Saturday, August 11, 2007

Ladies Finishing School- The Lost Art of Conversation

The Basics

There are two things for a good conversationalist to remember: “Think before you speak” and “Listen.”

Thinking, or being thoughtful, applies across the board, fro the topic of conversations to the listener’s reactions. Ask yourself if it’s like that someone will be interested in whatever you start to bring up.

Listening. It’s only natural that you’re thinking of what you’re about to say next in a conversation, but many people try so desperately to think of what to say next that they barely hear word the other person says.

Empty other thoughts from your mind and concentrate on what the person is saying. Show that you’re not only listening but understanding by making eye contact, nodding occasionally, and intermittently saying, “I see” or “Really?” After you’ve picked up the rhythm of the other person’s speech, you’ll be able to interject longer confirmations without seeming to interrupt. If you don’t understand something, ask for an explanation, a habit that comes naturally from a good listener.

Interrupting. There’s a fine line between the occasional interruption made to confirm a point and one that’s made because you’re bursting to throw in your two cents. The only time it’s permissible to interrupt in the middle of a sentence is when you need to communicate something that honestly can’t wait. Even then, precede what your say with “I’m sorry to interrupt” or something similar.

When you’re the one being interrupted, listen politely for a few seconds before trying to finish your thought. Raising your hand in a non-threatening “please wait” gesture can politely deflect an interruption.

Personal Space. The general rule of thumb is to stand no closer than about eighteen inches apart, although cultural and personal preferences should be taken into account. Be conscious of height differences. Stand far enough away so the other person won’t have to look up or down at you, which can quickly grow uncomfortable.

Body language. While words and tone express the meaning of what’s being said, a person’s posture, facial expression, and gestures send messages as well.

  • Posture when standing or sitting up. A slumper is likely to appear uninterested in the other person.
  • Facial expression. A smile denotes warmth, but false smiles make you look insincere.
  • Eye contact. Looking into the other person’s eyes show your interest, but staring can seem threatening or strange.
  • Gesturing and fidgeting. Go easy on the gestures. Using your hands to emphasize a point is fine, but gesturing nonstop is a distraction. Some gestures and mannerisms to avoid are playing with your hair, tie, or jewelry, drumming your fingers, playing with the clip on a pen, etc.
  • Nodding. Nodding doesn’t necessarily mean you agree, it can indicate you understand. To much positive head-bobbing can brand you as silly or too eager to please.
  • Pointing. American culture generally regards pointing at others as negative or hostile. Pointing also attracts attention to a person who probably doesn’t want to be the object of curious stares or glances.

Voice and Vocabulary

A too-loud voice can be unnerving. A too-soft voice puts listeners in the awkward position of having to ask you to repeat yourself. Inflections liven your speech, monotone dulls it. Talking to fast makes you hard to understand, while talking to slowly may try a listener’s patience.

Good enunciation means pronouncing words clearly. Dropping letters and slurring words make you appear a little too “rustic,” but also bring you close to mumbling. Enunciating too perfectly can make you sound affected.

Having a good vocabulary doesn’t mean using big words in place of small ones; it’s the precision of the word’s meaning that matters. Strive for a vocabulary that’s wide-ranging yet simple and direct.

Head off certain habits that can sabotage your speech:

  • Using fillers: “y’know,” “like,” “um,” “er,” etc.
  • Overusing adjectives like “absolutely,” “cute,” “interesting,” “nice,” etc.
  • Regularly mistaking one word for another: “lay” when you mean “lie.”
  • Choosing words or phrases that sound pretentious: “retire” for “go to bed.”

Other things to remember:

  • Know when to stop talking.
  • Keep abreast of the world outside.
  • Don’t horn in, unless the person asks for help.
  • Avoid repetitions.
  • Don’t whisper.
  • Do a friend a favor; when a friend is caught in an embarrassing moment, step in.
  • Keep jargon and euphemism to a minimum.
  • Temper your slang.
  • Use foreign phrases judiciously.
  • Avoid playing “gotcha!” Only correct a person’s grammar or pronunciation when that person is a close relative or friends, and only in private.

The information in this post comes from the 17th edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette. The chapter is called, “The Good Conversationalist” and is chock-full of great information! There’s too much to even summarize here, so beg, borrow, or buy a copy!


  1. I really need to work on the things that you list here... especially my use of fillers! That is such a hard habit to break!