The only other classification of the members of a small society worth making here is in accordance with the various degrees of their previous intimacy. They may either be a family party consisting of near relations, or a friendly party consisting of intimate friends, or a party of casual acquaintances who meet not unfrequently, or a chance collection of almost strangers. In all these cases there is naturally some modification to be made in the rules and conditions 153of agreeable talking. And first of all let us warn those who think it is not worth while taking trouble to talk in their family circle, or who read the newspaper at meals, that they are making a mistake which has far-reaching consequences. It is nearly as bad as those convent schools or ladies’ academies, when either silence or a foreign tongue is imposed at meals, and concerning which I have already spoken. Whatever people may think of the value of theory, there is no doubt whatever that practice is necessary for conversation, and it is at home, among those who are intimate, and free in expressing their thoughts, that this practice must be sought. It is thus, and thus only, that young people can go out into the world properly provided with the only universal introduction to society—agreeable manners.
Here, then, conversation is not so much a recreation as a duty, and so becomes too grave a matter for this book. I will 154merely say a word upon the position of a guest who is introduced into such a party, to whose daily trifles, family feuds, or friendships, he is a stranger. It is of course the first duty of the family not to monopolise the topics by discussing family histories unknown and uninteresting beyond their circle. Menander long ago complained of the misfortune of falling into a party of this kind. On the other hand, the stranger must assume a temporary interest in affairs outside his ordinary life, and merely for the sake of his hosts. But if he is appealed to as an umpire by members who habitually differ in opinion (and this he will easily note), let him be very wary of giving a decision, and rather discover that there is truth on each side of the question.
- Cf. my Social Life of Greece, p. 317.
- 52. Far easier is the position of a party of intimate friends. They have probably become friends simply because 155they enjoy each other’s society, and have many topics of interest in common. It requires no exertion to make them talk, and they will readily condone moments of taciturnity and depression in one or more members of the party. They want no advice, and need no instruction, for this is the only true and permanent human bond which makes men and women ever sympathetic, and ever agreeable to one another.
- 53. As regards a company of strangers, on the contrary, all the principles stated in the earlier parts of this book will have their clearest application. To interest or to fascinate a stranger requires all the gifts there enumerated, and in proportion as we possess them, and take pains to use them, we shall succeed in turning the stranger into the friend. There is no greater test of conversational powers than to go into a company of strangers, to make them feel at home, to turn their minds to some 156common thought, and establish an agreeable and sociable spirit where there was at first nothing but coldness and diffidence. To do this single handed is a feat beyond the power of most people. But if several persons make an effort in the same direction, the combination will effect what a single genius can hardly accomplish.
Nothing proves more conclusively the value of practice in these things than the fact that the higher classes, who are compelled through constant moving about both at home and abroad to converse frequently with casual acquaintances, and who in various society often meet strangers—these are the people in whom we generally observe ease in conversation under such conditions. We set it down to good breeding, but this means that not only they but their ancestors have been practising it. Hereditary virtues have not been created with less labour than any other virtues. Generally they require 157the efforts of several generations, and are therefore the most arduous and meritorious of all.