The Qualities of American Conversation
IT is frequently noticed that educated Americans have smaller vocabularies than Englishmen and Frenchmen. This lack of good words may encourage our use of slang, and it doubtless emphasizes the straining after terms and shades of meaning which we call preciosity. Stevenson said that an idea does not exist until the word to convey it is discovered, and many an American studies the gymnasts of style in the search for illuminating words. Usually the result is a literary strut. Flaubert liked the paradox that art can be learned best from writers of the second rank ; that from Shakespeare and Homer we can get only inspiration. Many students to-day cannot learn from even the wholesome second-class authors, Sterne, Goldsmith, Irving, who use words in their dignity ; they seek style in literary dandies, whose words have no weight, but only novelty. “Insigne, recens, indictum ore alio,” remarks Swift bitterly. Englishmen accuse Americans of admiration for subtlety, a fault we share with recent French writers who juggle with their language. American preciosity does not grow, like the French, from decadence, but rather from rawness and intellectual ambition combined with scarcity of words. Language which is full and natural is acquired in conversation, because words met only in books are seldom handled easily. Nothing expands a vocabulary like conversation, and in the United States there is thus far no large circle of the educated. Our offspring hear Irish in their cradles, and slang in their childhood. Superior men who live alone will be less elastic in conversation than commonplace persons in an expressive environment.
Possibly the tendency in American colleges to substitute science for the classics will do something to hinder the expansion of our current language. Whatever we take from Greece and Rome can be assimilated and used to make our own speech richer, but few get any except bad words out of physical and economic science, metaphysics, logic, or mathematics. A knowledge of German, Italian, Spanish, and most other modern languages seems to do neither harm nor good, but contemporary French, being itself corrupt and fashionable, is a cause of effeminacy in American speech and style, as surely as recent scientists are responsible for awkward terms in Great Britain. Psychology furnishes some of our best and some of our flattest words.
Fragmentariness is another fault of American social intercourse. Our subjects change too often. In France, a conversation does not stop when a newcomer enters. In America, we pause and explain the topic, or take a new one more congenial to the stranger. Lack of training partly explains this stupidity, but the habit of talking personalities is also a cause. Naturally, if you and I are making comments on a friend simply because we know him, bringing out no generalities, courtesy will prevent our inflicting the talk on another. Personal comment may be as fertile as any, but only when it depends less on interest in the individual than on the significance of the conclusions. This limitation to subjects of no universal concern is said to afflict aristocracies and exclusive circles, which touch life narrowly.
Although we have humor and some wit, we have little of the deftness that may make any topic entertaining. " A fly will serve me for a subject,” said Montaigne, and his nation has more lightness and distinction of form than Northern races have. Even in serious subjects the French have an advantage in their knowledge of politics, history, and literature. We devote our lives to Barrie, Howells, Zola, Pater, and are not ashamed to know little of Jonson, Burke, Ford, or Dryden. A Frenchman would not like to admit that he had not read Pascal, Corneille, or Bossuet, and an Englishman knows more not only about his country’s classics, but often about Franklin and Daniel Webster. Both the British and the French pay more attention to domestic politics, and in foreign affairs we have an interest broader than the French, and narrower than the British.
Finally, our leisure is not spent socially. Nature shuts us in and denies us the life of the boulevards, but it is we ourselves who work the wrong of being too busy, — a fault which limits our subjects, spoils the atmosphere, and keeps conversation from becoming art. While it is now possible for many to avoid preoccupation with money, and it is fashionable to have much of the day free from work, yet some of our most interesting people, especially women, are proud of being kept busy by numerous occupations. The boast of having no time is true in the mouths of many, and it is made truer by a sort of intellectual vogue for scurrying hither and thither. Nearly any interest is allowed to prevent long conversation. Limitless “ engagements ” fill the day, and few of us hold talk as valuable as it was held by Emerson and Margaret Fuller.
The domination of the family has an influence on social intercourse which is not enlivening, for devotion to the home dulls the edge of that desire to please which is the soul of conversation. In our cities it is being mitigated, but husbands and wives are still looked upon as Siamese twins, and the unmarried girl goes everywhere. While all this keeps sweet the springs of life, it makes less numerous those gatherings where the best talk is heard. In France they have always been composed of a few married women and many men. Indeed, when we come to name the conditions which make conversation good here, and promise to make it better, we shall get far away from France. There it is an art which gains much of its finish from qualities which we should be sorry to own. Our growth, to be representative, must have less artifice, less brilliancy, a charm more in accord with the sturdy poetry of our English ancestors. What makes our conversation attractive is the wholesomeness of American character and of American life. It is the reflection of a friendly disposition and happy surroundings. It is a genial expression of successful democracy. There is something morally smaller in the national character which creates the social art of France. In England there are the barriers of class distinction and snobbery, to which only fools attend in America. The Englishman may hate them, but they cling. Life is less cordial, less unaffected and fraternal, than it is here, and so is its expression in current speech. The British subject has a settled respect for the Times, a duke, or the empire, which is unknown to us. We examine everything. The laborer criticises the President or the millionaire, and the conductor jests with the banker. No man thinks his newspaper a prophet. There is little black and little white in the world for us. We are kind, but skeptical. Our fatalism, which on the one side leans toward indifference, on the other is the basis of the humor which lightens everything. America is a good place for a man of large sympathy, because, taking everybody, from the rich to the poorest, people are happier, freer in thought, better nourished, and more alive. The conversation which represents the nation’s life, taking it up and down, from top to bottom, including motormen, cab-drivers, farmers, masons, is shrewd, humorous, and individual, cheerful in its cynicism, ironical in its earnestness. The remarks of a crowd watching a street occurrence, the talk of laborers, give much that any man should value, — personal judgments, fearless, and often racy and grim. To listen to conversation in a livery stable is not to lose time. The men who talk there have been in the public schools, they are prospering, their horizon is widening, the climate is bracing, nobody has more rights, and they express themselves with vigor. No property or caste notions silence them, nor are any opinions fixed for them, and every question is open.
The richer people have some of this spirit, because social classes are so mixed ; but as they meet Formally in places where nothing is going on and there is no common occupation, their subjects call for qualities which they lack, although they also are helped by the general freedom. The cheerfulness is not lightness of character. The Puritan, or something else, makes us serious in our humor, as other strains make us humorous in our sincerity. We have, however, to thank our democracy for the absence of formalism in talk, of setness in opinion, and of general ennui. Even some hampering standards which we have are disappearing. Frankness without intimacy was frowned on by our parents, but we are learning that concealment about principles is out of place in conversation. Few can be socially interesting who are secretive by habit.
Connected with the growing frankness of conversation is the freedom of woman. The most delightful step we have taken is the extension of her part in life. Nothing is so cheering, so enlightening and broadening, for men and for women, as the equality on which they meet. What American would choose the rigidity of Germany or England, or the artifice of France ? The same openness and truth in the relations between men and women are found nowhere else. What could be more instructive, and what more charming ? Charity is the greatest of the virtues, intellectual and æsthetic as well ns social; and kindness, fairness, and the lack of bullying, encouraged by the equal rights of all races and both sexes, added to the humor which the Yankee and the Irishman have given to the whole compound, make up the greatest satisfaction of our social life.
The deepest fault to be set against this charm, the lack of thoroughness, will diminish, as the reward for quick and superficial qualities grows less with the settlement of society. Our fatalism may also diminish, although it is to be hoped that the essence of our humor, from Emerson and Lincoln to Mark Twain, will not go with it. When the resources of the country are less sufficient, and care about waste is greater, a more active concern for political management will remove the most striking indication of national indifference. With the increase of interest in public affairs, the virtues which at present make the average talk so good will make the conversation of the educated correspondingly vivid and significant.
Fashionable society alone deserves no favorable judgment. It is more ignorant than fashion in other lands. It imitates the society of a foreign country, and it has no function except to he conspicuous. But even our fashion, absurd as it is, is beginning to seek outsiders to make “ salons ” for it. Leaving it out of account, we may believe that in all walks of life, from the factory to the college, our conversation, whatever its faults, has at least as much of the blood of life in it as that of any other country.