The honourablest part of talk is to give the occasion; and again to moderate and pass to somewhat else, for then a man leads the dance. It is good in discourse, and speech of conversation, to vary and intermingle speech of the present occasion with arguments, tales with reasons, asking of questions with telling of opinions, and jest with earnest: for it is a dull thing to tire, and, as we say now, to jade anything too far.
Discretion of speech is more than eloquence; and to speak agreeable to him with whom we deal, is more than to speak in good words, or in good order. A good continued speech, without a good speech of interlocution, shows slowness; and a good reply, or second speech, without a good settled speech, showeth shallowness and weakness.
The government of the tongue, considered as a subject of itself, relates chiefly to conversation; to that kind of discourse which usually fills up the time spent in friendly meetings and visits of civility. And the danger is, lest persons entertain themselves and others at the expense of their wisdom and their virtue, and to the injury or offence of their neighbour. If they will observe and keep clear of these, they may be as free, and easy, and unreserved, as they can desire.
Talk often, but never long; in that case, if you do not please, at least you are sure not to tire your hearers. Pay your own reckoning, but do not treat the whole company; this being one of the few cases in which people do not care to be treated, every one being fully convinced that he has wherewithal to pay.
Lord Chesterfield: Letters to his Son, Oct. 19, 1748.
Men are born with two eyes, but with one tongue, in order that they should see twice as much as they say: but from their conduct one would suppose that they were born with two tongues and one eye; for those talk the most who have observed the least, and obtrude their remarks upon everything who have seen into nothing.
The ear and the eye are the minds receivers; but the tongue is only busy in expending the treasure received. If, therefore, the revenues of the mind be uttered as fast, or faster, than they are received, it must needs be bare, and can never lay up for purchase. But if the receivers take it still without utterance, the mind may soon grow a burden to itself, and unprofitable to others. I will not lay up too much and utter nothing, lest I be covetous; nor spend much and store up little, less I be prodigal and poor.
We have always thought the one English custom which raises us immeasurably above all other races and types of humanity is that of sitting over our wine after dinner. In what other portion of the twenty-four hours have we either time or inclination for mere talk? And is not the faculty of talk that which denotes the superiority of man over brutes? To talk, therefore, a certain part of the day must be devoted. Other nations mix their talk up with their business, and the consequence is, that neither talk nor business is done well. We, on the contrary, work while we are at it, and have all our talk out just at that very portion of our lives when it is physically, intellectually, and morally most beneficial to us. The pleasant talk promotes digestion and prevents the mind from dwelling on the grinding of the digestive mill that is going on within us. The satisfaction and repose which follow a full meal tend to check a disposition to splenetic argument or too much zeal in supporting an opinion; while the freedom and abandon of the intercourse which is thus kept up is eminently conducive to feelings of general benevolence. It is not, perhaps, too much to say that our glorious constitution (not only as individuals, but as a body politic) is owing to the habit which the British Lion observes of sitting over his wine after dinner.
If any man think it a small matter, or of mean concernment, to bridle his tongue, he is much mistaken: for it is a point to be silent when occasion requires, and better than to speak, though never so well.
Give not thy tongue too great a liberty, lest it take thee prisoner. A word unspoken is like the sword in the scabbard, thine; if vented, thy sword is in anothers hand. If thou desire to be held wise, be so wise as to hold thy tongue.
Men more easily pardon ill things done than said; such a peculiar rancour and venom do they leave behind in mens minds, and so much more poisonously and incurably does the serpent bite with his tongue than his teeth.
I would establish but one great general rule to be observed in all conversation, which is this, that men should not talk to please themselves, but those that hear them. This would make them consider whether what they speak be worth hearing, whether there be either wit or sense in what they are about to say, and whether it be adapted to the time when, the place where, and the persons to whom it is spoken.
For the utter extirpation of these orators and story-tellers, which I look upon as very great pests of society, I have invented a watch which divides the minute into twelve parts, after the same manner that the ordinary watches are divided into hours; and will endeavour to get a patent, which shall oblige every club or company to provide themselves with one of these watches, that shall lie upon the table, as an hour-glass is often placed near the pulpit, to measure out the length of a discourse.
I shall be willing to allow a man one round of my watch, that is, a whole minute, to speak in; but if he exceeds that time, it shall be lawful for any of the company to look upon the watch, or to call him down to order.
Provided, however, that if any one can make it appear that he is turned of threescore, he may take two, or, if he pleases, three rounds of the watch, without giving offence. Provided, also, that this rule be not construed to extend to the fair sex, who shall still be at liberty to talk by the ordinary watch that is now in use. I would likewise earnestly recommend this little automaton, which may be easily carried in the pocket without any encumbrance, to all such as are troubled with this infirmity of speech, that upon pulling out their watches they may have frequent occasion to consider what they are doing, and by that means cut the thread of their story short, and hurry to a conclusion.
Since I am engaged unawares in quotations, I must not omit the satire which Horace has written against this impertinent talkative companion; and which, I think, is fuller of humour than any other satire he has written. This great author, who had the nicest taste of conversation, and was himself a most agreeable companion, had so strong an antipathy to a great talker that he was afraid, some time or other, it would be mortal to him; as he has very humorously described it in his conversation with an impertinent fellow, who had like to have been the death of him.
The common fluency of speech in many men, and most women, is owing to a scarcity of matter, and a scarcity of words; for whosoever is a master of language, and hath a mind full of ideas, will be apt, in speaking, to hesitate upon the choice of both.