Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Etiquette and the Art of Listening


Humorous depiction of men talking about their feelings.

To converse, is not to talk continually, as prattlers suppose; it is to listen and speak in our turn; we must not acquit ourselves the less well in the one than in the other. To do this, we should attend half of the time to the person who is addressing us, (on this account it is impolite to do any work while talking;) if they hesitate or are embarrassed you should appear not to notice it, and in case you are a little acquainted, after a few moments, you should, in a very modest manner, supply the word which seems to have escaped them. If they are interrupted by any incident, when the cause of the interruption shall have ceased, you will not wait until they resume the conversation, but with a smile of benevolence, and an engaging gesture, request them to proceed; "please to continue; you were just saying?"...

If we are obliged in this manner, to palliate any such interruption, much more, ought we never to allow ourselves to be the cause of it. This is so rigorous a rule, that if, in the warmth of conversation, two persons commence speaking at once, both ought to stop immediately, when they perceive it, and each, while excusing themselves, to decline proceeding. It is proper for the one worthy of the most respect to resume the conversation.

If a person shall relate anything to you, who, without having any pleasantry, makes attempts at it; and without being affecting, endeavors to move you, however wearied you may be, appear pleased and assume an air of interest. If the narrator wanders into long digressions, have patience to let him extricate himself alone from the labyrinth of history. If the history is interminable, be resigned, and do not appear less attentive. This condescension is especially to be observed, if you are listening to an elderly or respectable person. If the merciless story-teller is your equal or friend, you may say to him, in order to induce him to finish his narration, "and finally... ."

Novices in the customs of the world, think they can abruptly interrupt a conversation which is begun, by asking to have some incidents, which they have not understood, explained, or by making the person who is telling the story repeat the names; this should not be done until after some consideration, and in the most polite manner. If the narrator pronounces badly; if you see that other hearers are in the same situation as yourself; if you foresee that for want of having followed him in his narration, you will not be able to reply with politeness, you can in this case, interrupt; but in some such manner as this; "I ask your pardon, Sir, I fear I have lost some part of your interesting conversation, will you be kind enough to repeat it," etc... . It is necessary also, to choose a favorable moment, as for instance, when the narrator pauses, hesitates for a word, or stops to take his handkerchief.

When a person relates to you a plain falsehood, the art of listening becomes embarrassing, for if you seem to believe it, you would pass for a fool, and if you appear to doubt it, you will pass for an uncivil person. An air of coldness, a slight attention, an expression like the following, "That is astonishing," will extricate you honorably from your embarrassment; but when an event is narrated which is only extraordinary, or not improbable, your manner should be otherwise. Your countenance should express astonishment, and you should reply by a phrase of this kind; "If I did not know your strict regard for the truth, or if any person but you had told me this, I should have hardly believed it." Under no circumstances should you interrupt him.

It happens sometimes that you foresee some incident in an interesting story; and the pleasure that you find in this; the desire of showing that you have guessed correctly, and the intention of proving how much you are interested, induce you to interrupt suddenly in this manner, "I see it, it is so, exactly." An interruption of this kind, although well meant and natural, will offend old persons, who like to tell a story at full length, and will confound formal narrators, who will be in despair that a phrase is taken from them which they had intended for effect; these interruptions are only allowable among our intimate friends, or inferiors, for otherwise you will have an ill-humored answer to your, "I see it," etc... as with a triumphant air, "egad, but you can't see it," etc... which is always embarrassing.

The worst kind of interruption of all others, is that which hauteur dictates. A clever person seizing hold of a story which another is telling, and with the intention of making it more lively, becomes, notwithstanding his eloquence, a model of impertinence and vulgarity. It is, doubtless, hard to see a fool spoil a good anecdote, of which he might have made something interesting; but if we should not be restrained by politeness from expressing our feelings, we ought to be by interest. Now hearers of delicacy will remain silent to the conclusion of the recital, and will address themselves with good feelings to the poor narrator who is injured in his rights.

Interruption is pardonable if it is made to prove or clear up a fact in favor of a person who is absent. When they accuse you, you can, according to strict rules, interrupt by an exclamation, but it is better to do it by a gesture. There is often much art and grace in listening, while you gesticulate gently; for example, by counting upon the fingers; by making a gesture of surprise; by a motion of assent, or an exclamation. This is a tacit manner of saying, "ah, I recollect, you are right," and charms the narrator without interrupting him.

In a lively, animated and friendly dialogue, we can interrupt each other by turns, in order to finish a sentence which is begun, or to improve an epithet; this contributes to vivacity in discourse, but it ought not, however, to be too often repeated. There are many shoals to be avoided in listening, and which always betray inexperience in society. To say from time to time to the narrator, "Yes, yes," by nodding the head, making motions with the hand, a custom of old persons, and which is a good representation of a pendulum ; to keep the eyes fixed and the mouth gaping open; to have an air of an absent person or of one in a reverie; to point the finger at persons designated by the narrator; to gape without concealing by the hand or the handkerchief, which is by no means flattering to the speaker; to cast your eye frequently towards the clock--all these habits are offences against good *ton.

* The ton is a term commonly used to refer to Britain's high society in the Regency and reign of George IV, and later. During the eighteenth century, it was borrowed from the French word meaning "taste" or "the highest style" and is pronounced the same way as "tone." The full phrase is "le bon ton," meaning good manners or "in the fashionable mode" – characteristics held as ideal by the British beau monde.  From "Etiquette" 1866

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