We should learn to speak as soon as we learn to talk. I hope the reader forgive me for the wordplay, but more often than not, we find out that our friends and colleagues do not listen to themselves – and if they did, they’d be appalled! We hope this Gentleman’s Gazette article helps you to remember some guidelines for a proper gentleman’s speech, which, we are sure, you did learn before.
Jonathan Swift’s Polite Conversation
One of the Gulliver’s Travels author last works, A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (published in 1738), assembles a list of mortal sins against the art of conversation, which remain valid these days. I’ll list them and make some comments.
Lack of attention of the listener
More common than we may think, this peccadillo is rude to the speaker and is equivalent to say, “what is on my mind is more important than what you are saying.” If you are talking to someone, forget the screen – of your phone, tablet, computer, whatever – and look at the interlocutor.
In the book The Active Listener, the author – Rodrigo Crespo – says that “active listening requires a considerable amount of effort to enable us to concentrate on the verbal communication and body language of our interlocutor.” No matter how unattractive the subject or how monotonous the rhythm of the speaker, pull up your focus and show you are interested.
Interrupting the speaker or talking at the same time
Yes, I know: everybody is in a hurry these days. But in a conversation, interruptions suggest that you have something more important to say than your interlocutor, an attitude inexcusable for a gentleman. Wait until the speaker finishes the argument and then talk. Try to control your anxiety.
If you are on a business or office meeting, take a notepad along and make notes of points you wish to make regarding what is being said; when the occasion arises, express your own position about the subject.
Showing off one’s wit or culture
An uncalled-for exhibition of erudition and unbecoming a gentleman. If you are among friends, they know you know certain subjects well, and so you don’t need to show off.
Or you may have a limited or “almanac” knowledge about a subject and, unknowingly, you have an expert on the same subject at the table. If you start to talk about that theme as if you were a Nobel Prize winner on it, the expert may cut you down to size and you will not feel good.
A good example that comes to mind concerns Milton Berle, who loved Cuban cigars. He was buying H. Upmann cigars at Saks Fifth Avenue just before the Cuban Embargo. He told this story to Cigar Aficionado:
“When I went into Saks and asked if they had any Upmanns, the salesman said he had a few left. I told him to trot them out, as I’d like to sample one. Which I did. But after a couple of puffs, I pronounced, ‘this is not an Upmann.’ The salesman, a very polite young man, insisted that it was. ‘Well, it doesn’t taste like an Upmann,’ I told him. Now there was a guy with a little mustache sitting on a couch nearby. He interrupted me and said, ‘that’s an Upmann.’ Well, I got testy and cracked, ‘who asked you? I’m buying cigars, and I’m an expert on Upmanns. And I can tell you this is not an Upmann. I don’t know what it is, but this is not an Upmann.’ The guy on the couch said, ‘but I can tell you it is an Upmann.’ Finally, I turned to him and yelled, ‘will you shut up? I’ve had enough of you. Who the hell are you, anyway?’ And he turned to me with a straight face and said, ‘my name is Upmann. H. Upmann. And my father started the Upmann Cigar Company.’ I was never so embarrassed in my life. I felt like crawling out of the place.”
And if you are among acquaintances or colleagues, just let them know – shall it be the case – that you know a thing or two about the subject in question and that you will be glad to deepen it. Try to assess the depth of the conversation and do not force the tone up or down if not needed.
Needless to say, a good conversation is a two-way street. Do not try to monopolize the subject, and even more so, do not make yourself the main (or sole!) theme of the talk. Even if your professional or personal accomplishments are notable, everyone has nice, sometimes fascinating, stories to tell.
Trying to dominate the conversation or its subject
It seems that everybody is out to be a “leader“, even in conversations. A gentleman convinces the interlocutor with arguments and elegance; he does not raise the volume of his voice to force a point: it is annoying, not elegant. As Glenn O’Brien says in How to Be a Man,
“How often have we encountered a fellow with an “outdoor voice” and wished he had a volume-control knob? Talking too loudly is a basic offense, like standing too closely: it violates the physical conventions of human interaction. Of course, the loud talker is probably unaware of his offense, and it may actually result from his being hard of hearing, but as often as not it results from a bombastic temperament given to boast and bluster.”
Akin to exhibitionism, pedant is the individual with “a slavish attention to rules, details, etc.”, according to The Free Dictionary; the Oxford dictionary goes the same way, saying it is “an excessive concern with minor details and rules.” It may be a teacher’s or professor’s habit to correct the students, but if you are not in a classroom, control the impulse. In a professional setting, do not correct your colleagues in front of others, even if you are hierarchically above them. Ask for a private meeting and say something like, “I believe you may be mistaken as to (this or that). Please, check the (numbers or facts) again.”
Lack of continuity in the conversation
Some people interrupt a given line of thought in a conversation to talk about something that “has just occurred to me” or to smoke a cigarette outside. This attitude is a conversation killer, to be avoided at all costs.
A permanent jocosity
Our world is certainly less formal and more democratic than our grandparent’s, but that does not mean you are free to make jokes about everything being said. Over time, this behavior will make you known as “the club (or office, or college) clown”, and you will have a hard time trying to be taken seriously – even when you are dead serious.
A contradiction spirit
Some people think that a constant questioning is an evidence of intelligence and wit, but nothing could be further from the truth: it just begets a tense and heavy climate. There is nothing wrong in questioning something every now and then, and you may even insist a little. More than this, only among close friends; otherwise, you will be inconvenient.
Exposing an argument in a frenzied way
You damage your case, to use a legal jargon. Breathe deeply, organize your thoughts, then speak.
By the way, don’t talk too much, in a non-stop way. There is a saying in sales that apply to many social and professional situations: “shut up after the sale”. Once someone has agreed to something, stop talking. The more you say, the more opportunities they have to change their minds.
Bringing in personal subjects in detriment of general ones
Paraphrasing Mr. Spock’s famous quote, “The interests of the many outweigh the interests of the few.” Your recent surgery, the cute tricks of your dog, pictures of your daughter making saliva bubbles are themes not too worthy of attention from your party at a restaurant or from your friends at their place. Try to keep the conversation around general interest themes.
Talking about this, some say that the British liked to wear a tuxedo in social situations because this garment is unbefitting with “business talk”. Thus, gentlemen would feel free to talk about more pleasant subjects, such as horses and women – which, as everybody knows, are the national preferences, in that order…
Avoid dead-end answers
Use these (simple “yes” or “no” answers) only if you are trying to shut down a conversation. Otherwise, elaborate your answers in a way that keeps the exchange going.
Themes to avoid
Since everybody today lives under a certain stress, it is wise to avoid heavy, destructive, negative or unpleasant subjects: diseases, bankruptcy, neighborhood violence, etc. (In Brazil, they say that one should not talk about religion, politics or soccer, but the last two are almost the sole conversation subjects… It seems that we just can’t help it!)
Also, avoid being the spoilsport. Yes, some people smoke, some are fond of a good spirit, some are keen on a juicy steak – things that bring (or at least seem to bring) pleasure. If you managed to quit tobacco or became a vegetarian, good for you. But don’t turn your victory into somebody else’s gloom!
There was a time when it was normal for one to tell sexist or racist jokes among friends. Times have changed and many people are aware of the impropriety of those jokes. Do not tell them and do not encourage friends or colleagues who tell them; if someone asks why you are not laughing, just say it is not your kind of humor. It is about time we change things for the better.
Also, avoid gross, pornographic or tasteless jokes. Try to imagine your teenage daughter (or a friend’s) around your group: would you still tell this or that joke to the group? A gentleman should have good taste in every circumstance; there is no such thing as a part-time gentleman.
Finally, avoid the “joke competition”, as in “that is funny, but wait until you guys listen to this one”.
On slang and jargon
Slang is a set of expressions that identify a certain age group. And if you begin to use certain slang expressions, the older members of your group will resent the fact that they are “outsiders” for not knowing what you are talking about. Inversely, if you are older, using the slang of your own youth will instantly “date” you, with undesirable consequences. Besides, slang limits your vocabulary.
Another bad speech habit is the use of “filler” words or sounds. According to an article by dictionary.com, “crutch words slip into sentences in order to give the speaker more time to think or to emphasize a statement. Over time, they become unconscious verbal tics. Most often, crutch words do not add meaning to a statement.” So, when you are elaborating your reasoning and suddenly you miss the best word, make a short pause instead of using an “um”, “you know”, “like”, etc. But make it too long and you will sound like Colin Firth in The King’s Speech!
Eça de Queiroz was one of the greatest Portuguese writers, and in one of his books, he exhorts us to speak badly – as a noble patriot should – any foreign language. As romantic as that notion may sound, we live in a global society. You may have friends or business associates in other countries and it is a nice touch to study and memorize at least one or two phrases to use with them: it is a sign of attention and respect.
The best example may be the French, who are known – with a certain degree of truth – for being zealous of their language, treating with condescendence English speakers, for instance. So, instead of waiting for a bad attitude from the French the next time you visit Paris, memorize some phrases or expressions for your daily needs (bonjour, bon soir, merci, s’il vous plaît, etc.) and the Golden Key: désolé, mon Français est nul, est-ce que vous parlez Anglais? (sorry, my French is bad, do you speak English?) Check the pronounce with Google Translator.
Perhaps you were not the valedictorian of your class, but that does not exempt you from knowing the main tips for a good communication with people around you, in any situation.
Practice before a mirror to check your body language and see if your words and your body convey the same message. And never be afraid of saying, “I don’t know”. Nobody knows everything – but you may always check with Google and return with an answer…