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The Art of Conversation

[1]

François de La Rochefoucauld

620 words

Translated by Guillaume Durocher

Translator’s Note: François de La Rochefoucauld was a seventeenth-century French nobleman, an opponent of royal autocracy, and a noted author of maxims and essays. The title is editorial. Source: François de La Rochefoucauld, Maximes et Réflexions diverses (Paris: Gallimard, 1976 [1665]), “De la Conversation,” pp. 169-171.

The reason that so few people are pleasant in conversation is that everyone is more concerned about what he wants to say than about what others are saying. You must listen to those who are speaking if you wish to be listened to. You must leave them the opportunity to make themselves understood, and even to say useless things. Instead of contradicting or interrupting them, as is often done, you must, on the contrary, enter into their mind and their tastes, show that you understand them, talk to them about what they care about, praise what they say as much as it deserves to be, and show you praise them more by choice than by eagerness to please. You should avoid contradicting them on unimportant matters, ask useless questions rarely, never let it appear that you claim to be right over others, and gracefully concede the right to decide [who is right].

You must say natural, easy, and more or less serious things, according to the mood and the inclination of the people you are speaking with. You should not press them to approve of what you say, nor even to respond to it. When you have fulfilled this kind of courteous duty, you can share your sentiments, without prejudice or stubbornness, letting it appear that you are seeking support for them from your listeners’ opinions.

You must avoid speaking at length about yourself or setting yourself often as an example. You cannot work enough to learn the tendencies and ends[1] [2] of those with whom you are speaking, to add your thoughts to theirs, and make them believe, as much as possible, that you are getting your ideas from them. There is skill in not exhausting the subjects you discuss and in always leaving others something to think and to say.

You must never speak with an air of authority, nor use words and terms grander than the things [being discussed]. You can keep your opinions, if they are reasonable. But in keeping them, you must never hurt others’ feelings, nor appear shocked by what they say. It is dangerous to always want to be the master of the conversation and to speak about the same thing. You must be equally capable of engaging in all agreeable topics which present themselves, and never let it appear that you want to lead the conversation on to something you want to say.

One should note that not every kind of conversation, as honest and as witty as it might be, is equally appropriate for honest folk: one must choose what is appropriate to say to each person and even choose the [right] timing. But if there is much skill in speaking, there is no less in remaining silent. There is an eloquent silence, which sometimes serves to approve or to condemn. There is a mocking silence. There is a respectful silence. There are airs, turns of phrase, and manners which often make for what is pleasant or unpleasant, delicate or shocking in a conversation. The secret to using this well is given to few people. Even those who make the rules sometimes misjudge the situation. The safest, in my opinion, is to have no [rules] which you cannot change, and to appear nonchalant in what you say rather than affected; to listen, to not speak much, and to never force yourself to speak.

Note

[1] [3] My tentative rendition of pente et portée, literally “slope and range.”