie)—direct

Being deferentially friendly is the definitely maybe of getting along, and entails contradictions, since
manners are asymmetrical and often what is polite for speakers to imply would be rude for listeners to
say. (“Won’t you have some juice?” versus “I want some juice.”) As a consequence, in super-polite
company, the nuances can be a veritable merry-go-round of implication and suggestion, as my dad found
when he was a relatively uncouth English child visiting well-drilled cousins in 1950s South Africa.
After a month he worked out that the correct answer to “Would you like some salt?” was not “No, thank
you” but “May I pass it to you?”
In varying degrees, such push-me-pull-you diplomacy underpins all conversational exchanges; it is
how we broker relationships. Therefore local differences, however filigree, are worth mastering. Alas,
cultural variations are complicated by a further factor: scale. Where openness is sensible in small
communities, in larger ones it becomes a liability. It cannot pay to be on nodding acquaintance with
everyone in town—you’d dislocate your neck—or to ask the whole street in for tea—how could you
trust them not to filch the kettle?
And if cunning is useful in towns, ignoring seems to make more sense in large multicultural cities,
because stealth requires expertise; however, when norms are so diverse that a smile can be a come-on to
one person and a taunt to the next, reactions are impossible to predict. So people shut down,


conversation shrinks, resulting in a net loss in skill at reading others and self-expression. In such
crowds, individuals become isolated and grab what intimacy they can get. The result?
Rudeness (ignoring people) × Rudeness (being too direct) = Rudeness2

Escalating rudeness is a logical outcome, but politeness is surely wiser, and safer.
Politicians extol tolerance, but what a chiseling aspiration this can be, so often freighted with hate.
Rather than sympathize, it asks us to put up, shut up. This isn’t sociable: It’s antisocial. But if we don’t
socialize, don’t master the reflexes of politic self-correction, we’re stuck with clunking political
correctness, which, as Halle Berry said, often seems not sensitive but imposed. And lip service is as
unlike to virtue as a fig leaf is to innocence.
We need artful conversation. Cooperation is its operative principle, enthusiasm its divine breath, and
its power to raise spirits is supernatural. It can make us not only less socially stupid, but also
significantly brainier.


Some proclaim the Internet a great oom-pah-pah for literacy. Regardless of whether you see bloggers as
scapegrace ego-casters or Samuel Pepys’s worthy heirs, solo self-expression is feeble at training minds,
the workhorses of communication. Linguist William Labov caused blushes when he analyzed recordings
from different classes and settings:
The highest percentage of ungrammatical sentences [appeared] in the proceedings of learned
academic conferences.
It’s no fluke that the monologue-asteries of lab and library nurture woolly jargon. Talking distills
thoughts (we know they’re unclear by the befuddled look on the other person’s face) and book learning
is harder to absorb than education through conversation. What’s less well known is that studying the
craft of conversation improves thinking all round.
In the late 1990s sample groups of eight- to eleven-year-old British schoolchildren took a course of
Talk Lessons. Afterward they accounted for thoughts as other classmates did not, more often using words
like “because,” “if,” and “why.” Tellingly, they out-performed in written intelligence tests too. Having
learned to think aloud together, they were better equipped to reflect alone.
Conversation has been the engine of intelligence since Homo became sapiens. The species evolution
rewarded those with conversational skills—social and political skills—and these continue to select
social leaders and spur cultural development. But as those schoolchildren and grammar-mangling
academics prove, this tradition means diddlysquat unless each of us incorporates conversation into our
personal evolution.
After exhaustive exploration of the everyday conversations around and with babies in a cross section
of American homes, researchers Todd Risley and Betty Hart found that:
The large differences in the language experience that had accumulated before the children were three
years old accounted for most of the equally large differences in vocabulary growth and verbal
intellectual outcomes by age three—and many years later.
How does conversation exercise the intellect? Knowledge is defined by neuroscientist Ira Black as a
“pattern of connectivity” between neurons, and learning as modifications of this pattern. Similarly,
communication follows social grammar, as we make connections by guile and guesswork, extracting
signals from face, tone, and gesture as much as words. As psychologist Nicholas Humphrey described,
it’s unbelievably artful; a dance, close to telepathy:
Like chess, a social interaction is typically a transaction between partners. One animal may, for
instance, wish by his own behaviour to change the behaviour of another; but since the second animal
is himself reactive and intelligent the interaction soon becomes a two-way argument where each
“player” must be ready to change his tactics—and maybe his goals—as the game proceeds.

Conversation doesn’t feel this hard, not if you practice it. But if you don’t, as Stefano Guazzo wrote
four and a half centuries ago:
He that useth not company hath no experience, he that hath no experience, hath no judgment, and he
that hath no judgment is no better than a beast . . . so the common saying is, that there is no other
name meete for a solitarie person, but either of a beast, or a tyrant.

The word Guazzo used was “humanitas”—communal conversation. For anyone still unconvinced it can
be learned or improved, I’m afraid it is how we all learn to learn. If we don’t learn well, we limp
through life.


“Goo-goo” is the most important word in the world, because when parents coo at babies, they’re
educating them in what behaviorists call “musical companionship.” As babies goo-goo back, they
absorb timing, taking turns, tone, coordination, gestures, facial expressions, storytelling—the orchestra
of instruments by which emotions are transmitted and relationships formed.
No synthetic alternative will do, witnessed in a cruel experiment that showed an infant a video of its
burbling mum (distressed, it withdrew). And babies who aren’t talked to, or who are talked at abusively,
grow into disruptive kids who can’t express themselves. As do too many South Korean children, despite
loving parents and the world’s best education system. With little free time, some become socially
malnourished, seeking solitary solace online, trading interaction’s challenges for virtual games—shortcircuit gratifications that foster ingrown personalities and make their lives hell.
Dr. Kim Hyun-soo, chair of the Association of Internet Addiction, explained: “These people are very
frustrated inside and full of anger.”
Any parent too busy to sit down for tea and ask about school should hear what teachers have to say
about fading listening and learning abilities, or perhaps read the UNICEF report rating British kids’
well-being the lowest in twenty developed countries, not least because Mum and Dad scarcely speak to
them. Then have a weep, then think again.
Conversation can heal us. Children of talkative parents have higher IQs and know how to make
connections, and friends. While we pay therapists to listen, in talking cultures depression remains a
dictionary term. And the centenarian concert pianist’s intuitions were confirmed by a study of geriatric
nuns, which found that gunky brain cells don’t equate with dementia, not if the nun keeps chatty, happy,
and takes the odd toddle.
As Nicholas Humphrey demonstrated, good conversationalists see others’ perspectives, so have less
destructive arguments. They don’t, unlike the last, word-cudgelling president of the United States,
inhabit an either/or universe. To assert that “you’re with us or against us” is to quash debate, leading to
bad decisions.
In 1940, Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, the British diplomat who helped forge the kingdom of Iraq, wrote:
The value of personal contacts and friendships has been proved over and over again in the Middle
East, and the evil effects of aloofness and indifference are clear for all to see.
If only the lesson were learned. Not talking—failure to acknowledge the other point of view, never mind
engage with it—polarizes, killing debate. In its absence, silence breeds suspicion, anger, and violence,
creating further distance—distance that comes to seem unbridgeable, faced with the unspeakable.
My hell is not, as it was for Sartre, other people. It is a twenty-first century with six billion plus of us,
on a shrinking planet, with dwindling resources, not talking. Lose the means to work out who we are,
what we have in common, and we lose stories, the greatest consolation. Novelist John Steinbeck
understood the creative balm of sympathy:
We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient
methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel—“Yes, that is the way it is, or at
least that is the way I feel it.”
Guazzo was right, conversation gives us humanity. Without it we’re less than the sum of our parts,
unable to improvise or be what roguish seventeenth-century philosopher Francis Bacon called a “ready
man.” And we need to be. Service industry is the future, and if not the cheapest workers, we’d better be
smarter to beat the competition. In a sense many of us are already courtiers. Yet the decline in everyday
courtesy—failure to meet the eye, switch off that phone—attests to an urgent need to reawaken nerve
Historically, the periods when conversation was most revered have been among the most fruitful for
reason, invention, and respect for the individual; times when people believed that their opinions could


change the world. Think of the babbling coffee houses frequented by Samuel Johnson and enlightened
chums; the great French salons, which brought together thinkers and artists and politicians, galvanizing
mind-shifts and freedoms from which the West continues to benefit. For Johnson and company,
newspapers and print sped up talk. The Internet can do more for us if we’re sane about it. This is an
exciting time for conversation. Potentially.
Stand on each other’s shoulders and we can, like acrobats, build pyramids. Just as Jimmy Connors
raised John McEnroe’s game, so Coleridge spurred Wordsworth, so the Almohad court propagated
scientific and cultural advance. What would Shakespeare, Jonson, and chums have been had they not met
in pullulating Elizabethan London and hung out at the Mermaid Tavern, where pub banter was:
So nimble, and so full of subtle flame
As if that every one from whence they came
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life—

Einstein appreciated this: He trundled to his office in Prince-ton’s Institute for Advanced Study solely
for “the privilege of walking home with Kurt Gödel.” Three freewheeling years of chatter led Francis
Crick and James Watson to their epochal discovery of the structure of DNA. Do I hear you ask, “But is it
Were it not for mental and social workouts at a tertulia, a salon in Barcelona that he came to dominate
like Barnum did his circus, seventeen-year-old Picasso might not have become a genius anecdote-teller,
as well as a poet (little appreciated outside Spain), or won the renown and contacts that eased his
scramble to the apex of the twentieth-century’s artistic pyramid. Walter Sickert, a lesser painter,
famously donned his “lying suit” to wow Mayfair dinner parties and butter the crumpets of rich
Conversation makes connections. For heaven’s sake, it’s a laugh.


On the other hand, if you want to kill a conversation, tell people you’re writing a book on the subject.
Either they feel like lab rats, or they turn nasty.
“Why you?” asked a doubting friend.
“Nice idea, but you can’t make anyone better at it,” said a tactful teacher.
“So what’s it all about then?” demanded a scary novelist.
“Oh, well,” I replied, “you know, being interested in people.”
“But you don’t want me to go on about that now, or I’ll start reciting my manuscript,” I blustered,
hoping to shuffle to another topic.
“Right.” But the look on the man’s face said, “wrong.”
“Sorry, I’m tired. My defense is that you don’t have to be a grand master to discuss chess, so I needn’t
be a brilliant conversationalist.”
“No,” he said. “But you’d better be bloody good at it.”
Who am I to tell you what to do?
I’ve been obsessed with words and reading since I can remember, and, though shy, I always loved
talking, was often dragged to the front of the class for it. But that’s not exactly conversation skill.
My parents valued conversation, and sent me and my middle sister to practice on a long-suffering
blind man, Colonel Colbeck (complete with curlicue mustache and much-repeated tales of secreting
whoopee cushions under bustles at Mama’s Edwardian tea parties). Despite their efforts, I’m no
Oscarina Wilde, and have often failed to keep the ball rolling. For work, I’ve navigated the challenges
of interviewing celebrities, as well as publicized naked Russian poets and negotiated with wily agents
—champion cud-chewers all. However, I also tend to interrupt, jump between thoughts, and on too many
occasions have had cause to wish my foot didn’t fit so snugly in my mouth. And I have suffered bores.
I’m not an expert, but an enthusiast, an interested party, and this isn’t a script. There is no one great
way to hold conversation. But certain approaches are more flexible, and there are plenty of avoidable
errors as well as artful dodges. My ideal is to draw the best out of companions. Whatever yours is,
appreciate conversation’s finer points and your experience will be more rewarding.
Investigating this ancient art form, its great and its knee-grindingly dreadful exponents, has been like a
mystery tour of what it means to be human; fascinating, and often hilarious. I’d never suspected that
greetings were such important gatekeepers; or that small talk is hugely significant, if you trim it to
advantage; or how creative listening is; or how easily dynamics tilt for or against you. You will be
I have explored what topics are fit for purpose; why bores drain our wits, and how they can be
stopped; the gymnastic arts of humor, flattery, and seduction; the wisdom of lying; tactics for shop talk,
getting your own way, and, if truly necessary (but deeply satisfying), shutting people up.
Two conversations convinced me this book was necessary. The first took place on a train. I sat near a
beautiful young man who was wearing a white cap. As the train rolled out of the station, he took a small
leather book from his jacket. When he began chanting, I noticed he had no luggage except a couple of
bags containing large, sloshing containers of fluid.
After the London bombings, I was paranoid, and ashamed: Who was I to judge him? Ridiculous! Part
of me wanted to change cars. Instead, I asked if he was praying. We talked for half an hour about the


The second happened at a dinner. For two hours I sat by a self-styled publicity guru who regaled me
with his zip code’s wonders (“I love Notting Hill; all the same, I have the pleasure of being the most
brilliant man in Battersea”—and this dinner was in Batter-sea), recommended his forthcoming book on
self-promotion skills, but, apart from where I lived, asked me almost nothing.
If his is the direction of civilization, it is in reverse gear.
In 427 B.C. the orator Gorgias of Leontini conquered Athens with his defense of runaway bride Helen
of Troy. It wasn’t her fault, he said, but words’: They “stop fear, remove sorrow, create joy and increase
pity,” but they also “poison and bewitch the mind.”
Two-and-a-half millennia on, nothing has changed. There is no greater power, no pleasure so serious.
Can conversation save lives? It certainly saves marriages, and few would dispute it builds selfesteem. Shouldn’t it be obvious it can also raise social esteem, generating the goodwill that funds the
best in life and business? Neglecting it graffitis cultural DNA, muddles minds, and helps granulate us
into extremists. But using it can rebuild our crumbling common ground. As researching this book has
taught me, we are more complicated and magnificent than we realize: Far from behind technology, we’re
beyond it.
Close your eyes a moment. Imagine saying hi to the strangers on your street. Imagine everyone saying
it. Imagine it is the start of a conversation.
Is that so preposterous? It never used to be.
Let’s wage war on shyness. With a friendlier environment, we have a better chance of making it into
the next century. And enjoying it.
As Alexander Pope nearly wrote:
True ease in talking comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.

Understand the steps, you will hear the music.
We need to talk.



Performance art
Mutual appreciation


Think before you speak
Listen more than speak
Find the incentive for talking
Never assume you know what they mean or that they
understand you
Take turns


HELLO On Conversation’s Casting Couch
Don’t talk to strangers? Don’t speak until spoken to?
Forget it. Inhibition is useless. How do you start a conversation? Simple: Say hi.
It’s easy to say. But as with flying, the critical phase of conversation is takeoff, and greetings don’t
follow straight lines, but vary from place to place. Even chimpanzees have a host of hand clasps. Some
grip, some press wrists, some grab and groom, and all respect one rule: The dominant chimp’s hand
goes on top.
By contrast, many humans bungle customary overtures. Some dive in, so keen to have an impact,
they’re blind to the impression they make. Other, shy souls stumble, mumble, or say nothing. What does
it matter?
The chimps get it: Greetings announce who we are. They reveal plenty about a relationship:
“Hello, reptile,” she said. “You’re here, are you?”
“Here I am,” I responded, “with my hair in a braid and ready to the last button. A very merry pippip to you, aged relative.”
“The same to you, fathead. I suppose you forgot to bring that necklace?”
(It is abundantly clear Aunt Dahlia adores her reptile nephew, Bertie Wooster, the beloved P.G.
Wodehouse character.)
And they can shape relationships. When the Earl of Oxford was presented to Elizabeth I, he bowed,
issued a loud burst of flatus, and fled England in shame. After seven years’ self-imposed exile, he
returned to court. Her Majesty greeted him: “My lord, I had forgott the fart.”

➺ Rule one: Greetings spark connections
Initial impressions are indelible. Compare the shopkeeper who asks how you are with the one who
snorts, her eyes glued on your down-at-heel shoes.
She may not mean to be rude, but she might as well turn her back. Yet in most towns, would this
surprise you?
No word costs less or counts more in a conversation than hello. Even in a megalopolis such as
London there’s something unsettling about a person who won’t return it, like the man on my street whose
liveliest response to “Hi” is a grunt (usually he looks away). I’m not sure what I, or life, have done to
him, but the sense of a person stranded in his own bleak world is strong. It crystallizes the importance of
greetings for making contact and wiring conversation for sound.


If conversation is music, then the start, the strike of a tuning fork, sets the tone and reveals others’ key.
Greetings’ exchange betokens a pact that people’s attention is, for now, each other’s. Not only does a
casual “Hi” or formally begged “How do you do?” announce where you’re coming from, but, like a
diplomatic gift, the way you present it sends a message. However relaxed, it is a mark of respect, not an
excuse to grab attention. (Which may shock U2’s Bono. A friend’s party was silenced when a bagpiper
burst in, piped ten long minutes, then announced that the rock singer couldn’t make it, but had sent him to
say “Hi” instead.)
Not greeting emits a message too. Indeed, in Colette’s novella Gigi, the heroine, her mother, and her
grandmother (the last two both retired courtesans) use it to dent the ego of an ageing roué and coax him
into proposing marriage:
“Good afternoon, Mamita. Good afternoon, Gigi,” he said airily. “Please don’t move, I’ve come to
retrieve my straw hat.”
None of the three women replied, and his assurance left him. “Well, you might at least say a word
to me, even if it’s only How-d’you-do?”


➺ Rule two: Greetings are charms to open minds and doors
Getting greetings right means hitting the same register as the other person—whether formal, friendly, or
intimate. Getting them wrong signals that you’re uninterested, not on his wavelength, or an outsider; bad
news in dangerous places. For instance, Tuareg nomads crossing paths in the Sahara desert will reveal
names only after trading set phrases like undercover spies.
The lower status person (usually the younger) begins:
Younger: Peace be on you.
Elder: What do you look like?
Younger: Only peace.
Elder: What has gone wrong?
Younger: Nothing. Only peace.
Elder: What is new?
Younger: Nothing. Only peace.
Elder: Where are you going?
Such rituals reflect that manners are not universal but sprout up to serve regional circumstance.
Nothing if not conventional, refined over millennia, they broker relationships, playing out social
assumptions embedded in our cultural software, and so, by their nature, transcend finer feeling.
So Nigeria’s Ibo, who believe the first person they greet dictates their day’s fortune, happily ignore
their own granny if there is a whiff of illness about her. So, to a Western Apache, introducing yourself is
presumptuous (a keepsake of justified suspicion against men bearing gifts). Whereas in most urban
societies not to do so—even if out of shyness—is rude, a bit like asking “Don’t you know who I am?”
To which the reply must be “No, thank goodness.”
In complicated settings, negotiating the right to say hi can be a gorgeous dance. Intrepid Rory Stewart
learned the worth of due respects hiking across Afghanistan—over mountains, in winter, shortly after
tumultuous war. Initially he found the forms funny:
Finally a soldier marched in and, holding his right hand to his chest, said, “Salaam aleikum. Chetor
hastid? Jan-e-shoma jur ast? Khum hastid? Sahat-e-shoma khub ast? Be khair hastid? Jur hastid? Khane
kheirat ast? Zinde bashi.” Which in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, means, “Peace be with you.
How are you? Is your soul healthy? Are you well? Are you well? Are you healthy? Are you fine? Is your
household flourishing? Long life to you.” Or: “Hello.”
But passing through shattered communities, Stewart soon mastered how to hail by lushly barnacled local
custom, if need be invoking the forefathers of well-connected warlords who had guaranteed his passage.
Time and again this, rather than gold, saved his life.
If seldom a question of life and death, like a letter of introduction clasped to the bosom of a Brontë
heroine, greetings remain passports as well as the embodiment of the style by which you will be
expected to behave. So if others bow, go ahead, and when in Rome, best do as they do, because
respecting native customs is the first sign you can give someone that he should respect you.


I’m exaggerating? Of course, most of us pay greetings scant attention, precisely because they are
conventional. But given the whirligig nature of globalized life, attending to their finer details is arguably
more important than ever.
Thanks to globalization, a vast array of options beckons, with a profusion of gestures, from high-fives
to Continental high society’s hovering Handkuss (uh-uh—no lips on Her Serenity’s glove). Yet on closer
inspection, amazingly few fit general use. Recall the nose-clash as you misjudge which cheek to kiss.
The pause as you open a door, the other person hesitates, then you both walk into each other.
Confusion reigns because social codes are fading, and etiquette increasingly resembles a branch of
astrology. Change is nothing new, but the information age has scrambled the software that programs how
we behave, multiplying distortions. We don’t just copy our parents; we cut and paste from Web, film,
and TV. And although each walk of life looks increasingly the same, nuances proliferate and instincts are
less instructive—fashion shifts too fast. (Try high-fiving a teenager and watch him sneer.)
Nevertheless, we form assumptions about personalities from the briefest encounter. I was utterly
thrown when a business contact shook hands with her left paw (not coincidentally, she is a demon
negotiator). Even with people we see all the time, jarring notes magnify into signs. Aren’t you
disconcerted by your Andalusian pal’s earsplitting air-smackeroos? The weirdo who winks when you
buy milk at his shop? The aunt who still pinches cheeks? The tennis partner whose grip is like a
drowning man’s?


➺ Rule three: The first notes you strike should be on a general frequency
Common sense ceases to exist when the pool of local certainties is awash with every other drop in the
ocean. On the other hand, as your parents might have indicated, common sense has always been a thing
of the past.
One answer to the dilemma is to ditch greetings. Another is to get arty and improvise. Sure, you could
twirl someone instead of shaking her hand (it happened to me). But why heap confusion upon confusion?
Trusty product of countless exchanges, the standard-issue gestures—the smile, the handshake—are
already an amazing collective work of art, and evolved as they have for good reason. What is more, your
opening—“Hi” or “Howdie?”—is already a bold tick in the social register, enough information for now,
surely. This should be the easy bit.


➺ Rule four: Smiling is a confidence trick
It is apt that the first self-help guide, imaginatively titled Self-Help, should have been written by Samuel
Smiles. Far from meek, anthropologists reckon baring teeth is as much designed to show yourself as an
adversary with bite as to express warm feelings.
Our cousin the chimpanzee peels back his lips to warn of danger—suggesting that, as well as gently
intimidating, the smile helpfully muzzles its wearer’s fear; a confidence-boosting reflex, like giggling at
splatter movies. Certainly, it is an assertion, bold, hardly modest, and some cultures prefer ladies to
titter, a demure hand over lowered mouth. Admittedly, Tudor aristocrats had a brief grinning craze, when
on-trend dames showed off blackened teeth to prove they were rich enough to rot them on costly sugar
(and some resorted to fake blacking). But don’t be put off. As Horace observed,
Smiling faces are turned on those who smile.

If you smile, the other person, unless very odd or hostile, will feel compelled to return it, for no other
reason than that the mimicry instinct is so entrenched that smiles and laughter are contagious. (A 1962
hysteria epidemic in Tanganyika took two years’ quarantine to stamp out.)


➺ Rule five: Eyes make contacts
The Zulu have an elegant phrase for hello and good-bye: Sawu bona—“I see you.” This encapsulates the
power of greeting: It gives recognition. Not looking at the other person while doing it renders him
invisible, implicitly declaring that either you’re afraid to meet his eye or he is beneath your contempt.
Either way, it’s bad manners, making you seem weak or pompous—a worse weakness still for making
Faces reveal useful information too. Your smile should reach your eyes because if the orbicularis
oculi muscles don’t contract, smocking your crow’s feet, it will be read as false. Moreover, your eyes
should reach into the other person’s. True, not long ago debutantes embarking on the husband-fishing trip
that was “The Season” were advised, “Never look a man straight in the eye.” Such a gaze, counseled M.
Dono Edmond, adviser to Queen Marie of Romania no less, informs its object that “you are trying to
probe his mind.” Heaven forfend. . . .
But for artful conversation between equals, inattention tenders disaster. Take Ronald Reagan, never
one to overlook niceties. At his adopted son’s graduation, after he was famous but years before he was
the U.S. president, he ambled around, extending his hand, saying, “My name is Ronald Reagan. What’s
Eventually he bumped into his son. Out went the mitt.
“My name is Ronald Reagan. What’s yours?”
Isn’t it tempting to read intimations of senility in his faux pas? Friendly as can be, yet so far, far
Missteps during greetings not only put people on guard instead of persuading them to lower it, but
also prime them to expect that the blunderer isn’t worth talking to. Charm can’t work on autocue, and as
somebody should tell Bono, the truly charismatic don’t show off; they’re too busy, having eyes only for


The passive-aggressive grin makes a poetically fitting start to conversation, since it recalls that human
relations have always been unequal parts antagonism and cooperation. Although smiling is an ancient
primate inheritance, we hang on to it, because at root, conversation is our species’ miraculous
innovation (catalytic converter?) for managing the tension between our desire to connect and our need
for independence; a tension that has been nothing if not creative. As conversation developed, it allowed
us to turn thoughts to words to collaborative deeds that led Homo sapiens out of the woods, and on to
run the planet—more or less.
Civility enabled this evolution. The word’s meaning has been diluted, but to have a civil tongue in
your head was once the prized asset of a privileged social group; like “citizen,” “civility” spoke of a
world that favored discussion over violence or despotism (both derive from civitas, “self-governing
community”). For Ancient Roman Cicero, the first thinker to explore the grammar of conversation,
civility safeguarded “community” by “assigning to each individual his due” and making a “habit of
affability.” This remains true today.


➺ Rule six: Respect territorial claims
We soon dread the kind woman we meet twice daily at the school gate, if each time she hugs us like a
long-lost child, because little civilities remain important protocols for calibrating intimacy. They pace
out the distance between us at the same time as draw us together. And if conversation’s primary aim is to
map common ground, greetings demarcate personal space.
What contact is too intimate? The territory is fluid. Although air kisses are bubbling up outside
luvviedom, most Britons still shake hands then draw back, and don’t hug strangers. However, five
centuries ago Italian visitors to England were aghast not at stiff upper lips, but at having to smack them:
If a foreigner enters a house and does not first of all kiss the mistress on the mouth, they think him
badly brought up.
France currently favors two-way kiss trades, yet in 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, new to America,
made a shattering discovery: “Everyone shakes hands.” To a post-Revolutionary Frenchman, such
manifest egalitarianism was wildly touchy-feely. Then again, unlike his predecessor Reagan, George W.
Bush considered handshakes high-risk. On first meeting freshman senator Barack Obama, Bush offered a
squirt of the antiseptic with which he had been anointing the presidential palm:
“Want some? Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds.”
In general an unlikely weapon for biological attack, a handshake remains the safest gesture for
greeting someone new. In fact, it came into use in more violent times, to show that one did not wield a
sword. Cicero would approve.


➺ Rule seven: Pay attention and already you have a connection
The bonus of conventionality is that while performing your handshake, saying “Hi” or “Howdie,” your
mind, if not quite on Reagan energy-saving mode, has space to take in the other person. So approach a
new face like the start of a novel, magnetized for clues to an unfamiliar world.
Even handshakes reveal character, if only what a person wishes to project. Take note. Does he grip or
squeeze? Lock eyes? Flick away? I tremble before knuckle-crunchers, and those pushy deal-closer
types, who place a second hand on top, trapping me, then pump away, as if to draw deep on the well of
fast-drying friendship.
As for secret signalers, Freemasons and so on, their clinches are no affair of mine.


Ignore a person at the fringe of a conversation and he’ll soon go. Etiquette expert John Morgan
In a curious way, until someone is introduced . . . socially they only half exist.
He didn’t mean this in a derogatory sense; rather, that recognition is all. It can create an advantage. In
Ancient Rome senators hired nomenclators, who shadowed them around town, ready to whisper the
correct form of address for approaching dignitaries, thereby enabling the senators to greet first, putting
them in charge of the conversation. The same tactic is deployed by the internal editor in The Devil
Wears Prada.
Such power play illuminates the dark game of greetings and introductions. If the first business is
trading names, a close second is establishing terms of engagement, offering enough information about
each other for talk to crack on apace. But don’t forget prestige is at stake: Little status signals flash
away, so the art of introducing someone else is to cast them in their preferred light, then bathe in the
reflected glory.
In the past deference codes were overt. You could tell how to treat someone by how he dressed, and
caps were doffed according to what, or not, sat on another’s head (hatlessness being near to godlessness
in times of epidemic head lice). In our socially mobile era, status is customized, making it harder to scan
egos. At the corporate do, that unshaven, chain-smoking bum growling at all who graze his pungent
biosphere will be the billionaire boss—his lack of grace, something for the “little people,” as effective
a social barrier as a VIP’s velvet rope.
But although manners alter, the human needs they exist to service—especially pride—remain. And of
all social injuries, most avoidable is bungling a name.

Can’t afford a nomenclator? Remembering is easier with the antique style of introduction—“Zebedee,
I’d like you to meet Aphra Jones. Aphra, allow me to introduce Zebedee Taylor.” But if this is de trop,
why not repeat a name after it’s told to you?
And be generous with your own. When introduced, if you detect the slightest pause, say it. Say it
introducing yourself, even if you’ve met before, especially if the other person’s name escapes you. In
return, he should give you his. If not, prompt: remind him where you met. Equally, if it’s your job to
introduce other people, start with someone whose name you know, pause, then smile; hopefully, others
will take the cue.
But if they’re socially tone-deaf, own up. This can be positive: “I couldn’t forget you, but I’m afraid
I’m hopeless at names.” Never, ever guess. (Sheila/Eileen, forgive me.)
Perhaps your memory is impeccable. Still, have a care how you show it. Some salesmen repeat
clients’ names to fast-track rapport, creating a faint yet oddly powerful sense of obligation to be nice
back. Personally, I loathe it. And while it’s good to drop a child’s name into a bedtime story if you feel
her attention wander, would you do the same talking to an adult? Many do. But I know my name—why
remind me?
Because someone else does not. To bring a fresh person into conversation, without breaking
momentum, try a slick lateral introduction: “Zebedee Taylor, there you are. Aphra here was about to tell
us about her windmill.”


So how to acknowledge status in introductions?
At a corporate event, I once watched the chief executive of a multinational media conglomerate being
introduced as the chief executive of a multinational media conglomerate to—be still your beating heart
—Don Johnson.
The CEO’s TV-wide shades could not hide her perplexity. She smiled, extended a lizard hand, and
rotated her head ninety degrees.
“And what,” she asked her host through unparted teeth, like a ventriloquist addressing a dummy, “does
Don do?”
The unfortunate host may have thought he was paying the CEO a great compliment in giving her such
fanfare to the Miami Vice veteran. He can’t have been aware that, although greeting first means you lead
an encounter, conversely, in introductions, the lower status person is traditionally introduced first—
equivalent to the diplomatic gift being offered the pasha. Not nice, but that’s status games for you.


➺ Rule eight: Introduce the higher status person (older, female) second
Remember the playground chant? First the worst, second the best . . .
In a pub or bar, with close friends, who cares? But if in any doubt about the level of formality, pay
attention; there are endless clues. (One grande dame used to prejudge a function by the aerodynamics of
the invitation: The stiffer the card, the farther it flew when frisbeed across her dressing room, the
smarter the togs she wore.)


➺ Rule nine: Don’t try to regrade the social register in greetings
I’ve been in starchy situations where people act as if their personalities are in corsets, and most give the
impression they’d rather not be (the alcohol intake usually confirms this). Even so, if you want to loosen
up, it is the job of small talk, not introductions, to ascend the stair of friendship. Presuming intimacy
from the off won’t get you there. Old hands such as Princess Anne defy coercion. When she met the
former premier’s wife, Cherie Blair, the other said, “Call me Cherie.”
“I’d rather not, Mrs. Blair,” said the princess.

1. A funny voice
2. Batting eyelids, twitching, itching, winking, etc.
3. The clothes inspection (radiates ill-will, regardless of whether you like the other person’s look)
4. Touching, except the hand, cheek kiss, or clasping an elbow (for a power shake)
5. Refusing a hand
6. Holding on after its owner begins to withdraw
7. Wiping yours before or after shaking
8. Looking away during introductions
9. Laughing unprompted
10. That joke about the comedy surname
11. Rejecting a compliment
12. Saying, “Oh yes, I’ve heard about you” without further elaboration
13. Silence


➺ Rule ten: Introductions present the first thread for discussion
Meeting a potential contact/employer/lover may feel to you like stepping under a Broadway hot-spot, but
the other person may be equally intimidated, or thinking about what to buy for dinner. At this point it’s
impossible to know. So if you feel self-conscious, invert it: Be conscious of others, let your enthusiasm
show, and focus on introductions, the primer for what you two might have to talk about.
An effective introduction is small-ad brief, splicing in only two ingredients per person:

The salient information is not so much formal title (royals, snobs, and servicemen excepted) as how you
relate to one another or the event (housemate, client, mother-in-law, single male drafted in for ladies like
you). Identify points of contact, charge people up, and you have a connection.
So put your best hand forward, smile, and remember the virtue of Sawu bona: “I see you.” It says the
other person matters.
Now conversation can begin.


You arrive late, as planned. The joint is jumping. There is your host, and there is everybody else you
have never met.
Before a virgin expanse of unfamiliar faces, the prospect of mingling may feel little more alluring than
staging a burglary. Simply saying hello can induce instant lockjaw. As can overfamiliar faces, as at
office parties, where, with shop-talk taboo, in nonwork clothes and gauche mental mufti, colleagues may
suddenly act like aliens without phrase books.
It’s tempting to stay in the revolving door, as I once saw the actor Robert De Niro do, coming and
going at a dog-eared film awards extravaganza. But for pity’s sake, you’ve come this far. So think like a
criminal: Roam around, case the joint, and find its weak points.
Best are fringe areas where groups break and re-form. Stand near food and drink and you’ve a readymade topic, plus something to do. If this is a house party, offer to help serve. (Hold the honeypot: bees
will swarm.) And if you see a new group forming, stand by with an attentive expression; they may invite
you in.
Someone nice is waiting to meet you; he just doesn’t know it yet. He is the person not talking much
who smiles, meets your eye. Or she is on her own, looking about hopefully like you, or he is studying the
distant progress of a waitress, his glass as empty as yours. So join forces and catch her. Or you could
hotwire talk with mild provocation, such as this shameless flattery I overheard: “Magnificent skirt. Are
you a ballerina?” She pirouetted.
Once you’ve jimmied an opening, be ready to make small talk.


SMALL TALK, BIG DEAL On Striking Up a Tune
There was my target, deep in discussion with the museum curator. “One Hundred Years of Cinema” was
being opened by one bona fide British star. Just one hundred rooms to chase him through, as I sought my
chance to strike.
At least, it felt like one hundred, and I felt like an assassin. In fact this was my first assignment for a
gossip column. All afternoon I had read brown press cuttings on the antics and tepid shames of Jeremy
Irons. Twenty questions? I had two hundred.
Until I started stalking and fear took over. Story—what story?

Finally, boredom slew fear: How bad could it be?
I went up, said my name and place of work. Irons smiled. I gulped. My throat and mind congealed. He
smiled some more. Then came the melt, starting in my nose, pores welling springs of treacherous sweat.
At last he spoke.
“Good to meet you, Catherine Blyth of the Evening Standard. Have you met my wife?” He wafted a
Hollywood-white hand. “Sinead, Catherine Blyth, Evening Standard.”
“Hello,” I said, and fled.
Impeccable manners can nuke unwelcome intruders. Who was I, this sleek repetition of my credentials
seemed to beg, to invade the Irons ether?
But the problem was mine: I had nothing to say. Without an ice breaker, I froze, my body reacting as if
his smile were saber-fanged.
If you don’t recognize the symptoms of social death, stop reading. You are a mathematician of genius,
ruler of a minor principality, or possibly a sociopath. It may amaze you to learn that for many, even mild
socializing is pathogenic. Such as the financial company directors, sent a questionnaire for a leadership
course, which asked: “What in your work is most difficult?” As a chorus they replied: “Small talk with


Small talk has always had a bad name. The earliest reference in English, Lord Chesterfield’s of 1751, is
a sort of chit-chat, or small-talk . . . the general run of conversation in most mixed companies.
Stunted conversation, in other words. Like women, small talk has been derided as trivial, empty, even
frigid (a 1905 tale refers to “her colder, small-talk manner, which committed her to nothing”). As ever,
prejudice masks insecurity and misunderstanding.
A character in Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Homecoming observes:
I am no good at small talk: I can never quite find the right tone to make the weighty sound trivial and
the trivial sound weighty.

But small talk is neither a synonym for trite, nor about scaling topics to a set size. It can be many things:
preamble to a meeting, networking, gossip, an exchange in the queue at the post office. At parties where
guests are like bees bumbling flowers, it is a frivolous end in itself; for geishas, it is work. And
wherever it occurs, however artless it seems, it is essential. As the wife reproves her husband in The
Painted Veil:
If people only spoke when they had something to say, the human race would soon lose the power of


➺ Rule one: Small talk conjures intimacy
Anthropologists liken small talk to grooming among primates, largely because it stimulates the snug
sense of belonging that makes socializing a joy. Likewise, some academics stick it in a narrow box
marked “phatic” speech, those remarks meaningful less for what they say than for what they signal. For
instance, idle comments about weather are phatic because their meaning isn’t the information they
contain—anyone can see it’s a lovely day—so much as what they signal about the speakers’ relationship:
emphatically, you’re on friendly terms.
This view minimizes small talk’s multifangled role as conversation’s warm-up act. Robert Louis
Stevenson explained:
A good talk is not to be had for the asking. Humours must first be accorded in a kind of overture or
Not only does small talk enable the big by scouting topics, but it sets conversation’s tone, pace, and
rhythm; scanning sensibilities, locking on to affinities, massaging minds and goodwill. All of which
makes it a virtuoso instrument of social orchestration. What’s not to like?
First, we do it most among strangers. Second, it can feel pointless. (The softer the topic, the harder the
sell.) Third, it is bitty, quick-fire, demanding disproportionate amounts of energy, rather like badminton,
and pressure to perform may be cramping. (Who enjoys sparkling to order?) Fourth, as we send out
grappling hooks, we expose ourselves, and if our offers are rejected, we feel rejected. It’s a stripteasecum-beauty contest.
This is why even Lady Florence Bell—a tireless Edwardian promoter of conversation, who launched
Winter Gardens for the poor to congregate in on dark, lonely nights, away from the demon drink, and
who was so far from shy that, by her daughter’s account, she treated life as a play with “herself . . . the
leading personage in the drama”—even she so loathed small talk, so yearned for set phrases to stand in
for it, like the preordained pieties that nuns “are obliged to say” if paths crossed at the convent, that she
wrote a ridiculous book of them, Conversational Openings and Endings.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The honor of small talk lies in paying others the compliment that they’re worth
talking to, the power in sparking the everyday magic of intimacy. Hell when it fails, it is eminently worth
doing well, as the intimidated financial company directors understood.


While most Anglo-Saxons joke about mothers-in-law, native Australians have “mother-in-law” tongues,
with dedicated vocabularies for use on taboo females. But such impressive verbal voodoo is fading
along with other formal and deferential modes.
People are different, and it’s daft to treat everyone the same, as did Sir Walter Ralegh’s brother Dr.
Gilbert, “a Man of excellent naturall Parts” who “cared not what he said to man or woman of what
quality soever,” winning himself the accolade of sixteenth-century Britain’s “Greatest Buffoon in the
Nation.” Yet growing numbers of us opt for the buffoon stance.
Psychologist Steven Pinker observed:
Younger Americans try to maintain lower levels of social distance. . . . I know many gifted prose
stylists my age whose one-on-one speech is peppered with sort of and you know, their attempt to
avoid affecting the stance of the expert.
It’s not just to be cool; in multicultural settings, hooked up through global commerce, or at
international conferences such as the esteemed Pinker attends, user-friendly, low-key lingo translates
more readily. But artful small talk is defter at making friends than what Chesterfield belittled as “sort of
chit-chat.” Or any other, kind of, like, you know, verbal padding.


➺ Rule two: Artful small talk is the social compass
Rather than assume intimacy through blunt language, small talk creates it by pumping out friendly vibes
and establishing connections between speakers who meet as equals. (Something of a cultural novelty,
born in the assembly rooms Chesterfield patronized, which may explain historic disdain for small talk,
as an upstart tradition that forced men to listen to—ugh—women.)
Its added bonus is the firing neurons and fizzing hormones that come of light stimulation—all of which
enhance adaptability, indispensable to social survival in fast-moving, pseudo-egalitarian society, where
talent for whisking up intimacy creates leaders among supposed equals. For instance, in ordering staff to
“Call me Tony,” ex-Prime Minister Blair astutely claimed friendship’s privilege without conceding
authority, making it harder to challenge him. Well, do you fight a mate?
The social instinct that made Blair an alpha operator is hardwired in us primates. Science writer Matt
Ridley noted, before resigning as chairman of troubled building society Northern Rock:
The top male chimpanzee in a troop is not necessarily the strongest; instead, it is usually the one best
at manipulating social coalitions to his advantage.

We all must build coalitions, but as Ridley’s fate testifies, this is an increasingly unwieldy task. Count
the masks we wear, assigned by us, society, other people’s perceptions.... Shifting between roles,
projecting different faces, is stressful (tellingly, the financial company directors hated combining small
talk and business).
Humans are territorial animals. Exposure threatens us. Understandably, we feel the lack of a social
compass. For sure, I dread what Philip Larkin called, explaining his refusal to be Poet Laureate,
“Pretending to Be Me.” But to fear small talk is to miss its opportunity. It is the social compass, and with
it, we escape self-consciousness.


Would you believe a professional performer finds small talk especially daunting? Ask Judy Finnigan, the
chat-show host whose warmth makes her a friend to viewers:
The idea of conversation with strangers fills me with horror. When I’m with friends I’m totally
relaxed, but with other people . . . I just don’t like the whole small-talk thing. I even hate going to
premieres now. I know that sounds ridiculously spoiled, but there it is.
But her trepidation is reasonable. Famous people suffer the vast disadvantage that strangers imagine
they know them intimately, which makes the task of building intimacy rather lopsided, and instant
niceness the order of the day. Nonetheless, even for non-celebrities, who before entering a pub endure,
like Kitty in Anna Karenina, “a young man’s feelings before a battle,” and who bow down in thanks
before the DJs waging war on conversation everywhere—including my hairdresser’s, where it’s being
drummed out by the unstoppable march of techno—what makes small talk a tall order is performance


➺ Rule three: The more engaged we are, the less nervous we feel
Research has found that with a serious topic or a good friend, we measure a conversation’s success by
how enthralled we were by what the other person said. Whereas, the less familiar the other person, the
more trivial the topic, the likelier we are to rate the experience by our own performance. An exception
is between long-term romantic partners, when neither a topic’s gravity nor either party’s performance
appears to effect post-conversational satisfaction—the negative interpretation being that they’ve stopped
listening, the rose-tinted that they’re so at-one that the relationship is one unending symphony of
sensitively cadenced talk. You decide.
Setting lovebirds aside, it seems that if we’re not invested in a discussion, or whom it’s with, we’re
self-conscious. Therefore the shortest path to bearable small talk must be to make it more involving—
that is, to value it. Emotion inhibits this. However, harnessed by small talk, emotion is also the solution.


➺ Rule four: Convert fear to imagination
Philip Larkin’s friend, novelist Kingsley Amis, suggested that human history is the tale of man, an
animal, striving to forget he is an animal. Emotion exists to remind us of the truth. Embarrassment is the
nephew of an ancient monster, fear. In bad cases we long for the earth to open and welcome us back, like
the worms we were before life grew so complicated.
As anxiety prowls for evidence you’d be better off inside a large paper bag, nervousness ensures
these fears come true, every time. Although such feelings are common with strangers, small talk is a
correlate, not—as many small-talk haters assume—the cause. The true horror arises from selfconsciousness: the feeling you’re on show, which paradoxically sabotages self-awareness, muffling your
sense of the topic in hand, and, worse, your sensitivity to interlocutors.
But fear is merely dyspeptic imagination. Set it to work on thinking about the other person,
remembering that he, if a stranger, is at an equal disadvantage, and embrace the opening courtesies,
equivalent to those nosy things dogs do sniffing each other out—as an opportunity to express your
feelings. Unless, that is, they resemble those of the man who crushed an old friend of mine. They were
on a train, heading to an academic conference, sharing pleasantries and peanuts. Then, having inhaled the
nuts, the other man picked up his book (almost certainly by Schopenhauer) and handed my friend the
empty packet, saying:
“This is all our conversation is. Exchanging rubbish.”


All relationships serve self-interest—after all, the laughs and tears we share with friends are fringe
benefits. Cynical? Hardly. This is what makes them meaningful. Similarly, conversation thrives if it is
purposeful, so let artful small talk do the reconnaissance, delineating common territory and seeking a
mutually agreeable direction in which to amble. Very often its point is no fancier than to find the point in
talking to someone.
Not always easy. But as anyone fond of pubs or beauty parlors knows, chat need say little to be
pleasant. Whatever the context, old friends or new, it is best if speakers respect five principles:
Put others at ease
Put yourself at ease
Weave in all parties
Establish shared interests
Actively pursue your own

These combine into the following strategy:


➺ Rule five: Approach small talk like a treasure hunt
Tools are:
Elicitors: open questions—e.g., “Have you come far?” (a House of Windsor special)
Neutral topics
Observations on your environment
Ice breakers: humorous questions and remarks

The most productive spirit is pioneering: sincere, curious, light, humorous. Radiate pleasure and nonSchopenhauer fans usually take it personally, opening like flowers in the sun. The only trouble with
enthusiasm, as the wrung-out wife of an ebullient acquaintance confided, is you can drown in it. So if in
doubt, leave it out.


➺ Rule six: Start in neutral
Ladies and gentlemen once kept commonplace books, magpie hoards containing scraps of literature,
historical facts, bon mots—any bauble that snagged the owner’s fancy—that were consulted and
memorized before engagements, lest opportunity arose to flourish them and impress the company.
Dare you disturb the universe with a tag from Ovid? Alas, today it’s dangerous to presume shared
knowledge or values, let alone puff your plumage. Better to think, as you approach that door, what is in
the news, fashion, cultural affairs—whatever piques you. Try to combine elements in surprising ways.
(“I was thinking of entering this outfit for the Eurovision Song Contest”; “I see you’re wearing
Manchester United’s colors.”) Ideally frame them to cascade clues about the other person. I wouldn’t
dream of suggesting you copy actress Imogen Stubbs and invent something....
The Time I Died, I think we called it—and tested it out at a pretentious party. The collective
response? “Oh, God, yes, so moving. I loved that book.”
No, no, much nicer to mine uncontroversial territory. Keep it light: an observation, question, a thread
to weave to something new. And revelations are out. I’ve never forgotten my first goring by an exboyfriend’s horn-hided ex-belle: “Did he tell you about the abortion?” Or my own clunker to an excolleague—standard-issue, but still toe-crushing, and pointless: “Any more children?”
If the answer’s no, he doesn’t want to say why.

Some approaches ask for trouble—which might be just the thing to pep talk up. Compare “I’m not sure
about the coffee here” with “This latte’s like breast milk.” Between prejudice and opinion lie discussion
and disagreement. But easy does it. Beware:

Can appear pompous, shutting off discussion.
Personal remarks:
There’s no accounting for neurosis. For example, “I hate being told I look well,” confided a radiant
beauty. “It means I’m fat.”
Unsolicited advice:
A charming fellow restaurant diner once told me, “Order the fruit: It’ll do your skin good.”
Health, wealth, creed:
If you must know, there are other ways to find out.
Let them see how marvelous you are.
Need I explain?
A hostage to fortune. Do you know them well enough to trust?
Do they share your sense of humor?


Too much information:
Enough said?
Unwarranted sympathy:
Who wants to feel pitied?
Telling a woman where she bought her dress:
Obscurely insulting, and a form of boast.
“What do you do?”
We’ve all asked, but who enjoys reheating their CV? If he loves his work, you’ll hear soon enough.
And you don’t want to come over as a status sifter or salary sniffer, do you?
If on the receiving end of this question and feeling puckish, why not take this ex-escort’s advice: “I
say I’m a brain surgeon and see how they react.” Or copy ad director Vick Beasley, and print bogus
business cards (hers read “BDI” for “Beasley Detective Investigations”: extra credit went to those who
detected the pun).
Be prepared or toads shall hop forth from thy mouth. Like my unlucky friend who fell mute, to hide the
effects of goldfish-bowl chargers of wine served by her boyfriend’s intimidating older friends. But the
soigné hostess wasn’t having any of it and kept asking about her legal course. Somehow my friend
spoke: “Don’t worry your pretty head about it.”
The shame outlived the hangover.


➺ Rule seven: Find an incentive for talking
What do you want to talk about?
To save time and tedium, seek what your fellow talkers would like. With antennae tuned, you can find
common ground fast, then dig in. Trail topic bait, pouncing on subjects that light them up. Just one word
—“sports”—is a personality biopsy; gouts of useful information usually spurt forth. Or, if in season,
mention Oscars: Either they won’t care, or they’ll discuss films, gowns, or whoever’s blubbing
acceptance speech. Voilà your conversation’s direction: another topic, culture, conspicuous
consumption, or the grisly trade in emotica.
Watching faces also stems catastrophe. (I still picture my dumb-struck Anglo-Indian friend, Anil, at a
barbecue, as evening darked to night, and I happened upon him cornered by a beery Blimp, who it
transpired had been calling him “O’Neill” and descanting on how Albion was awash with foreigners.)
Floundering? Then fabricate an incentive. Generous small talk automatically has a point, not least for
you: Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, found “kindness and gratitude activities” the
most enduring of mood improvers. I know a hotel publicist who finds the perpetual obligation to chat to
strangers occasionally stifling. She wards off insincerity by finding ways to help: a restaurant tip,
gallery to visit. This tactic works both ways, since being asked advice is flattering. Maybe the other
person knows a good butcher, book? A gift for a glum aunt? Specific inquiries reap detailed answers—
richer small-talk material.


➺ Rule eight: Tickle boundaries
Discussion should enlarge by exploratory increments. Pace matters. Too neutral, too long, and you’ll
both transmit beige personalities, but accelerate to war’s evils right away and her son will be a
brigadier. Instead, use discreet hints to flush the other person out.
If in doubt, the stair to intimacy has four steps:
Courtesies (“Hello, how are you?”)
Trade information (“So what brought you here?”)
Trade opinion (“Isn’t this music unusual?”)
Trade feeling (“Yup, I hate it.”)

Pose questions that circle the personal, noting whether the other prefers a sharp or gentle approach,
and adapting accordingly. And although small talk aims to please, don’t make this too obvious. Unlike
journalist Piers Morgan who, in an uncharacteristically beseeching mood, asked Diana, Princess of
Wales, what it was like “being Diana”:
“Oh God, let’s face it, even I have had enough of Diana now—and I am Diana.”

Helpful of her to point that out.
It could have been worse: She could’ve said, “So . . .” This tends to rear up then gently die after the
preliminary flurry when basic parameters are established (who you are, why you’re here). For such
moments, we have ice breakers. The best are funny. Such as the occasion Diana’s alleged bête noire,
Prince Philip, went to dine with the governor of Agadir, and the British delegation was alarmed to see
no cutlery. Not that this was unusual in Morocco, but nor was the Prince known for his sensitivity to
foreign ways. Yet into the couscous plunged his fingers. “Don’t you find,” he said, “eating with a knife
and fork is like making love through an interpreter?”


➺ Rule nine: Build talk up to scale
Turn observations into discussion points by tagging on a question. For example, “It’s a beautiful evening,
isn’t it?” or “I can hardly keep up, there are so many great American novelists/new restaurants/ ways to
lose money these days, aren’t there?” The implied compliment to listeners is that you value their
More provocative opinions can be smuggled in, potential offense cushioned by the note of query. But
watch your tone: Agreement-seeking can be discreet bullying. Or worse, in the case of the acrid yoga
instructor who strode up to my friend, in the process of executing a perfectly humble down dog, and
said: “Have you ever been to a yoga class before, because this is an advanced class, isn’t it?”
Just as hazarding a topic you’ve no passion for is unwise—without an opinion, it’s a dead end—so
you should aim to raise a subject with a follow-up comment or question in mind. Had I prepared one for
Jeremy Irons, I could have averted full-body blush. Had I been less self-conscious, I might have seen
what we already had in common: the place. If only I’d asked him about the exhibition. If, if, if . . .

This is a topic-creation scheme. Instead of dollops of heavy material, information should be drip-fed.
Try combining these ingredients:
a. Situation—where you are; what people have been talking about
b. The other person/people
c. What you would like to know

Bald statements are hard to respond to (hence those fond of them seem pompous). Instead, fuse
observations with questions that invite more than yes or no.
For example, at a welly-wanging contest held in Scotland by your pal Seamus:

A + B + C = “This is my first welly-wanging contest. You look pretty handy, Seamus. What is the best
way to hurl a Wellington boot?”
A + (CB) = “These wellies are light but not very aerodynamic. How are yours?”
(AB) + (BC) = “Much as I love Seamus’s welly-wanging contest, rowing across the loch gets harder
every year. Have you come far, Jeremy?”
(ABC) = “What film other than Welly-Wanging should I bet on winning an Oscar?”


➺ Rule ten: Be optimistic
Worried something isn’t worth saying? Heed the anonymous author of 1673’s Art of Complaisance:
The readiest way to become agreeable in any Conversation, is to banish all distrust, and to be
confident that we are already so.
And what makes anything interesting? Well, how do you know a poem is a poem? Because it’s marooned
in white. Two things make its words art: the mind that selected them, and readers’ faith that the choice
was meaningful. And if you want to hold something up for consideration, it is already interesting: it
interests you.
No idea why it attracts your attention? Mention it anyway; someone else might have a clue. With an
open mind, you might learn something new about you. And try to extend the courtesy. If “So ...” is small
talk’s hardest word, nastiest is “No.” As James Joyce found, meeting fellow belletrist Marcel Proust:
Our talk consisted solely of the word “No.” . . . Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I
said, “No.” Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said,
Conversation hinges on reciprocity. You may sing like a nightingale on the dullest of subjects, but
eloquence is no use, no matter that you’re Joan of Arc or Joan Rivers, if nobody can answer you. If you
speak, and I don’t, a contract is broken. However, it isn’t necessary to match word for word, revelation
for revelation; the trade is emotional, not informational. What matters is to hear the invitation in what
someone says: to speak, or to listen.

DEMOLITION BALL Pendulor blockheadibus

Demolition Ball will let you get a word in edgeways. But don’t mistake these interludes for him
listening. In the lags between tirades, you can almost hear the groan of mental machinery as he swings
back, preparing for the next attack.
Whatever you say, however you say it, DB will find something objectionable. Whether or not it is
what you actually said. Why let facts stand in the way of a good argument?
His enthusiasms are little easier to take than his hates. Positive, negative—every opinion is delivered
with such ferocity that people appear always to agree. It’s easier.
The unfortunate by-product of rolling over to DB is that it appears to confirm he is right in all he says.
This is particularly harmful since DB’s operatic ego is in fact host to a tragic character, an aged toddler,
still reeling at the discovery that he is not, as Ma and Pa suggested, the font of the world’s hopes,
dreams, or wisdom. So the older he gets, the higher disappointment mounts, and DB punches out with
ever greater force.
Tactics: Facing a monster, it’s tempting to play dead. Instead, do as Perseus did to the gorgon Medusa:
Hold up a mirror to turn him to stone. It is because DB can’t master his emotions that he messes with
other people’s. So step back, calmly identify contradictions in his arguments, and watch him writhe.
Can’t be bothered? Then treat him like a tot: Laugh or hug the helpless critter.
Pluses: In a Whatever world, DB’s conviction that some things need saying, sense and sensitivity be
damned, is rare. Consider him a whetstone to sharpen your wits.


PAY HEED On the Acrobatics of Attention
When Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller, obtuse observers were confounded: What could an
intellectual possibly have to say to a helium-headed bombshell?
But if Laurence Olivier is to be trusted, Monroe, not Miller, got the fuzzy end of the lollipop. He
wrote to Noël Coward from the set of The Prince and the Showgirl:
The blond bottom looks and appears to be very good indeed. . . . Arthur talks a great deal better than
he listens, but I never found his talk very entertaining.
Of all deterrents to conversation, most off-putting is the notion that great conversationalists are great
talkers. Luckily, it’s wrong. Conversation is two-way, three-way; as many ways as there are people. And
however entertaining a night with Oscar Wilde might have been, compared to Arthur Miller, it would
have been as spectacle, preferably at a distance, or you’d have risked supplying the warp for his wit.
Talk has hogged the limelight in part because listening lacks glamour. Politeness ordains it a duty,
which has been mistaken for a measure of conversational power, with listeners the weaker vessel, to be
filled by speakers’ potent spirit. So thought society Rottweiler la duchesse du Maine, daughter-in-law to
Louis XIV:
I adore life in society: everyone listens to me, and I listen to no one.
Unsurprisingly, her fashionable reign was brief.

➺ Rule one: Great conversationalists listen more than talk
Surely the main reason listening is overlooked is that its masters deflect attention and cast it flatteringly
elsewhere. Nonetheless, unlike madame la duchesse, the great French salonnières—who did so much,
as historian Benedetta Craveri remarked, to make conversation “a game for shared pleasure”—placed
“talent for listening” above speech, rating the brilliance of in-house wits according to the polish of their
Well, of course: If nothing else, drawing out other people is canny social politics. Stefano Guazzo,
author of Civile Conversation , advised:
Keepe the mouth more shut, and the ears more open. . . . In companie [ye] shall get the good will and
favour of others, as well by giving eare courteously, as by speaking pleasantly. For wee think, they
thinke wel of us, which are attentive to our talke.
It can be the path to power. Witness the career of eighteenth-century courtesan Elizabeth Armitstead,
who began in brothels yet bagged a top politician hubby, slinking into polite society by the grace less of
her “arts of display and seduction,” than being a “sympathetic listener,” able to “make every man
believe himself the centre of the universe.”
And for any misguided person who imagines this is just for girls, another lady (opinion is divided as
to whether she was Winston Churchill’s mother or Queen Victoria’s granddaughter) captured the
difference between captivating talkers and heart-stealing listeners in two prime ministers:
When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in
England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.


Whom would you prefer? In short, stuff duty. Far from talk’s demure shadow, listening is its creative
partner, able to shape conversation, forestall faux pas, forge connections, direct discussion, reap
information and joy.
See how easily Dolly Parton bewitched this middle-aged magazine interviewer:
She totally focuses on me: how many female superstars could I say that about?
Or was it Parton’s opening gambit that won her over?
“I saw you in the corridor and I thought, ‘Who is that attractive young woman?’ ”
Actually, both.
Great listeners are irresistible because they sense what we want to hear. Soothing noises are part of
their art. At its heart lie techniques to seduce purses, votes, and minds.

Ears aren’t just acoustic channels or pincushions for fashion statements. Their use and abuse as symbols
throughout history tell a tale of social change. Where once power lay with gods, kings, and armies,
whom ordinary mortals had to placate, in our rackety world, with the assiduous propitiations of
advertisers and other media, everyone seems to be grabbing at our attention, and we seem to listen less
and less.
Ancient Egyptians exalted the aural organ to combat deities’ and monarchs’ indifference. Statues of
pharaohs had jumbo flaps to display—and doubtless encourage—their willingness to heed the people. In
hieroglyphics, the ear represented divine hearing, and worshippers left votive ear sculptures at temples
to implore the gods to lend them theirs. Hear the longing in this three-thousand-year-old hymn (etched
with forty-four ears) to the god Ptah: lord of Truth, great of strength, the Hearer.
Christ’s final miracle before crucifixion was to replace the ear of the high priest’s servant Malchus
after the enraged disciple Peter struck it off: an act of forgiveness that serves as an emblem of Christ’s
openness to hear the prayers of all.
More sinister iconography adorns the Rainbow portrait of Elizabeth I, a branding exercise that depicts
the childless monarch as divinely youthful (aged sixty-seven) and all-seeing, in a cloak spangled with
ears and eyes; a baldly coded warning to any subject minded to foment dissent at a time when the
succession remained uncertain. No wonder, condemned after a disastrous colonial exploit, Elizabeth’s
erstwhile pet Sir Walter Ralegh instructed his son:
Publicke affaires are rockes, private conversacions are whirlepooles and quickesandes. It is a like
perilous to doe well and to doe ill.
(Likewise, the Queen’s motto was the repressive Video et Taceo—“I see all and say nothing.” Never
mind that she rejoiced in conversation, in several languages at once when ambassadors came calling.)
Rather gorier propaganda took place in Japan in 1597, with the erection of the Mimizuka or “Mound
of Ears” outside Kyoto. This grim shrine contains ears and noses of up to forty thousand Korean victims
of overlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s territory grabs into Korea and China (1592-98)—an obfuscation that
couldn’t m