Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Lessons in Proper Conversation

Any book by Jane Austen is in itself a lesson in the art of conversation. But pointed explanations of the secret to good conversation always pique my interest, since I wish my skills were stronger, and Sense and Sensibility offered several recipes for well mannered interchange.

Two particularly valuable outlines come from Elinor, the first in her assessment of Col. Brandon and the second in her first impressions of Lucy. Regarding the colonel, she says:
He has seen a great deal of the world; has been abroad, has read, and has a thinking mind. I have found him capable of giving me much information on various subjects; and he has always answered my inquiries with readiness of good-breeding and good nature.
So first, have something to say. Have some experience to talk about. Some of this experience comes from travel, some from reading. As Dickens points out in Little Dorrit, many travelers combine the two activities by reading travel guides as they roam the earth so they can repeat ready-made opinions about popular sights. But Brandon is not such a person. Elinor praises the colonel for having a thinking mind; his opinions are the product of his own mental brewing. Finally, these opinions must be shared in a polite manner. I take Elinor to mean that Col. Brandon listened and responded attentively to what others said, that he didn’t become possessed by emotion when he encountered a difference of opinion or scold others for thinking differently, and that he didn’t push his views where they weren’t wanted. How much of that interpretation comes from my reading of the rest of the book, how much from our present-day culture of “toleration,” and how much from my own taste in personal interaction I can’t say for sure.

The passage about Lucy complements what was said about Brandon:
Lucy was naturally clever; her remarks were often just and amusing; and as a companion for half an hour Elinor frequently found her agreeable; but her powers had received no aid from education: she was ignorant and illiterate; and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed from Miss Dashwood, in spite of her constant endeavour to appear to advantage. Elinor saw, and pitied her for, the neglect of abilities which education might have rendered so respectable; but she saw, with less tenderness of feeling, the thorough want of delicacy, of rectitude, and integrity of mind, which her attentions, her assiduities, her flatteries at the Park betrayed; and she could have no lasting satisfaction in the company of a person who joined insincerity with ignorance.
Lucy is “agreeable”and “amusing,” traits that might correspond with Col. Brandon’s good nature. But the content of Lucy’s speech comes from “natural cleverness,” not from books or, apparently, from sensitive thinking about her travels. Worse than her ignorance, though, Lucy’s defensive hypocrisy prevents Elinor from experiencing full satisfaction in their conversations. Lucy says what she thinks other people want to hear when she has no actual knowledge. Ouch! When I put it that way, it sounds familiar. This is the very strategy that many students try to develop, the very “art” that some professors actually encourage in oral exams. I’ve learned to appreciate the words “I don’t know.” I even use them in class frequently. The phrase is hard for someone in the knowledge business to say, but I don’t believe students end up thinking less of me when I admit it.

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