The Art of Conversation

Mahaffy, John Pentland 1892. The Principles of the Art of Conversation. Second Edition. Philadelphia: The Penn Publishing Company.

The generality of the treatment may perhaps mislead [|] the reader to think that there is nothing but speculation attempted. This is not so, each single case of general description being drawn from instances under the author's own observation, so that not a few will be recognized by those who have moved in the same society. But if justly drawn, they ought to be founded in every society. (Mahaffy 1892: v-vi)

Upon the first reading I noted that this is how Mahaffy achieves the claim of universality, repeated in Malinowski. After Fox (1944), the criticism must point out that neither scholar attempted a comparative approach. Sadly, performing such a thing today on the basis of literature employing the term "phatic" would be misguided by the variety of conceptions it has garnered - a study following Jakobson's formulation would completely neglect the social psychological aspects relevant for Malinowski.

  1. is universal;
  2. is necessary; and therefore
  3. Is it an art?
  4. Can it be improved?
The great difficulty is this: that it must seem to be natural, and not an art. Hence -
  1. Analogy of the arts of logic and rhetoric, viz. -
  1. They can never be taught without natural gifts to receive them.
  2. They can always be greatly improved in those who possess these gifts.
  3. They must not be paraded, or they cease to be arts in the brighter sense, for
  4. The highest art is to attain perfect nature.
So also -
  1. No teaching by mere specimens and by memory is possible.
  2. All the general rules are obvious, and yet
  3. Natural gifts are necessary to apply them with skill.
Subjective Conditions,
(A) in the speaker, and these are either. -
  1. Physical, viz.
    1. A sweet tone of voice.
    2. Absence of local accent.
    3. Absence of tricks and catchwords.
  2. Mental, viz.
    1. Knowledge, which may be either Special (general topics, the topic of the day) - or General (books, men),
    2. Quickness.
  3. Moral, viz.
    1. Modesty.
    2. Simplicity - digression on Shyness and Reserve.
    3. Unselfishness.
    4. Sympathy.
    5. Tact.
Digression as regards Conditions -
  1. too general - Moral Worth and Truthfulness.
  2. too special - Wit and Humor.
Objective Conditions,
(B) in the hearers, which are either in -
  1. Quantity, for we speak with (a) one, (b) a few, digressions on gossip and ladies' schools, (c) many.
  2. Quality, for we speak with (a) equals, (b) superiors, (c) inferiors, digression on bilingual societies.
  3. Differences (A) of age, (1) older, (2) younger, (3) equal; (B), of sex - men and women.
  4. Degrees of Intimacy, (a) relations, (b) friends, (c) acquaintances (familiar, slight).
(C) The Topics, which are either -
  • In Quantity - infinite.
  • In Quality - serious or trivial.
  • In Relation - personal or general.
(D) The handling of the Topics must be either -
  • Deliberative, or by all the company.
  • Controversial, or by two speakers.
  • Epideictic, or by one.
(Mahaffy 1892: vii-ix)

It is a duty; good conversation is not vain; the principles are intuitive; it should be relaxed; automatic; and simple; there should be reciprocity; and active sympathy; ordinary gossip; linguistic communities; social union; trivial everyday topics; collective monologue.

There can be no doubt that of all the accomplishments prized in modern society, that of being agreeable in conversation is the very first. (Mahaffy 1892: 11)

"There can be no doubt that we have here a new type of linguistic use" (PC 6.1). How can it be new if it is widely prized? It's like discovering America. Thus, there is real doubt if it is indeed a new type of linguistic use.

An agreeable young woman will always carry away the palm in the long run from the most brilliant player or singer who has nothing to say. (Mahaffy 1892: 12)

"Indeed there need not or perhaps even there must not be anything to communicate" (PC 9.4). The difference lies in the brilliant player or singer not knowing what to say, and the situation requiring nothing to be said.

But quite apart from all these serious profits, and better than them all, is the daily pleasure derived from good conversation by those who can contribute it themselves or enjoy it in others. (Mahaffy 1892: 12)

The asymmetry partly does away with contributing - what is left is merely "enjoy[ing] each other's company".

It is a perpetual intellectual feast, it is an ever-ready recreation, a deep and lasting comfort, costing no outlay but that of time, requiring [|] no appointments but a small company, limited neither to any age nor any sex, the delight of prosperity, the solace of adversity, the eternal and essential expression of that social instinct which is one of the strongest and best features in human nature. (Mahaffy 1892: 12-13)

Different: good conversation is an intellectual feasts, that is, provides new information and possibly even reflection. Same: small talk relieves anxiety and distress felt in the company of strangers. Similar: the social instinct is more diffuse in Malinowski's text, instead being relegated to "social sentiments". The exact relationship between instinct and sentiments still somewhat elusive.

If such be the universality and the necessity of conversation in modern society, it seems an obvious inquiry whether it can be taught or acquired by any fixed method; or rather, as everybody has to practice it in some way, not as a mere ornament, but as a necessity of life, it may be asked: Is there any method by which we can improve our conversation? (Mahaffy 1892: 13)

Another difference: PC is something "superfluous"; it is as if Malinowski's ideal society could do without free and social intercourse. Was even the Third Reich in this sense "Spartan"?

Now this runs counter to one of the strongest convictions among intelligent men and women, that if anything in the world [|] ought to be spontaneous it is conversation. How can a thing be defined by rules which consists in following the chances of the moment, drifting with the temper of the company, suiting the discourse to whatever subject may turn up? (Mahaffy 1892: 13-14)

This begs the question, how can formulae be spontaneous? Or the Goffmanian quirk of having a ready stock of insignificant stories? In following chances and drifting in a medley, non-consecutiveness and unreflexiveness is evoked - "small" talk is distinguished from serious talk by not having to stick to the subject at hand.

For it is the natural easy flow of talk, drifting with the current of thought in its changing eddies, which is indeed the perfection of what we seek. Didactic teaching, humorous anecdotes, clever argument - these may take their part in social intercourse, but they are not its real essence, as I understand it. (Mahaffy 1892: 14)

In the previous edition: "these may take their part in social intercourse, but they are not its perfection" (Mahaffy 1888: 5). Did he give up on achieving some sort of "perfection"?

Yet the best reasoner is not the man who parades his logic and thrusts syllogisms upon his opponents, but he who states his arguments as if they arose spontaneously and followed one another by natural suggestion. (Mahaffy 1892: 16)

Is this reflection? Fox (1944) reiterates it several times in the pragmatic key as relying on past experience and in some way anticipating the future. It is not out of the question that in some sense, the logic of reflection is exactly that - an insistence on syllogism.

Here, too, the untutored speaker is always conventional and conscious awkward; it is the trained orator who is easy and graceful; he is, in fact, at home not only with his audience, but, if I may say so, with himself. (Mahaffy 1892: 18)

The double orientation of comfort; having both self-confidence the audience's confidence.

But hence also the fact that such an analysis is very much needed, and that conversation generally is at a far lower level than it might be. (Mahaffy 1892: 19)

A point not to be neglected when treating the pejorative/malicious aspect of PC: good conversation so often degenerates into phatic communion because the art and theory of conversation are not undertaken with sufficient seriousness.

In general, good public speakers are also agreeable in conversation; the art of persuading people from a platform is nearly akin to that of pleasing them in social discourse, though there are of course some men only fit for the greater and more serious mission, and some who are perfect enough in the lesser, yet who cannot rise to the importance of the greater task. (Mahaffy 1892: 19)

It can be surmised from Mahaffy's Greek Antiquities (1897) that he viewed "social intercourse" as something bloader than the strictly linguistic "social discourse".

What are called natural gifts start one man far ahead of another. And yet these external qualities may be outrun by a larger mental gift, which overcomes weakness of voice and poverty of frame and makes a man whose presence is mean, and whose speech at first contemptible, fascinate great audiences with his genius. We may be unable to define what this peculiar quality is in the case of conversation, but we must take care to recognize its presence from the very outset. (Mahaffy 1892: 21)

Good conversationalists can "grasp" the attention of the audience.

But when any one comes to consider by what conditions conversation can be improved, and turns first of all to his own side, to see what he can do for himself in that direction, he will find that certain natural gifts which he may possess, or the absence of which he may regret, are of no small importance in making him more agreeable to those whom he meets in society. (Mahaffy 1892: 22)

Hence, not family or friends, but acquaintances.

The habit of wrangling with people who will not listen without interruption, and who try to shout down their company, nay even the habit of losing one's temper, engenders a noisy and harsh way of speaking, which naturally causes a prejudice against the talker in good society. (Mahaffy 1892: 23)

Another note on pejorativeness/maliciousness - PC may be an expression of such natural prejudice. Good society condemns the speech of uneducated classes.

Even the dogmatic or overconfident temper which asserts opinions loudly, and looks round to command approval or challenge contradiction, chills good conversation by setting people against the speaker, whom they presume to be a social bully and wanting in sympathy. (Mahaffy 1892: 23)

The overbearing or commanding speaker, in other words, hinders "the development of the sentiment of affection between equals" (McDougall 1916: 168).

Similarly the presence of a strong local accent, though there are cases where it gives raciness to wit and pungency to satire, is usually a hindrance to conversation, especially at its outset, and among strangers. It marks a man as provincial, and hence is akin to vulgarity and narrowness of mind. It suggests too that the speaker has not moved much about the world, or even in the best society of his native country, in which such provincialism is carefully avoided, and set down as an index of mind and manners below the proper level. (Mahaffy 1892: 24)

What is the proper level of mind? It would appear that accent makse a "pretension to reason" (Trotter 1921: 120).

However apt a man's internal furniture may be for conversation, he may make it useless by being externally disagreeable, and how often when we praise a frined as a good talker do we hear the reply: I should like him well enough if he did not worry me with his don't you know, or his what, or his exactly so, or something else so childishly small, that we shudder to think how easily a man may forfeit his position or popularity among civilized men in their daily intercourse. (Mahaffy 1892: 25)

The metaphor is neat, but the "want of meaning" (triviality) is utterances "childishly small" brings it once again in relation with the non-standard speakers (children, aphasics, parrots, etc.).

On the other hand, if a man or woman be overdressed, and ostentatiously neat, the public at once infers triviality or shallowness of character; and such a person will find difficulty in proving that he has serious views of life, and is trustworthy in the conduct of weighty affairs. (Mahaffy 1892: 26)

These serious views of weighty affairs are the exact opposite of "personal accounts of the speaker's views and life history" (PC 5.4).

Akin to this is the advantage of having seen and conversed with the greatest men of the day - a featur which lends the principal charm to those volumes of autobiography or of Recollections, [|] which approach nearer than any other kind of book to the conditions of a mere conversation. (Mahaffy 1892: 28-29)

The distinction between general and special knowledge thus follows the lines of a "community of knowledge" (cf. Trotter), though the opposing side would be something like "uncommon knowledge", or knowledge in which there is no community. As to books approaching conversaton, depending upon the "mereness", could include those manuals of conversation called "phrasebooks".

Of course the danger with either of these specialists, the specialist of a day or the specialist of years, is that he will not leave his subject when it has been sufficiently discussed, as he will probably gauge the interest of others by his own pre-occupation, and so may become not a blessing but a bore to his company. (Mahaffy 1892: 29)

Did Toby ever tell you about the Scranton Strangler case?

Neither of these mental conditions, which are distinctly valuable in society, includes the case of specialists on topics which are of no universal or no permanent interest. Thus there are English society men devoted to one particular sport or one narrow pursuit, upon which they can talk with authority indeed, and with interest, but only to those who have received the same training. (Mahaffy 1892: 29)

These topics of universal and permanent interests are "one's views on the weather, on fresh air and draughts, on the Government and on uric acid" (Trotter 1921: 119-120).

A party of fox-hunters, or racing-men, or [|] college dons, or stockbrokers, who rehearse again in the evening what they have been doing all day, may indeed amuse themselves with talk, but in no sense is it good conversation. One specialist, as I have said, may be of the greatest use in conversation. A set of specialists when they get together are either unintelligible to the average mind or exceedingly tedious. (Mahaffy 1892: 29-30)

I object! In what sense is the talk of specialists not a good conversation if they can easily contribute and reap pleasure from their discussion? Is setting the standard for good conversation on the basis of "the average mind" not dumbing down the concept and limiting it unnecessarily? To evoke Dell Hymes, the mothers may talk about their babies and anthropologists about their respective fieldwork, but their conversation is no worse off for the anthropologists having no interest in their babies and the mothers ditto for fieldwork. Who sets the standard of the average mind?

But it is surely a bad sign of any society to find men's parties considered more agreeable than those of both sexes, for it is a sign either of license in men's talk or of narrowness in women's education. (Mahaffy 1892: 30)

Then how can that one Russian author claim that "women's talk is phatic" at a time when education is coed?

A great mistake lies at the root of such an opinion, which assumes that the first object of conversation is not to please but to instruct. (Mahaffy 1892: 31)

This great mistake is the birthplace of phatic communion, and besides here, also in Dewey and Trotter. It is possible that there are many other instances of this mistake being called out, and hopefully in due time I will find other such occasions in the literature. Note, too, that this plays on the substratum of most communication models, that the sender is a preceptor or instructor and the receiver a novice or instructee (cf. Shands 1970: 2).

Of course to instruct or to be instructed is often very pleasant, and so far knowledge, general or special, is a very useful help to conversation, but it is as talk, not as a lesson, that we must here regard it. (Mahaffy 1892: 31)

A meritorious concession. Knowledge can be a great aid but is not the primary object of social intercourse. It is meritorious, deserves praise, because it overcomes the absolutism of functional typologies which set formal lessons and casual talk out as extremes and not as intermingling affairs; no-one, after all, objects to being given information in small talk. To say that there is no exchange of information in phatic communion is the most blatant folly of many who work with the concept - they neglect the hierarchy of functions.

The advantage of general above special knowledge for our purpose is that it can be applied in a greater number of cases, and used to interest a greater number of people. The man of general knowledge can suit himself to various company, and, if he is not able to speak with the authority of the specialist, can at least [|] help and stimulate in many cases where the latter is likely to be silent. If therefore we exclude the object of gaining information, which many people estimate, not, indeed, above its intrinsic importance, but above its importance in conversation, regarded not as a lesson, but a recreation, we must decide that general information is the better condition to promote agreeable social intercourse. (Mahaffy 1892: 31-32)

General knowledge has wider appeal, and can more easily break the silence. Conversation, as a form of recreation, does not exclude the object of gaining information but it is not its primary aim, its so-called "function-role". It does not satisfy the need for knowledge, but need for company.

We may even say with truth that no man can attain to general knowledge nowadays without reading many books. The danger of a desultory habit, very likely to arise from skimming the mass of ephemeral literature now gushing from the press is, that the facts acquired will not be set in order, and will come out as untidy scraps, not as the details of a proper system of study. (Mahaffy 1892: 32)

*Stops scrolling the feed* and utters a disgruntled "Huh?"

The books which a man reads may ither be the great masters, which are perhaps rather useful for cultivating his deeper self than for ordinary converse, or the newest authors, whose merits are still [|] upon trial, and who therefore afford an excellent field for discussion and criticism. (Mahaffy 1892: 32-33)

Well, I think that the true Self, that original Self, that first Self, is a real, mensurate, quantifiable thing, tangible and incarnate, and I'm going to find the fucker... in the books I read.

There is, however, another kind of general knowledge which is not so easy to acquire, for it requires long experience, a certain position in society, and means for foreign travel. I mean the general knowledge of remarkable men, concerning whom the speaker can tell his recollections. There is often a man of no great learning or ability whose officila position, tact, or private means have brought him into relation with the great minds about whom every detail is interesting. Such a man's general knowledge should always make him an agreeable member of society. Akin to this man is the experienced traveller who has wandered through many lands and seen the cities and the ways of men. (Mahaffy 1892: 33)

Having firsthand experiences of "remarkable men" must have been quite a bit more common when there was only ~1.5 billion people in the world and most of them without education and any technological means of transportation and communication. Would books about said remarkable men (e.g. Galton) do? Personally I find other peoples' travel stories boring.

The man of books, on the contrary, has to acquire his store in the silence of his study, and hence by a process which rather untrains him for talking, so that even though his knowledge when acquired may be of more solid and permanent value, his way of producing it may put him at a disadvantage. (Mahaffy 1892: 34)

Not unlike that notable excerpt from Plato, "Those who acquire [writing] will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their rememberance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources" (cf. Lotman 1990: 251).

The tourist who formerly went through Italy with his vetturino, and saw every village and road deliberately, talking with the people and observing national life, is now whirled [|] through tunnels and by night from one capital to another, where he sees what Cook or Murray chooses him to see, just as the man who trusts the newspapers for his knowledge gets scraps, perversions, even lies, served up for him by way of universal information. (Mahaffy 1892: 34-35)

And now we have Wikipedia, though scrappy, not that fraudulent.

For this is the mental quality which is the foundation of wit, and a joker who merely consults his own amusement, or the amusement of some of his hearers at the expense of others, is not a good converser. The tendency of a very quick intellect is also akin to impatience, and so it will interfere with and cow more modest [|] minds, which might have contributed well to the feast of talk had they been allowed to work without hurry or pressure. So strong do we often find this contrast that it is unadvisable, in choosing a set of people for conversation, to bring together very slow and very quick intellects. While the former and more dazzled and confused than pleased, the latter feel the delay of listening to long and deliberate sentences intolerable; and so a company in which all the members are socially excellent may fail to be pleasant on account of the mental contrasts of its members. (Mahaffy 1892: 36-37)

This is the case of "the hearer [who] listens under some restraint and with slightly veiled impatience, waiting till his own turn arrives to speak" (PC 5.4). Evidently differences in "mental quality" account for some of the failure of PC to amount to a good conversation.

Let me illustrate it by an extreme case. Who would think of introducing a young brilliant flashing sceptic into a society of grave and sober orthodoxy? If the conversation did not soon degenerate into acrid controversy - the very lees of social intercourse - it would result in contemptuous silence on one side or other, probably with the contempt so transparent as to challenge harsh over-statement from the talker by way of challenge or reply to unspoken censure. (Mahaffy 1892: 37)

Define:lees - "the sediment of wine in the barrel; dregs" and "the most worthless part or parts of something".

I need hardly insist that the man or woman who displays modesty by constantly apologizing for native ignorance or stupidity injures conversation, and can only amuse a company by becoming ridiculous. (Mahaffy 1892: 42)

Reminds me of the "Sorry for bad English, not a native speaker" seen online, which is wholly unnecessary in our world of Squantos and comes across as a solicitation for compliments.

What we want to learn from each member is his free opinion on [|] the subject in hand, not his own estimate of the value of that opinion. (Mahaffy 1892: 42-43)

Another take on the "free" in "free, aimless, social intercourse".

There is, for example, the enfant terrible, who upsets everybody and causes shocking shame and confusion by the indiscreet directness of his inquiries. The very same kind of mistake is made by grown people who are ignorant of the ways of society, such as country girls, or girls of an inferior rank, who are married into a cultivated society, and who are allowed such liberties, either for their beauty's sak, or for novelty's [|] sake, that they announce whatever comes into their head, and disturb conversation by their irrelevancy and shallowness, if not by suggesting subjects undesirable in general society. (Mahaffy 1892: 43-44)

I recall a lecture room which, with my exception, was wholly female, and one girl bringing up sex and her keen interest in it. So quirky!

But when all has been said that can be said on either side, it will remain certain that the man who appears [|] simple, and who therefore affects his company with the impression that tehy are in direct contact with his mind, has a distinct advantage over those who, either from conceits of style, or over-delicacy of sentiment, or education in an artificial atmosphere, appear with their minds as it were dressed or tattooed, and not in the purity of nature. (Mahaffy 1892: 45-46)

As opposed to a natural atmosphere, the "atmosphere of sociability" (PC 7.5).

If he is narrating, for example, a trafic history, or story of adventure in which he has taken part, while modesty will prevent him from magnifying his own share in the matter, and so trying to the utmost the faith of his hearers, simplicity will prevent him from unduly concealing his action, and [|] will ensure that he tells the whole truth, so far as he knows it. (Mahaffy 1892: 46-47)

This is "the usual boasting and exaggerations" (Malinowski 1922: 146), related to "vanity and desire to be renowned and well spoken of" (Malinowski 1922: 117-118).

So shy people as a rule rather "fancy themselves"; for though they urge their peculiarity as an excuse for social defects, there lies deeper a secret conviction that they at least have escaped the vice of forwardness, or of that coarseness of mental fibre which is implied in forwardness. (Mahaffy 1892: 48)


There are of course cases of children who are allowed to run away whenever a stranger appears, as if nature were a state of war, and man the natural enemy of man. Such children will require training to be cured of their own and their parents' stupidity, and must be taught that every stranger is not a bogy. (Mahaffy 1892: 49)

Yet another way in which primitive people are viewed as if they were children (or, at the very least, childish or child-minded).

In almost all the cases which occur there is therefore modesty without simplicity, a conscious and almost guilty air; it is often nothing better than vanity, which fears the result of conversation; which desires to be thought well of, and which from mistrust of itself puts on the garb of modesty. (Mahaffy 1892: 50)

Nearly word-for-word, "vanity and desire to be renowned and well spoken of" (Malinowski 1922: 117-118), which is described as a characteristic "feature of the Trobriand social psychology" (ibid.).

How can any conversation be easy and natural, how can it range from topic to topic, and bring out the tempers and the characters of the speakers, if any of them displays this vice by dogged silence, by conscious blushing when any personal topic arises, or by the awkwardness which always accompanies this preoccupation with one's self? If then the capital conditions of pleasant intercourse are modesty and simplicity, this defect, which always contradicts the latter, and generally both of them, is to be regarded as the most prevalent and injurious anti-social [|] vice. The only high quality which may be concealed, or perhaps even displayed by shyness, is a delicate sensitiveness, which shy people generally postulate in themselves, but which has far better and nobler ways of affecting society than by impeding conversation. (Mahaffy 1892: 50-51)

Last time I missed the point here. He is discussing shyness (alias taciturnity), which is an anti-social vice and impedes conversation. Note that ease and naturalness, as well as non-consecutiveness (ranging from topic to topic) is already accounter for, whereas bringing out "the characters of the speakers" is unaccounted for, or only manifest in the egocentric involvement with personal views and life-history.

Next to modesty and simplicity I class the moral virtue of unselfishness. It is very characteristic that we have no other word for this noble quality than the mere negation of its opposite - the most prevalent vice in the world. Why can we not describe it better? (Mahaffy 1892: 52)

Note that vainness is a synonym of selfishness (amour-propre also catches the eye).

This is the man too who interrupts others, who refuses to exercise for a moment that patience which he so often exacts. I set down these people as failures, and such they really are in the truest and highest sense, for they crtainly kill more conversation than they create, nor do they understand that the very meaning of the word implies a contribution-feast, an eranos, as the Greeks would say, not the entertainment provided by a single host. (Mahaffy 1892: 53)

This is where things get really interesting. An Oxford Dictionary note on eranos says that it "was essentially concerned with reciprocity: at first of food, and later of money. In Homer, eranos refers to a meal for which each diner contributed a share". Another source defines it as "a meeting of the minds for elite intellectuals", which is what most search results have to do with. Especially interesting is the possible connection with "the communion of food", as in the summary of the book titled Eranos, "The Eranos Meetings" are "named after the Greek word for a banquet where the guests bring the food".

He has perhaps still one place of refuge; he may become a high priest in that great modern temple of selfishness - his club; but even there his popularity has waned, and he sinks into that old age unfriended and unsociable - ǎφιλου àπροσόμιλου - which Sophocles regarded as one of the tragic features in the life of man. (Mahaffy 1892: 54)

Greek be damned! No Greek word I've ever tried to Google has yielded anything of value.

I turn now to a far more common, but less observed and less censured case of social selfishness, which requires urgently to be brought into the light of criticism. No man requires to practice unselfishness more than the silent man; for as everybody is able to contribute and ought to contribute something, so the man who thrusts himself into society to enjoy the talk of others, and will take no trouble to help, to suggest, or to encourage, is really a serious offender. (Mahaffy 1892: 54)

The silent man is selfish because he does not contribute. This is a frequent complaint nowadays in online dating (e.g. on Tinder), such as this screencap of a guy's back "hurting super bad [...] probably from carrying this conversation".

Many a time have I seen an unknown and obscure person drawn out in this way become the leading feature in a delightful evening; for fresh and curious knowledge, which suddenly springs from an unexpected source, can hardly fail to be profoundly [|] interesting, and to stimulate all the active minds that hear it. (Mahaffy 1892: 56-57)

Stimulating the mind ~ arousing reflection.

The higher condition which now comes before us is, that [|] the speaker, apart from the matter of conversation, feels an interest in his hearers as distinct persons, whose opinions and feelings he desires to know. (Mahaffy 1892: 58-59)

Something to add to the "unreliable informant" hypothesis, the implication being that the ethnographer did not really feel an interest in his informants as distinct persons.

Thus prsonal beauty secures the sympathy of any company; so much so, that even when found out to be a mere shell, with no mental force behind it, the attraction lasts, and lends some charm to what would otherwise be called trivial and stupid. (Mahaffy 1892: 59)

Mahaffy again evoking the physical attractiveness stereotype.

And as in every conversation there must not only be good talking but good listening, the intellectual gifts which make the talker are often marred if he has not the sympathy which makes the listener. (Mahaffy 1892: 60)

And "the reciprocity is established by the change of rôles" (PC 5.6).

I have known a clever woman maintain a deservedly high character for her conversation who really said very little, but was so sympathetic that she made her guests eloquent, and thus so thoroughly pleased with themselves, that she was lit up by the glow of their satisfaction, an dearned very justly the credit for talking well simply because she made others talk. There is probably no social talent higher than this - or rarer. (Mahaffy 1892: 60b)

This is the secondary meaning of sympathetic, "(of a person) attracting the liking of others"; synonymous with "likeable, pleasant, agreeable, congenial, friendly, genial, companiable, easy to get along with, simpatico".

It was said with truth that no man is really worth having as a companion with whom you [|] could not contendedly walk or stay in silence. This is of course a sign of close intimacy, and perfect freedom on both sides to meditate apart, even when together, without giving or taking any offence. Among real friends silence is no sign of estrangement, and it secures that the conversation which arises is perfectly spontaneous, which is, alas! impossible, if we are in the society of mere acquaintances who will construe our silence as rudeness. (Mahaffy 1892: 60-61)

Something to this effect has passed through this blog numerous times. One instance reframes it as "phatic silence", exemplified in the negative: "Tamar noticed that she had never met a person she felt so comfortable being silent with" (Grossman; in Ephratt 2008: 1924).

Sympathy must not be excessive in quality, which makes it demonstrative, [|] and therefore likely to repel its object. We have an excellent word which describes the over-sympathetic person, and marks the judgment of society, when we say that he or she is gushing. Of course as women are more frequently endowed with this virtue than men, they also err more frequently in the excess, at least in Teutonic races, for among Latin races a gushing man is quite a common phenomenon. This sort of person not only volunteers to show his sympathy before it is required, and often spoils conversation at the outset, but is ever ready to agree with everybody, so making discussion, which implies differences in opinion, impossible. There results a social impression of a mixed kind, which is even more disagreeable than downright dislike, and therefore socially worse - I mean that of feeling a dislike, and even something like contempt, for a person who is known to be full of goodness and benevolence. Many people resent being obliged to confuse their judgment in this way, and feel a stronger antipathy to this marred goodness than to proclaimed evil. (Mahaffy 1892: 61-62)

Could this be the key to unlocking "bonds of antipathy" and "affirmation"? The two do appear in the same sentence: "Always the same emphasis on affirmation and consent, mixed perhaps with an incidental disagreement which creates the bonds of antipathy" (PC 5.3).

These and many similar observations, which will occur to the intelligent reader, will indicate how important are the limitations of sympathy, and how essential it is that this, like every other social virtue, should be carefully husbanded, and not squandered ta random without regard to its value. (Mahaffy 1892: 63)

Could be a headline.

I should add that the foregoing remarks are specially applicable to English (I do not mean English-speaking) society. There is no people more distant and reserved in social intercourse, or that more resents any display of feeling, especially of sympathy, without a careful introduction of it, and without considerable intimacy among the company. [|] Thus those who are accustomed to freer and more outspoken societies, not to say French and Italian life, may make social mistake in England on the score of sympathy, which are sins only in the heavy atmosphere of Anglo-Saxon manners. (Mahaffy 1892: 63-64)

See "the pathos of nobility and distance" (Nietzsche 1921: 4). Could it be that, in the final analysis, sympathy is subtracted of symmetry due to the English' resentment of "any display of feeling"? Is there an equivalence between free/outspoken and free/aimless?

As its name implies, it [tact] is a sensitive touch in social matters, which feels small changes of temperature, and so guesses at changes of temper; which sees the passing cloud on the expression of one face, or the eagerness of another that desires to bring out something person for others to enjoy. (Mahaffy 1892: 65)

"Nor is anyone fooled into believing that an exchange of polite opinions about the weather between two thoroughly sober people has any real concern with or bearing upon current or proximate meteorological events: in this, people are taking the temperature and assessing the humidity of the inter-individual weather, not the earthly." (La Barre 1954: 167-168)

But quite apart from instinct, an experienced man who is going to tell a story which may have too much point for some of those present, [|] will look round and consider each member of the party, and if there be a single stranger there whose views are not familiar to him, he will forego the pleasure of telling the story rather than make the social mistake of hurting even one of the guests. (Mahaffy 1892: 66-67)

Yet another twist on the stranger.

It is perhaps more practical to observe that an over-seriousness in morals may be detrimental to the ease and grace, above all to the playfulness, of talk. (Mahaffy 1892: 69)

Playfulness confirmed.

But on the other hand there is such a thing - Aristotle saw it long ago - as being over-scrupulous in truthfulness, when we are indulging in the relaxation of easy conversation. Even a consummate liar, though generally vulgar, and therefore offensive, will contribute more pleasantly to a conversation than the scrupulously truthful man, who weighs every statement, questions every fact, and corrects every inaccuracy. In the presence of such a social scourge I have heard a witty talker pronounce it the golden rule of conversation to know nothing accurately. Far more important is it, in my mind, to domand no accuracy. There is no greater or more common blunder in society than to express disbelief or scepticism in a story told for the amusement of the company. (Mahaffy 1892: 70)

This golden rule is mirrored in lack of need to say anything. The scourge of someone weighing every statement Mahaffy attributes in Greek Antiquities to "sycophancy".

There may have been times and nations where conversation was regarded as a serious and important an engine of education, that sound argument, brilliant illustration, and ample information, took the highest place as qualities of talk. Perhaps they do in some cases now, as, for example, everybody who knows him will concede to Mr. Gladstone the palm as a very charming man in society by reason of these qualities. But among hard-working and somewhat fatigued peple, who have been pursuing information of various kinds in all their working hours, conversation must be of the nature of relaxation; it must be amusing first, instructive afterwards, and so it is that nowaday no qualities however valuable, rank so high in popular estimation for social purposes, as wit and humor. (Mahaffy 1892: 72)

Unlike others mentioned above Mahaffy thus has a justification for bringing up that mistaken conception: conversation should be a release from communicating information. The social purpose, thus, is recreation.

The excesses of the humorist are perhaps rather those of a complacent selfishness, which does not desitate to monopolize the company with long stories in which all do not feel an interest. (Mahaffy 1892: 79)

Define:complacent - "showing smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one's achievements".

But, beyond the considerations above indicated, we cannot bring it into any systematic doctrine of social intercourse. (Mahaffy 1892: 80)

A statement of purpose.

Thus a colloquy with a single person, which is the easiest form, for it is usually with some one who is not a stranger, and it allows far more personality, will best consist in a direct interchange of serious opinion, in which each seeks to make the other speak out in confidence his inmost character. The better talker will turn the conversation upon the other's life, inquire into his or her history, so far as that can be done with good taste and without impertinence, and so encourage him (or her) to give personal recollections or confessions, which are to the teller of them generally of the deepest interest. (Mahaffy 1892: 81)

This is where Malinowski achieves his most blatant reversals: instead of one speaker pontificating upon his own "views and life history", a good conversationalist elicits these from the other.

As our manners and customs determine these things, it is not usual to have a long tête-à-tête with another person of the same sex without choosing your companion and seeking out the opportunity; but, on the contrary, two people of different sexes are often brought together and ordered (so to speak) to converse, for no other reason than the command of society. Thus a young man is introduced to a partner at a ball, or a man of soberer age is directed to take a lady down to dinner. Here, though the company is large, the conversation is really of the kind before us - a dialogue between two persons only, of different sexes, and often comparative strangers. There is no case more frequent where conversation is imperative, and where failures are common and conspicuous. (Mahaffy 1892: 82)

This must be the manner in which agreeable communication is a "duty".

People of serious temper and philosophic habit will be able to confine themselves [|] to large ethical views, and the general dealings of men; but to average people, both men and women, and perhaps most of all to busy men, who desire to find in society relaxation from their toil, that lighter and more personal kind of criticism on human affairs will prevail which is known as gossip. (Mahaffy 1892: 89-90)

Conversation, especially gossip, thus, is a recreation "after all the daily tasks are over" (PC 1.2).

It is usual for all people, especially those who must indulge in it, to censure gossip as a crime, as a violation of the Ninth Commandment, as a proof of idleness and vain curiosity, as a frivolous waste of the time given us for mental improvement. Yet the censure is seldom serious. (Mahaffy 1892: 90)

"Vain curiosity" is an especially pungent expression.

All the funny sketches of life and character which have made Punch so admirable a mirror of society for the last fifty years, are of the character of gossip, subtracting the mischievous element of personality; and though most people will think this latter an essential feature in our meaning when we talk of gossip, it is not so; it is merely the trivial and passing, the unproven and suspected, which constitutes gossip, for it is quite possible to bring any story under the notion while suppressing the names of the actors. (Mahaffy 1892: 92)

A workable definition of gossip.

The only excuse I can find for this widespread outrage upon the social rights of the young, is the old tradition [|] of universities, still pursued in convent schools and Roman Catholic seminaries, that a portino of Scripture, or of some edifying book, should be read out during meals, so that the pupils may take in spiritual good along with their dinners, and avoid the crime of light and trivial conversation. (Mahaffy 1892: 94-95)

A variation of free and aimless, noticeably more pertinent qualities selected for the purpose.

For here the talk is not really with many at a time, nor again is it the conversation with one person, in which the main element is the sustaining of interest for a considerable time; it is a series of brief successive dialogues, in which the two great difficulties of conversation, the starting of it and the breaking off, are perpetually recurring. (Mahaffy 1892: 97)

Anticipating "maintaining attention".

The speaker is even debarred from the use of any fixed rule or method of overcoming these difficulties, for the people addressed will be sure to compar notes, and [|] will reject as insincere any politeness which are administered according to a formula, however graceful it may appear. (Mahaffy 1892: 97-98)

Touching upon the spurious one-sidedness of expressions of sympathy, especially when - as must be emphasized - these are "administered according to a formula".

However this may be, the knowledge, inspired or acquired, of the name and circumstances of an inferior is the great key ot smoothing over the difficulty of beginning a conversation, for any personal question will be taken as a compliment, and evidence of a friendly interest on the part of the prince. The breaking off with ease and grace is more difficult, for I do not count the formal bow of dismissal or the prearranged interruption by a new presentation as more than awkward subterfuges. (Mahaffy 1892: 99)

Another surprising Jakobsonianism!

If he had thought more upon the subject, or if he had been allowed to give us the results of his thinking, he might have told us that the secret in all cases, and [|] the sine qua non of good conversation, is to establish equality, at least momentarily, if you like fictions, but at all costs equality, among the members of the company who make up the party. The man who keeps asserting his superiority, or confessing his inferiority, is never agreeable. (Mahaffy 1892: 101-102)

A great point.

We need hardly add that the greatest stress must here be placed on tact, for to presume on either kind of superiority will cause offence, and so spoil every attempt at breaking the bonds set around us by the grades of the social hierarchy. (Mahaffy 1892: 104)

It is extremely curious that Malinowski talks of establishing bonds, Mahaffy of breaking them.

The most successful conversations with old men are, however, not those with the old raconteur, who is in the habit of narrating his experiences and expects to be asked to do so, but with some modest and apparently dull old person who is successfully probed by intelligent and sympathetic questions, till he is actually reminded of long-forgotten scenes, which have perhaps not been suggested to him for years, and then he draws from his memory, with the help of further questions, some passage of life and adventure of the highest interest. (Mahaffy 1892: 116)

This reads like a passage from Malinowski's Argonauts quoted in Fox (1944), as to how he managed to elucidate valuable information from old informants.

So important and so neglected is this social duty of probing for the strong point of others, which is naturally brought forward in connection with the effort to talk with the young and inexperienced, that I am disposed to lay this down as a practical rule: if you find the company dull, blame yourself. With more skill and more patience on your part it is almost certain you would have found it agreeable. If even two or three people in a company acted on this rule, how seldom would our social meetings prove a failure! (Mahaffy 1892: 120)

Perhaps the final statement of the folly of phatic communion. If you find your communication conveying no new information, it is your own fault. This book will in all probability incur a third reading.


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