The art of conversation: 14 wonderful quotes for the times

by | May 18, 2022 | Media, Communications and Language, Quotable Quotes

Praia das Maçãs, c. 1926
José Malhoa (Portuguesse, 1855–1933)
Photo credit: Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chado (via Wikimedia Commons)

A conversation can be interesting and enjoyable, or it can be insipid and tiresome. The difference lies in what people are able and willing to put into it. Conversation is an art. Those who have learned it make the interaction a gratifying experience for themselves and for others involved.

Human understanding is marvellously enlightened by daily conversation with men, for we are, otherwise, compressed and heaped up in ourselves, and have our sight limited to the length of our own noses.

— Michel de Montaigne, Essays of Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cottons and edited by William Carew Hazlitt (1877)

My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.

— Jane Austen, Persuasion (1817)

A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years’ study of books.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hyperion (1839)

But the greatest benefit is to be derived from conversation, because it creeps by degrees into the soul. Lectures prepared before- hand and spouted in the presence of a throng have in them more noise but less intimacy.

— Seneca (c. 4 B.C.-65 A.D). Ad Lucilium epistulae morales with an English translation by Richard M. Gummere (1917)

He was one of that class of men who, apart from a scientific career in which they may well have proved brilliantly successful, have acquired an entirely different kind of culture, literary or artistic, for which their professional specialisation has no use but by which their conversation profits.

— Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, translated from The French By C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1922)

The Conversation, 1879
Eastman Johnson (Amercian, 1824 – 1906)
Photo credit: WikiArt: Visual Art Encyclopedia

It does seem so pleasant to talk with an old acquaintance that knows what you know. I see so many of these new folks nowadays, that seem to have neither past nor future. Conversation’s got to have some root in the past, or else you’ve got to explain every remark you make, an’ it wears a person out.

— Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896)

It’s extraordinary, the amount of misunderstandings there are even between two people who discuss a thing quite often – both of them assuming different things and neither of them discovering the discrepancy.

— Agatha Christie, Towards Zero (1944)

Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is, that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not.

— Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle (1854)

In conversation avoid the extremes of forwardness and reserve.

— Cato (234 BC – 149 BC), as quoted in Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922)

And surely one of the best rules in conversation is, never to say a thing which any of the company can reasonably wish had been left unsaid…

— Jonathan Swift, Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation (1709)

Discussion of naval officers on the military strategy against China, 1894
Mizuno Toshikata (Japanese, 1866 – 1908)
Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The true spirit of conversation consists more in bringing out the cleverness of others than in showing a great deal of it yourself; he who goes away pleased with himself and his own wit is also greatly pleased with you. Most men would rather please than admire you; they seek less to be instructed, and even to be amused, than to be praised and applauded; the most delicate of pleasures is to please another person.

— Jean de La Bruyère, Les Caractères (1688), “Of Society and Conversation”

What are the great faults of conversation? Want of ideas, want of words, want of manners, are the principal ones, I suppose you think. I don’t doubt it, but I will tell you what I have found spoil more good talks than anything else;- long arguments on special points between people who differ on the fundamental principles upon which these points depend. No men can have satisfactory relations with each other until they have agreed on certain ultimata [finalities] of belief not to be disturbed in ordinary conversation, and unless they have sense enough to trace the secondary questions depending upon these ultimate beliefs to their source. In short, just as a written constitution is essential to the best social order, so a code of finalities is a necessary condition of talk between two persons.

— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858)

The best kind of conversation is that which may be called thinking aloud. I like very well to speak my mind on any subject (or to hear another do so) and to go into the question ac-cording to the degree of interest it naturally inspires, but not to have to get up a thesis upon very topic. There are those, on the other hand, who seem always to be practising on their audience, as if they mistook them for a DEBATiNG-SOCIETY…

— William Hazlitt, Characteristics: In the Manner of Rochefoucault’s Maxims (1837)

That silence is one of the great arts of conversation is allowed by Cicero himself, who says, there is not only an art, but even an eloquence in it.

— Hannah More, Essays on Various Subjects (1777), “Thoughts on Conversation”

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