Conversation was something that could happen everywhere — at formal dinner parties, on streets, in coffee houses, at public amusements, and when traveling. Charming conversation was one type of conversation, and it was the type of conversation that had numerous amiable qualities: “kindness, politeness, patience, and forbearance.” Sometimes, however, conversations were nothing more than “frivolous,” and people were warned that although young ladies often enjoyed frivolous “small talk,” there were some young ladies who enjoyed a “most sensible discourse.” Certain conversations were also, to a degree, “sacred” and were not to “be repeated.”
But no matter what type of conversation people enjoyed, nineteenth century people were warned not to imagine themselves more important than another person. In fact, it was noted that people were to consider themselves “one of the multitude … [as] people have things of much more interest to engross their attention than your words or looks.”
Conversation etiquette involved rules that people needed to follow. For example, people were told to look at the person they were speaking to but not stare. A person’s “expression and manner [were also] to show confidence without boldness, and ease without familiarity.” This meant that even husbands and wives were not to be overly familiar with one another nor were they to refer to one another as Mrs. P. or Mr. T. They were to speak to each other using whole names, not some abbreviation.
If a person addressed the wife of a man who possessed a professional rank, the rank of the husband was not to be added to a woman’s name. It was impolite to “say ‘Mrs. Colonel Smith,’ or ‘Mrs. Sergeant Jones,'” just as it was impolite to repeat a person’s title in conversation. This also applied to the use of “Sir,” “Madame,” “Mr.,” and “Mrs.” In addition, there were also many other etiquette rules that people needed to observe in order to avoid etiquette mishaps. These rules included:
- Long, weary quotations were to be avoided but short, pithy quotations supposedly added “a sparkle to discourse.”
- A “sparkling anecdote” supposedly provided zest to any conversation, but people were warned to avoid “becoming ‘a sedentary weaver of long tales.'”
- Correct pronunciation of words showed a well-educated person and, so, speakers were warned to not drop the letter h nor “introduce it where it has no right.”
- If a foreign word conveyed the meaning better than an English word, it was considered proper to use the foreign expression in its place.
- Puns and proverbs were to be used sparingly because using too many “render[ed] conversation trite and stiff.”
- It was impolite to tattle or “tittle-tattle” as it was considered impolite and “not conversation.”
- To excel in conversation, speakers were told to “have all your faculties on alert. If your mind is pre-occupied, you are sure to make blunders.”
- When speaking, a person was not to hurry, to be a “gabbler,” or to speak “so low as to be sententious.”
- Harsh loud voices were considered vulgar, but people who spoke low were said to be “unpleasant.”
- People were advised to avoid “ill-natured reports,” as they could possibly be promoting slander.
- It was considered impolite to contradict one another.
- A conversationalist was to “show especial deference to the opinions of the aged and … the fair[er] sex.”
- Speakers were to “avoid exaggerated and fulsome compliments.”
- The true polite person was “always a good listener,” and just as people wished to be heard when they spoke, so were they to “lend an attentive ear while another [spoke].” A person was also not to “engross all of the conversation” as everyone deserved an opportunity to speak.
- People were not to indulge in long detailed descriptions about a person’s health was to be avoided unless the person was speaking to a close relative.
- The drawing room was not considered the place for contentious debates as it was not “a court of justice.” Moreover, political discussions and controversy were never to involve women. Such discussions were for men only.
- Women were also told to never offer any opinions related to “immorality or impiety.”
- It was fine to ask a few questions, but prying and constant questioning was “wearisome, and sometimes…impertinent in conversation.” Further, the questions asked of slight acquaintances were to be about general subjects, unless the person introduced “the subject of his family, or his profession,” then a person could show interest, as politeness called for such behavior.
- Lengthy accounts told by parents about their children were improper because it tested “the patience of the general hearer.”
- Even worse than speaking about one’s children were those people who discussed the failings or short-comings of their hired help. Such discussion were said to lower “the tone of the conversation, and impart to it a bitterness that is at variance with the suavity of polite discourse.” In fact, such discussions were contemptuously termed, “What women talk about.”
- When in the company of friends and family, people were warned against fraternizing or conversing only with their relatives. Married couples were also not to show “exclusive devotion to each other,” as proper etiquette demanded that people make themselves agreeable to everyone.
- If a person attacked someone’s religion or someone’s religious beliefs, the person was “not bound to remain silent.” However, any discussion over the issue was to be conducted politely.
- People were not to interrupt when others were speaking.
- Profanity was to be strictly avoided as it was considered “a great breach of etiquette.”
- Timidity and shyness were also to be avoided, and if a person possessed those traits, the suggestion was that “they should take every opportunity of going into company, and their shyness will wear off by degrees.”
- The Hand-book of Etiquette, 1860