How to converse properly: 18 tips from old etiquette books
Etiquette was a booming business in the 19th century. Industrialization meant that people were moving between places and classes in a way they hadn't before, and there was a great demand for guidance on how to fit into the social circles that people had either gotten themselves into, or wanted to get into. Hundreds of etiquette books were published in this period, and they all had something to say about how to use language. Here are 18 perfectly charming rules on how to converse properly, culled from 19th-century etiquette books.
Some of the rules are quite sensible. For example, don't be a jerk, a pretentious jerk, or a teenager.
1. "Don't talk aloud in a railway carriage, and thus prevent your fellow passengers from reading their book or newspaper."
2. "Don't talk of 'the opera' in the presence of those who are not frequenters of it."
3. "Don't respond to remarks made to you with mere monosyllables. This is chilling, if not fairly insulting. Have something to say, and say it."
Many of the rules are easier said than done. It takes a lot of concentration to keep your voice, meaning, and mysterious allure at the exact perfect level at all times.
4. "Always select words calculated to convey an exact impression of your meaning."
5. "Don't talk in a high, shrill voice, and avoid nasal tones. Cultivate a chest voice; learn to moderate your tones. Talk always in a low register, but not too low."
6. "Avoid any air of mystery when speaking to those next to you; it is ill-bred and in excessively bad taste."
You also need to choose your words carefully. Remember, your food is not healthy, you do not wear pants, and your wife is no lady.
7. "Don't use meaningless exclamations, such as 'Oh, my!' 'Oh, cracky' etc."
8. "Don't say gents for gentlemen or pants for pantaloons. These are inexcusable vulgarisms. Don't say vest for waistcoat."
9. "Don't speak of this or that kind of food being healthy or unhealthy; say always wholesome or unwholesome."
10. "'It made me quite low spirited; my heart felt as heavy as lead.' We most of us know what a heavy heart is; but lead is by no means the correct metaphor to use in speaking of a heavy heart."
11. "Don't say lady when you mean wife."
Acting things out is not funny — unless, of course, you are doing it to make fun of entire classes or nationalities.
12. "Never gesticulate in every day conversation, unless you wish to be mistaken for a fifth rate comedian."
13. "A little graceful imitation of actors and public speakers may be allowed. National manners, and the peculiarities of entire classes, are fair game. French dandies, Yankee bargainers, and English exquisites, may be ridiculed at pleasure; you may even bring forward Irish porters, cab-drivers and bog-trotters — provided you can imitate their wit and humor."
Ladies do not make good conversational partners.
14. "Never ask a lady a question about anything whatever."
15. "In the company of ladies, do not labor to establish learned points by long-winded arguments. They do not care to take too much pains to find out truth."
Which may have something to do with what's in their etiquette books.
16. "Never question the veracity of any statement made in general conversation."
17. "Men frequently look with a jealous eye on a learned woman … be cautious, therefore, in mixed company of showing yourself too much beyond those around you."
Try conversing with them by eye instead.
18. "It may be coquettish, but there is nothing particularly womanly in never looking a man in the eye. Search the face that confronts you, and learn what manner of man this is whom you are receiving into your company and fellowship. If he quails under the inquisition, so much the worse for him. If he is worth looking at, it is a pity to miss the sight."
Sources: Don't: A manual of mistakes and improprieties more or less prevalent in conduct and speech, Oliver Bell Bunce, 1884; The Gentleman's Book of Etiquette, Cecil Hartley, 1873; Martine's Handbook of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness, Arthur Martine, 1866; Etiquette for Ladies, Lea and Blanchard 1840; Etiquette: An answer to the riddle when? where? how? Agnes H. Morton, 1899.