29 Dec 2021

How to do small talk like the Victorians

It’s party season and it’s perfectly natural to feel the prickling of social anxiety, especially after the strictures of the last two years. Some of us may well feel that our conversational aptitude is diminished, and may be experiencing feelings of dread about social occasions.

But the art of conversation is not particularly arcane. If you follow these basic rules, conversation should flow, and social awkwardness will soon be forgotten:

•Listen carefully, and respond to what people are saying.

•Don’t dominate the conversation; make sure you ask plenty of questions.

•Ask open questions that cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.

•Don’t be afraid to open the conversation with observations on well-worn topics: the weather, the surroundings, the food. It will break the ice.

•Don’t try too hard to impress with witticisms or controversial views. Small talk is by its very nature light and inconsequential.

Pity the Victorians, who were confronted by a battery of proscriptions and rules, haughty pronouncements and disapproving observations, all laid out in alarming detail in best-selling etiquette manuals.

We have been browsing through Routledge’s Shilling Manual of Etiquette, published in 1875, an indispensable guide for socially aspiring ladies and gentlemen. While some of the advice is severe and repressive, there are several points that still resonate today:

 “Long arguments in general company, however entertaining to the disputants, are tiresome to the last degree to all others.  You should always endeavour to prevent the conversation from dwelling too long upon one topic.”

“Never interrupt a person who is speaking. It has been aptly said that ‘if you interrupt a speaker in the middle of his sentence, you act almost as rudely as if, when walking with a companion, you were to thrust yourself before him, and stop his progress’.”

“There is a certain distinct but subdued tone of voice which is peculiar to only well-bred persons. A loud voice is both disagreeable and vulgar. It is better to err by the use of too low than too loud a tone.”

“It is considered extremely ill-bred when two persons whisper in society, or converse in a language with which all present are not familiar. If you have private matters to discuss, you should appoint a proper time and place to do so, without paying others the ill compliment of excluding them from your conversation.”

“Do not be always witty, even though you should be so happily gifted as to need the caution. To outshine others on every occasion is the surest road to unpopularity.”

“In order to meet the general needs of conversation in society, it is necessary that a gentlewoman should be acquainted with the current news and historical events of at least the last few years.”

“Scandal is the least excusable of all conversational vulgarities.”

“Never talk upon subjects of which you know nothing, unless it be for the purpose of acquiring information. Many young men imagine that because they frequent exhibitions and operas they are qualified judges of art. No mistake is more egregious or universal.”

“Remember that people take more interest in their own affairs than in anything else which you can name. If you wish your conversation to be thoroughly agreeable, lead a mother to talk of her children, a young lady of her last ball, an author of his forthcoming book, or an artist of his exhibition picture. Having furnished the topic, you need only listen; and you are sure to be thought not only agreeable, but thoroughly sensible and well-informed.”


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