Jul 23

Aphorisms about conversation

Years ago, while working in a bookstore, I discovered an obscure little book called Conversation by André Maurois (translated from the French by Yvonne Dufour). It’s from 1930, and it’s full of wonderful observations about interaction.

Some of these aphorisms seem obvious; some impenetrable; some culturally defined and no longer applicable; some ironic; some calculated to inspire disagreement. I enjoy them all. Here are some favorites:

I like this saying from Stevenson: “There are but three subjects of conversation: I am I, you are you, and others are strangers.”

An anecdote must be introduced at the very moment it illustrates what has just been said. The pointless anecdote is offensive.

Men so like to be talked about that a discussion of their faults delights them.

The most secretive of men are given to confidences, but this under the form of general ideas. Even I … as I write this …

We can speak frankly of our faults only to those who acknowledge our qualities.

Advice is always a confession.

What men are slower to forgive is the evil they have spoken of you.

A good argument too often repeated loses its strength. It seems that the mind, like the blood, produces antitoxin and can be rendered immune even to evidence.

Both started a conversation other than they wished. Now they are powerless to stop it. Their sentences, like a train, pass before them noisily, and they — belated, careless switchmen — watch it run on the wrong track, to sure disaster.

It happens that, when with some people, we play a certain part. Through a sort of indolence we fall back into this part whenever such people appear, and they are right when they judge us as wholly different from what we are.

One might well believe that mutual confidences are in themselves a safeguard against indiscretion. Yet such is not the case. Men think that their own affairs are so different from those of others, that they find it natural to betray while they hope to be served.

Much wit is needed to be discreet. Boredom, through the very feeling of emptiness which it gives, creates something like an irresistible air current which brings up from the depths of the soul the secrets we wished to keep there.

The voice of a man, when he reads, reveals not what he is, but what he wants to be. It is the voice of the personage whom he visualizes when he thinks of himself.

Any talk will be repeated. The man to whom you have just spoken ill of a woman will marry her tomorrow and close his home to you.

A … who, by nature, seems kindly and even indulgent, accepts with strange tolerance any slanderous statement about B … That is because they both covet the same post.

We almost always spread that calumny which has hurt us most by denying it to people who had never heard of it.

Vanity, in certain women, is so much stronger than modesty that they would gladly confess missteps of which they are innocent.

Were a man to tell all of his thoughts, we would not believe him. Which would be right? What man is there who thinks all he thinks?

The danger of cynicism is that it makes meanness a virtue.

Sincerity consists less in saying all we think than in avoiding what, for the moment at least, we do not think.

Daniel Halévy said of certain confessions of Marcel Proust as an adolescent: “Too sincere to be so!”

All confessions strive for coherence which distorts them. Man is more complex than his logic.

The dangerous aspect of sincerity is that it ends by creating its object. If you say: “I am ambitious, I am jealous,” you feel licensed to be so, and these vices, cloaked in the prestige of frankness, become glorified.

Sincerity must be used in moderation, even with our most intimate friends. To be too frank is to put into an opinion what may be simply ill temper; it is to risk losing a friend because of a poorly digested meal, a headache, a thunderstorm.

There is an art in contradicting which is really the most adroit form of flattery.

To admit one’s timidity is a sign of its disappearance.

A man must be held responsible for his writings, not for his utterances. We are carried on by the pleasure we find in a flow of eloquence which takes us beyond the point where words express a thought.

Many lies involve more laziness than hypocrisy.

He sought this long conversation only to present his request, but he wanted to do it carelessly, as if by chance, and pretend to find pleasure in the rest of the interview. His tone has betrayed him; he is aware of it. Silence has followed the dangerous words, and his host, rather cool, knows now that the man before him is only soliciting a favor.

Conversation as a game is a work of art. It requires the sacrifice of ideas. A passionate man always spoils such conversations. He gravely refutes light arguments; he pursues forsaken themes. The rule is to accept all movements of the ball and follow it without regret. Still, certain passions are entertaining. But that is because their violence is feigned. They burst out at the highest pitch of a movement as drums or cymbals. Then the good instrumentalist keeps his thundering noise down, his eyes fixed upon the score.

In conversation as a game, the best qualities of the mind — withholding of judgment, moderation, modesty — become obstacles. This type of conversation demands rather mad boldness and a well-defined personality.

“The true artist,” said Stevenson, “follows the course of a conversation as a fisherman that of a river, without stopping when there is nothing to catch.”

A well-bred man keeps his belief out of his conversation.

When conversation must end in a decision, the value of the arguments is less important than the order in which they are presented. Surprise is necessary, as in a fight.

The difficult part in an argument is not to defend one’s opinion but to know it.

To begin to expose firmly the opponent’s point of view, is already to take away much of its strength.

With certain men there seems to be no connection between their opinions and their decisions. They yield on every point. They grant everything: “You are quite right.” The matter seems settled. At the last moment, however, you will notice that they have not given in one inch and that everything is pending anew.

To be witty is not enough. One must possess sufficient wit to avoid having too much of it.

To be witty at our own expense is the surest means of making ourselves attractive to people. But is that really honest? The most modest man I knew was also the most vain.

Coarseness is the wit of fools and contradiction their subtlety.

She who fears a scene of love or jealousy must avoid silences. They are conducive to the forming of resolutions, and the length of the pause favors a change of tone without dissonance.

Barrès used to say: “The evenings I feel incapable of intelligence, I pretend to be bored.”