Resist the desire to be prominent in conversation, or to say clever and surprising things. This is sometimes difficult to do, but it is the only safe course to follow. If you have something brilliant or worth-while to say, it will be best said spontaneously and with due modesty. But if there is no suitable opportunity to say it, put it back in your mind where it may improve with age. Egotism is taboo in polite society.
The suggestion that nothing should be allowed to pass the lips that charity would check is invaluable advice. It is unfortunately all too common to give hasty and harsh expression to personal opinions and criticisms. Reticence is one of the most essential conditions of long friendship.
Judgment and tact are necessary to good conversation. It is not well to ask many questions, and then only those of a general character. Curiosity should be curbed. Quite properly people resent inquisitiveness. The best way to cultivate the rare grace of judgment is to be mindful of your own faults and to correct them with all speed and thoroughness.
The word “talk” is often used in a derogatory sense, and we hear such expressions as “all talk,” “empty talk,” and “idle talk.” But as everyone talks, we should all do our utmost to set a high example to others of the correct use of speech.
It is always better to talk too little than too much. Never talk for mere talking’s sake. Avoid being artificial or pedantic. Don’t antagonize, dogmatize, moralize, attitudinize, nor criticise. Talk in poise,—quietly, deliberately, sincerely, and you will never lack an attentive audience.
It is said of Macaulay that he never allowed a sentence to pass muster until it was as good as he could make it. He would write and rewrite, and even construct a paragraph or a whole chapter, in order to secure a more lucid and satisfactory arrangement. He wrote just so much each day, usually an average of six pages, and this manuscript was so erased and corrected that it was finally compressed into two pages of print.
The masters of English prose have been great workers. Stevenson and others like him gave hours and days to the study of words, phrases, and sentences. Through unwearied application to the art of rhetorical composition they ultimately won fame as writers.
The ambitious student of speech culture, whether for use in conversation or in public, will do well to emulate the example of such great writers. One of the best ways to build a large vocabulary is to note useful and striking phrases in one’s general reading. It is advisable to jot down such phrases in a note-book, and to read them aloud from time to time. Such phrases may be classified according to their particular application,—to business, politics, music, education, literature, or the drama.
It is not recommended that such phrases should be consciously dragged into conversation, but the practice of carefully observing felicitous phrases, and of noting them in writing, cultivates the taste for better words and a sense of discrimination in their use. Many phrases noted and studied in this way will unconsciously find their way into one’s expression.