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Interruption In Conversation

Interruption, more surely than anything else, kills conversation. The
effusive talker who, in spite of his facility for words, is in no sense
a conversationalist, refuses to recognize the fact that conversation
involves a partnership; that in this company of joint interest each
party has a right to his turn in the conversational engagement. He
ignores his conversational partners; he breaks into their sentences with
his own speech before they have their words well out of their mouths. He
has grown so habitual in his interrupting that he rattles on
unconscious of the disgust he is producing in the mind of any
well-bred, discriminating conversationalist who hears him. The best of
talkers interrupt occasionally in conversation; but the unconscious,
rude interruption of the habitual interrupter, and the unintentional,
conscious interruption of the cultivated talker are easily discernible,
and are two very different things.

We are accustomed to think that children are the only offenders in
interrupting; but, shades of the French salon, the crimes of the
adults! The great pity about this positive phase of interrupting is that
all habitual interrupters are totally unconscious that they continually
break into the speeches of their conversers and literally knock their
very words back into their mouths. Robert Louis Stevenson pronounced
this eulogy over his friend, James Walter Ferrier: "He was the only man
I ever knew who did not habitually interrupt." Now, you who read this
may not believe that you are one of the violators of this first
commandment of good conversation, "thou shalt not interrupt"; but stop
to think what small chance you have of escape when only one
acquaintance of Stevenson's was acquitted of this crime. One must become
conscious of the fact that he continually interrupts before he can cease
interrupting. The unconsciousness is what constitutes the crime; for
conscious interruption ceases to be interruption. The moment a good
talker is aware of having broken into the speech of his converser, he
forestalls interruption by waiting to hear what was about to be said. He
instantly cuts off his own speech with the conventional courtesy-phrase,
"I beg your pardon," which is the same as saying, "Pardon me for seeming
to be unwilling to listen to you; I really am both willing and glad to
hear what you have to say." And he proves his willingness by waiting
until the other person can finish the thought he ventured upon. What
better proof that conversation is listening as well as talking?

Sheer, nervous inability to listen is responsible for one phase of
interruption to conversation. It is the interruption of the wandering
eye which tells that one's words have not been heard. "The person next
to you must be bored by my conversation, for it is going into one of
your ears and out of the other," said a talker rather testily to his
inattentive dinner-companion whose absent-minded and tardy replies had
been snapping the thread of the thought until it grew intolerable. She
was perhaps only a little less irritating than the man who became so
unconscious in the habit of inattention that on one occasion his
converser had scarcely finished when he began abstractedly: "Yes, very
odd, very odd," and told the identical anecdote all over again.

There is another phase of interrupting which proceeds from the jerky
talker whose remarks are not provoked by what his conversational partner
is saying, with observation and answer, affirmation and rejoinder, but
who waits breathlessly for a pause to jump in and tell some thought of
his own. Of this sort of talker Dean Swift wrote: "There are people
whose manners will not suffer them to interrupt you directly, but what
is almost as bad, will discover abundance of impatience, and lie upon
the watch until you have done, because they have started something in
their own thoughts, which they long to be delivered of. Meantime, they
are so far from regarding what passes that their imaginations are wholly
turned upon what they have in reserve, for fear it should slip out of
their memory; and thus they confine their invention, which might
otherwise range over a hundred things full as good, and that might be
much more naturally introduced." An anecdote or a remark will keep. We
are not under the necessity of begrudging every moment that shortens our
own innings; of interrupting our companion by our looks and voting him
an impediment to our own much better remarks.

A less objectionable phase of interrupting, because it as often springs
from kind thought as from arrogance, is that of the conversationalist so
anxious to prove his quickness of perception that he assumes to know
what you are going to say before you have finished your sentence in your
own mind, and to put an interpretation on your arguments before you are
done stating them. His interpretation is as often exactly the opposite
of your own as it is identical; and, right or wrong, the foisted-in
explanation serves only to interrupt the sequence of thought. As early
as 1832 a writer in the New England Magazine waxed wroth to pugilistic
outburst against this form of interruption: "I have heard individuals
praised for this, as indicating a rapidity of mind which arrived at the
end before the other was half through. But I should feel as much
disposed to knock a man down who took my words out of my mouth, as one
who stole my money out of my pocket. Such a habit may be a credit to
one's powers, but not to one's modesty or good feeling. What is it but
saying, 'My dear sir, you are making a very bungling piece of work with
that sentence of yours; allow me to finish it for you in proper style.'"
Tho one is inclined to feel that this author could well have reserved
his verbal scourging for more irritating forms of impertinent
interruption, it is nevertheless true that people are more entirely
considerate who allow their conversational partners to finish their
statements without fear of being tript up.

It is only lack of discrimination on the part of glib talkers to suppose
that those who express themselves more deliberately are less interesting
in conversation. The pig is one of the most rapidly loquacious of
animals, yet no one would say that the pig is an attractive
conversationalist. Pope may have been slow in forming the mosaic of
symbols which express so superbly the fact that

"Words are like leaves; and where they most abound
Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found,"

but his deliberateness did not dim the wisdom, or interest, or beauty,
of his lines. Slow talkers, if allowed to express themselves in their
own way, only add to the attractiveness of any group. Why should we
enjoy characterization more in literature and in drama than in life?
"Good talking," says Stevenson, "is declarative of the man; it is
dramatic like an impromptu piece of acting where each should represent
himself to the greatest advantage; and that is the best kind of talk
where each speaker is most fully and candidly himself, and where, if you
should shift the speeches round from one to another, there would be the
greatest loss in significance and perspicuity."

The Gradgrinds of society who are always coming down upon us with some
horrible and unnecessary piece of fact are another form of interruption
to good conversation. They stop you to remind you that the accident
happened in Tremont Street, not in Boylston; and they suspend a
pertinent point in the air to inform you that it was Mr. Jones's eldest
sister, not his youngest, who was abroad at the time of the San
Francisco earthquake. If some one refers to an incident as having
occurred on the tenth of the month, they deem it necessary to stop the
talker because they happen to know that it was on the ninth. People are
often their own Gradgrinds, interrupting themselves in the midst of a
narration to correct some trivial mistake which has no bearing one way
or the other on what they are saying.

Many otherwise good talkers are at times afflicted with aphasia and lose
the simplest and most familiar word at just the crucial moment--the very
word which is necessary to the point they wish to make. This happens
more often with elderly people; and it was on such an occasion that I
heard a catchword fiend, a moderately young person, use her pet phrase
as a red lantern to stop better, if more halting, talk. "Mr. Black was
telling me to-day about Mr. White's being appointed to ---- what do you
call that office?" implored the dignified matron. "Just call it
anything, Mrs. Gray, a bandersnatch, or a buttonhook, or a
battering-ram," impertinently suggested the glib undergraduate who had
been applying these words to everybody and everything, and who continued
to do so until she had found a new catchword as the main substance of
her conversation. The infirmities of age, as well as the mellowed wisdom
of it, deserve the utmost consideration, especially from youth; and in
this instance deference in aiding the elderly woman to find her word
would have been more graceful than pleasantry, even if the pleasantry
were of a less spurious kind.

Conversation suffers from outside interruptions as much as from
interrupting directly within the conversational group. Bringing very
little children into grown-up company led Charles Lamb to propose the
health of Herod, King of the Jews! Society is no place for young
children; and if older children are permitted to be present they should
be led to listen attentively and to join the conversation modestly. If a
child ventures an opinion or asks a question concerning the topic he is
hearing discust, he should be welcomed into the conversation. His views
should, in this case, be given the same consideration, no matter how
immature, as the riper views of his elders; he should be made a
legitimate part of the conversational group. Either this, or he should
be sent entirely away. There are no half measures in a matter of this
sort. The parent's reiterated commands to "keep quiet," or "to be seen
and not heard," interrupt as much as the child's prattle. Furthermore,
many a child's natural aptitude for talking well has been crusht by
older people stifling every thought the youngster attempted to utter. A
bright young girl of my acquaintance was so supprest by her parents from
the age of seven to fifteen that she early acquired the habit of never
opening her mouth without first getting the consent of father's eyebrow,
or mother's. A child thus treated in youth grows up to be timid and
halting in speech; his individuality and spontaneity are smothered.
Either let the children talk, meanwhile teaching them how to converse,
or send them off to themselves where they may at least express their
thoughts to citizens of their own age. The very best conversational
lesson that a child can be given is imparted when he is taught not to
interrupt; when he is made to understand that he must either talk
according to the niceties of thoroughly good conversation or must be
sent away.

It is often contended that children are out of place at a dining-table
where even tolerable conversation is supposed to be carried on. This
view is no doubt well taken regarding formal dinners; but round the
family board is the best place in the world to implant in children the
principles of good conversation and interesting table-talk. To this end
family differences and unpleasantnesses should be left behind when the
family goes to the table. Parents should insist, as far as possible,
that their children discuss at the dining-table only the pleasant and
interesting happenings of the day. "First of all," says Mr. Mahaffy,
"let me 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, where
either silence or a foreign tongue is imposed at meals. Whatever people
may think of the value of theory, there is no doubt whatever that
practise is necessary for conversation; and it is at home among those
who are intimate, and free in expressing their thoughts, that this
practise 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 speech and manner."

Trampling on the social and conversational rights of the young was some
time ago so well commented upon in The Outlook that I transfer part of
the article to these pages. The editorial emphasized also the
educational advantages of good table-talk in the home: "There is no
educational opportunity in the home more important than the talk at
table. Children who have grown up in homes in which the talk ran on
large lines and touched all the great interests of life will agree that
nothing gave them greater pleasure or more genuine education.... Perhaps
one reason why some American children are aggressive and lacking in
respect is the frivolity of the talk that goes on in some American
families. If children are in the right atmosphere they will not be
intrusive or impertinent. Make place for their interests, their
questions, the problems of their experience; for there are young as well
as old perplexities. Encourage them to talk, and meet them more than
half-way by the utmost hospitality to the subjects that interest and
puzzle them. Give them serious attention; do not ridicule their
confusion of statement nor belittle their troubles.... Do not limit the
talk at table to the topics of childhood, but make it intelligible to
children. Some people make the mistake of 'talking down' to their
children; of turning the conversation at table into a kind of elaborate
'baby-talk'; not realizing that they are robbing their children of
hearing older people talk about the world in which they live. The child
is always looking ahead, peering curiously into the mysterious world
round him, hearing strange voices from it, getting wonderful glimpses
into it. At night when the murmur of voices comes upstairs, he hears in
it the sounds of a future full of great things.... It is not, therefore,
the child of six who sits at the table and listens; it is a human
spirit, eager, curious, wondering, surrounded by mysteries, silently
taking in what it does not understand to-day, but which will take
possession of it next year and become a torch to light it on its way.
It is through association with older people that these fructifying ideas
come to the child; it is through such talk that he finds the world he is
to possess.... The talk of the family ought not, therefore, to be
directed at him or shaped for him; but it ought never to forget him; it
ought to make a place for him."

Apropos of children's appreciation of good talk, this story is told of a
young son of one of the clever men of Chicago: Guests were present and
the boy sat quietly listening to the brilliant conversation of his
elders, when his father suggested to Paul that it was late and perhaps
he had better go to bed. "Please, father, let me stay," pleaded the
youngster, "I do so enjoy interesting conversation." Another and as deep
a childlike appreciation comes from the classic city of our American
Cambridge. The little daughter of one of its representative families
had lain awake for hours upstairs straining her ears to hear the
conversation from below. When her mother came into the little one's room
after her guests had gone, the tiny lady said plaintively, "Mother dear,
while I've been lying here all alone you were having such a liberal time
downstairs." Unconscious recognition of his just right to converse
occasionally with older people was exprest naively by the little son of
a prominent Atlanta family when visiting friends on a plantation. "I
like to stay here because you let me talk every day at the table,"
answered John, when his host asked him why he was pleased in the
country. "Don't they let you talk every day at home, John?" "Oh, when
father says 'give the kiddo a chance,' then they let me talk." This
appreciation of his host's welcoming him into the conversation was a
rare compliment from little John to his older friends and to their
interest in child-life.

Another external and demoralizing interruption to talk is poor
table-service. There can be no good conversation at table where the talk
is constantly interrupted by wordy instructions to servants. A hostess
who takes pride in the table-talk of her guests assures herself in
advance that the maid or the butler serving the table is well trained,
in order that no questions of servants can jeopardize the flow of
conversation. If anything makes it necessary for serving maid or butler
to confer with host or hostess, it should be done in an undertone so
that conversation is not interrupted. But no matter how quietly the
servant does this, the conversation is interrupted by the mere fact
that the attention of the host or hostess is diverted for even a moment
from the subject being discust. In the home, as in the business office,
efficient help means efficient management. It is a reflection on any
hostess to have her table served so badly three hundred and sixty-five
days in the year that the service is an interruption to table-talk. If
she were capable herself, she would have a capable, well-trained maid or
butler. If a maid or butler could not be trained properly, her
capability would show itself in dismissing that servant and getting one
who could be trained. To the end that conversation will not be
interrupted, the "Russian" method of dining-table service is preferable
to all others, and is becoming as popular in America as in the rest of
the world.[A]

A host and hostess can themselves, by the very atmosphere they create,
become an unconscious element of interruption to table-talk. To insure
fluent conversation at table, hosts must be free from worry; they must
cultivate imperturbability; they must be able to ignore or smile at any
accident which might happen "in the best regulated family." There is
nothing more distasteful to guests than to observe that their host is
anxious lest the arrangements of the hostess miscarry, or that their
hostess is making herself quite wretched by a fear that the dishes will
not be prepared to perfection, or over the breaking of some choice bit
of crystal. At a dinner recently I saw the hostess nervous enough to
weep over an accident which demolished a treasured salad bowl; and the
result was that it took strong effort on the part of a self-sacrificing
and friendly guest to keep up the pleasant flow of talk. How much more
tactful and delightful was the manner in which another hostess treated a
similar situation. The guests were startled by a crash in the butler's
pantry, and every one knew from the tinkling sound that it was cut
glass. After a few words of instruction quietly given, the hostess
laughingly said, "I hope there is enough glass in reserve so that none
of you dear people will have to drink champagne from teacups." This was
not only a charming, informal way of smoothing out an awkward situation,
but it gave the poor butler the necessary confidence to finish serving
the dinner. Had the hostess been upset over the affair her agitation
would have been communicated to the servants; and instead of one mishap
there might have been several. A hostess should still "be mistress of
herself tho China fall." In dinner-giving, as in life, it is the part
of genius to turn disaster into advantage. "I was once at a
dinner-party," said an accomplisht diner-out, "apparently of undertakers
hired to mourn for the joints and birds in the dishes, when part of the
ceiling fell. From that moment the guests were as merry as crickets."

Interrupting within the conversational group is perhaps the most
insufferable of all impediments to rippling talk; and interruptions from
without are quite as intolerable. What pleasure is there in conversation
between two people, or among three or four, when the thought is
interrupted every other remark? Frequent references to subjects entirely
foreign to the topic under discussion give conversation much the same
jerky, sputtering ineffectualness as sticking a spigot momentarily in a
faucet prevents an even flow of water from a tank. People who have any
feeling for really good conversation do not allow needless hindrances to
destroy the continuity and joy of their intercourse with friends and
acquaintances. And people who do permit these interruptions are not
conversationalists; they are mere drivelers.

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