Is conversation really becoming a lost art, as some folks claim? Are we as a culture no longer able to discuss diverse topics rationally, intelligently, and charmingly? After the recent screeching election cycle one might reasonably wonder …
For centuries, ladies and gentlemen – starting at very young ages – were taught by mentors, tutors, or finishing school teachers how to make courteous conversation with their peers and their elders. Those of us who were not landed gentry were schooled by parents and grandparents. In my own family, when it was just us for dinner, pretty much anything could be discussed – often heatedly. When there was company, however, or if we went out to dinner or to a private social occasion, we were admonished that certain specific topics were off limits. These included politics, religion, sex, asking the still-single cousin why they’re not yet married, and details about one’s digestive disorders. There was to be no arguing, particularly with one’s elders. If you couldn’t abide by these rules, you kept your mouth shut – or you left the table. Without dinner.
The cacophony of talking at people instead of to them; of ignoring one’s tablemates while taking cellphone calls; of loudly presenting one’s opinion as fact; of interrupting others; of formulating one’s next comment instead of listening to their companion; of speaking in vulgar terms … all of these make me grateful for the very civilized rite of afternoon tea, where one is on one’s best behavior, and where one can cultivate the art of conversation.
I recently discovered a tiny (sixty-odd pages) book at a museum gift shop. Titled Tea & Conversation, it starts off with the observation that “Tea and conversation are natural soulmates.” As you might guess, the book not only presents tips for preparing and serving afternoon tea, but is also a treatise on the not-quite lost art of pleasant conversation, otherwise known as “small talk.” Now, don’t dismiss this out of hand. In these days, when so many people feel a need to get right to the “nitty gritty” in any situation, and are only too eager to speak their minds regardless of the consequences, this book is both a guide and a gentle plea for civilized social discourse.
Along with timeless admonishments and advice to the hostess for making her guests feel welcome and comfortable, there are also guidelines for guests on what types of conversations and behaviours to avoid at an afternoon tea gathering. Crowing about one’s accomplishments, or the accomplishments of one’s children, and loud voice or boisterous behaviour are all on the taboo list. While some of the suggested topics for conversation may seem outdated, most really do still apply today in polite circles. One timely piece of advice, for example, is directed at young gentlemen: “Never lower the intellectual standard of your conversation in addressing ladies.” Now who can argue with that?
Tea & Conversation is a delightful, charming read. It is one of a series of tiny books that also features several other tea titles. Published in Great Britain, you can browse their catalogue and purchase (retail and wholesale) at Copper Beech Publishing.
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