Conversation

Samuel Miller (1769-1850)Samuel Miller, D.D.1

Conversation

Copyright © 1998 Naphtali Press

 MY DEAR YOUNG FRIEND: Those qualities which enable any man to appear well in conversation, are among the most precious that can be possessed. To every public man these qualities are peculiarly important. But to a minister of the gospel, they are above measure valuable. The business of his life is to benefit his fellow-men. A large portion of time must be passed, and ought to be passed, in society; and he who is best qualified to make all his social intercourse at once pleasing and useful, is, of course, best qualified to promote the great ends for which the ministry was instituted.

But while this accomplishment is certainly valuable beyond all price, it evidently engages much less of the attention of candidates for the holy ministry than its importance demands. Instead of `coveting earnestly this gift;’ instead of studying daily to attain it, and to make progress in it, as is done with regard to some other things of less value; this great concern is left pretty much to take care of itself, or at best, to depend on the exigency of the moment, both for exercise and improvement.

Every man, indeed, is not qualified to excel in conversation; but every man may be inoffensive, if not agreeable. And as Dean Swift has somewhere remarked, there are hundreds of men who might not only be agreeable, but really shine, who on account of a few gross faults, which they might easily correct in half an hour, are at present not even tolerable. They pass through life not only without usefulness, but are considered as a nuisance wherever they appear.

As I propose to make Religious Conversation the subject of a separate letter, I shall confine myself at present, to some general principles, which it appears to me ought to regulate all our social intercourse. Most of these principles, indeed, apply equally to all classes of persons. Some of them however, are more especially worthy of the attention of those who seek or sustain the sacred office.

This subject is recommended to our attention, not only by common sense and experience, but also by the Word of God. Holy Job exclaimed, How forcible are right words! A word spoken in due season, says the wise man, how good it is (Pr. 15:23)! And again, A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver (Pr. 25:11). Again, the inspired apostle exhorts, Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers (Eph. 4:29). And

again, Let your speech be always with grace seasoned with salt, that ye may know how to answer every man (Col. 4:6).

Allow me then, to put you on your guard against some of the most common faults in conversation, and to recommend some of those excellencies, which appear to me particularly worthy of your attention.

1. In the first place, be upon your guard against talking too much in company. He who is very talkative incurs disadvantages of the most serious kind. He cheapens himself; tires his hearers; and of course, renders what he has to say, however rich it may be in wisdom, much less likely to prove either acceptable or useful, than if he talked less. Speak seasonably, nay frequently, if you have opportunity, but never long. Contribute your equitable share to the conversation; but do not allow yourself to go beyond these limits. `Pay your own reckoning,’ as one has expressed it; `but do not undertake, at your own expense, to treat the whole company. This being one of the few cases in which people do not wish to be treated; everyone being fully convinced that he has wherewithal to pay his own bill.’ This fault is particularly noticed and reproved in Scripture. A fool’s voice, says the wise man, is known by the multitude of words. In the multitude of words, says the same inspired teacher, there wanteth not sin; but he that refraineth his lips is wise. And again, He that hath knowledge, spareth his words (Ecc. 3:3; Pr. 10:19; Pr. 17:27).

I have never known a great talker, however enlightened and instructive, who did not at length, become wearisome to his company. Nor did I ever know one of this character, who in the multitude of the remarks and opinions which he threw out, did not sometimes utter that which he had better have kept to himself; and which, in some instances, became the source of great subsequent trouble. It is very unwise in a man who bears such a relation to society as a clergyman does; who is set for the instruction and guidance of the people; who comes in contact with so many individuals in all classes of society; whose remarks and opinions are important, and if he be at all respected, likely to be remembered and quoted; nay, whose judgment on the current topics of the day may have no small influence on the minds of some, when he shall have passed off the stage of life. Surely it is unwise for such a man to be throwing out his opinions on all subjects, without due consideration. Surely it is unwise for him to speak hastily and rashly. And if he be `full of talk,’ he will seldom be, for an hour together, wholly free from rash and indiscreet speaking. Let every man, but especially every minister, be swift to hear, and slow to speak.

2. A fault directly the reverse of that which was last mentioned, is the extreme of silence in company. I have known some from physical temperament; others from abstraction and absence of mind; and a third class, perhaps, from still more exceptionable causes, wrapping themselves up in a chilling reserve; never speaking but when addressed, and then answering as briefly as possible, and relapsing into silence again. This is certainly unhappy for one who ought to be, wherever he is, an instructor and benefactor. While you avoid garrulity then, sink not down into silence. While you guard against monopolizing the conversation, by no means give it up altogether. And if you find yourself frequently at a loss for topics of conversation, take pains to have something ready for the discharge of this, as well as every other duty, by previously meditating on what may be adapted to utility in the particular company to which you may be introduced.

3. Another practical maxim of great importance in conversation, is that you avoid a tale-bearing tattling spirit. I have known some clergymen, who were the greatest newsmongers in their neighborhoods. They were among the first to circulate idle stories; to give currency to unconfirmed statements; to trumpet abroad charges of the most serious kind, without adequate evidence, and were often, very often, afterwards obliged to explain, apologize, and even retract. This is a shameful spirit for any professing Christian to indulge; but is peculiarly shameful for an ambassador of Christ, whose course ought ever to be marked by caution, dignity, tenderness for the reputation of others, and universal benevolence.

Be not ready to credit, and in your social hours to recognize as true, every ill report that malignity or folly may put in circulation. If you have heard of any faux pas in the neighborhood, or even if you know it to be true, be among the last to speak of it, unless plainly in duty to do so. Let others lend themselves to the ignoble work of tale-bearing, or be willing to connect their names with the repetition of ill-natured re-ports; but let not your name be ever mentioned in such unworthy associations. If authority for slander or for contemptible gossiping stories is to be demanded, let it not be traced to a minister of Christ, who ought to have something to do infinitely more worthy of his calling.

I have known ministers who were rash, credulous, and withal a little fond of news, taking for granted that what were communicated to them as facts, were really so; freely speaking of them as facts, and, not only so, but proceeding to act on the strength of them; to administer severe reproofs to the individuals supposed to be guilty, and even carry the subject into the pulpit; when the whole stories which they believed, caught up, repeated, and acted upon, were entirely without foundation. It is almost incredible how little reliance can be placed on reports, circulated even by good people, and accompanied with all the minute circumstances of time and place; and how utterly unsafe it is in many cases, even to investigate the truth of them: because, frequently, even an investigation cannot be conducted, without repeating the story, and thus giving it additional currency. There are busy and wicked tongues enough for this work. The general rule for a minister of the gospel is to take no share in any such conversation, unless it is, as far as he can with a good conscience, to mollify and repress: and then only to allow himself to take it up, when it is no longer possible, consistently with duty, to maintain silence.

When others speak to you of the misconduct of absent persons, as far as possible, in most cases, discourage such communications; and when severe censures are pronounced, manifest a readiness, as far as you conscientiously can, to suggest palliatives, and modes of viewing the subject which may be consistent with the innocence of the party, or at least lessen his criminality; remembering that charity hopeth all things.

4. Closely connected with the tattling spirit against which I have warned you, is that which loves to pry into the private circumstances, and even the secrets of families, and to make them the subject of conversation. There is a littleness and even meanness in this, which all people of elevated minds despise; and which I hope you will sacredly avoid. You will have quite business enough of your own, without meddling with the private affairs of other people. In truth, no wise man will ever desire to become possessed of the secrets of his neighbors. They will always be found a troublesome commodity to have in keeping; and even after they have been imparted to him, he will much more frequently regret than rejoice that they ever came to his knowledge. There are many things of which it is much more a privilege than a misfortune to be entirely ignorant.

5. In conformity with the foregoing remarks, let me recommend that in company, even with your most intimate friends, you avoid the discussion of personal character and conduct as much as possible; and that you prefer dwelling on those principles, doctrines, and facts, which are always, and to all classes in society, interesting and instructive, and the discussion of which, moreover is safe. It was a question often repeated by a late distinguished physician and philanthropist of Philadelphia, a man as remarkable for the soundness of his mind, and the extent of his learning, as for the benignity of his disposition: `Why are you so constantly talking about persons? Why not rather talk about things?’ The lesson conveyed by this question is replete with practical wisdom. If conversation were generally modeled upon it, the consequences would be happy indeed.

Study the happy art of making all your conversation useful. Conversation which is not religious, may still be highly useful. It may inculcate excellent sentiments concerning life, manners, education, etc.; or it may convey instruction, as to facts of great value. Where you have an opportunity of selecting topics of conversation yourself, make a point of introducing such as shall be adapted to benefit, as well as gratify those whom you address. And even where you are compelled or induced to accept of those which have been introduced by others, try to give them an instructive turn. Especially study the happy art of making your conversation useful to young people as often as you are thrown into their company. A clergyman, or a candidate for the ministry, who has an enlarged mind, and a good stock of information, need not, and ought not, to converse five minutes in any company without throwing out something calculated to be thought of afterwards with profit. Nay, if we had the spirit of our Master, we should endeavor to make every word we utter useful.

7. Do not disdain to prepare yourself to converse in an intelligent and profitable manner on whatever may be the popular topics of the day. Whenever any interesting occurrence renders a particular place, or a particular event in history, an object of general attention, if you are not already accurately informed concerning the place or event in question, make a point of obtaining correct information as speedily as you can. You may be publicly appealed to for information in the presence of those whom you would be unwilling to appear ignorant. And even if this should not be the case, you may lose many an opportunity of instructing and gratifying those with whom you converse. There is some danger indeed, that he who has thus taken pains to inform himself in relation to popular topics, may be tempted by vanity to make a display of his knowledge; but this is no more an argument against his gaining the knowledge, and being ready to impart it in a proper manner, and on proper occasions, than the proneness of many to pedantry, is an argument against all endeavors to cultivate and store the mind.

8. One of the most important habits to be acquired in conversation is that of paying close attention to the individual with whom you are conversing. Nothing is more common than the violation of this plain dictate of propriety. Many are in the constant habit of either entirely withdrawing their attention, or at least, bestowing a very small share of it on the person who is speaking to them. In the midst of the most important remarks, which they are expected to understand and to answer, they plainly manifest, by the vacant countenance, by the averted eye, and sometimes, even by the indecency of humming a tune, in a half-smothered manner, that they are thinking of nothing less than the speaker or his discourse. This is a great breach of decorum, and as unwise as it is ill-bred. It is impossible to understand or answer that which we do not hear; and very often, by allowing ourselves to indulge this absence of mind, we lose many a wise and weighty observation; we suffer many an important link in a chain of argument to escape us, by which we might, had we secured it, have been largely profited; and even if what is said to us be altogether erroneous, we can never refute, or dispose of it in any way as we ought, if we do not attentively listen to it. If you think proper to take the time to sit down by a person, and to pretend to listen to him, make a point of really listening to him. When you think that the conversation ought to be broken off, break it off; but while it continues, attend to what is said. Unless you do this, it is impossible to estimate its value, or to frame a proper reply, or to adopt the most wise and delicate method of bringing it to a close. Many a conversation has been prolonged to an hour, and after all, has proved desultory and useless, when it might have terminated in ten minutes, and been mutually beneficial, had the parties only given to each other, for that short space of time, their undivided attention. I repeat it, then, if you would treat your friends with good manners; if you would profit by what they say; if you would gain the highest possible advantage from every conversation; if you would save time; if you would benevolently impart pleasure as well as receive it; if you would reply to what is said to you, in the wisest and most instructive manner; then pay strict and undivided attention to every word that is uttered, as long as you think proper to continue any conversation.

9. The foregoing remarks are intended to apply where another person is addressing you individually. The same general principle applies where an individual is addressing a company of which you form a part. In such case, as long as you continue to occupy your seat, attend to what is said. I have known many persons who, in such circumstances, in the midst of an interesting series of remarks addressed to them equally with the rest of the company, turned aside their heads; began to whisper to the person who sat next to them on an entirely different subject; and thus diverted his attention as well as their own from the speaker. This is, undoubtedly, a gross offence against good manners. It is practically telling the speaker that you do not think him worth listening to, and is certainly calculated to embarrass, and even to interrupt him in his remarks. Surely those who are desirous of doing to others, as they would that others, in like circumstances, should do to them, will endeavor to avoid such a palpable indecorum.

10. Another radical maxim of good manners in conversation, is to treat what is said by others respectfully. This maxim, as well as the last, is perpetually disregarded. To say nothing of the practice indulged by many, of habitually withdrawing their attention from those with whom they are conversing; there are others, who testify their want of respect for what is said to them in conversation, in a great variety of ways: by a smile of contempt; by a half-concealed sneer; by a manifest unwillingness to hear the speaker to the end; by interrupting him; by hints that his opinions are frivolous; in a word, by some look, tone, or gesture, not easily specified, or clothed in language, by which we may intimate to another that we regard what he is saying as unworthy of being seriously considered. In all these ways, do proud men, impatient men, obstinate, opinionated, vulgar men, treat with disrespect many remarks which are worthy of their notice, and wound the feelings of many a modest, timid speaker.

If you so far put yourself on a level with anyone, as to converse with him at all, listen respectfully to what he has to say. It is very possible that when he has finished, and before he has finished, you may be constrained to think very little of his remarks. But do not wound his feelings, by giving him to understand, beforehand, that you expect very little from him to that purpose; or by anything that shall indicate sneer or contempt. Do not practically tell him, that you have no respect for what he is saying. Not only listen to him, but give every thought and word which he may utter, its due weight. Treat him, in short, as you would wish and expect, in like circumstances, to be treated by him. In no other way will you be able, when he has done, to answer his remarks in such a manner as will be likely to be useful to him as well as worthy of yourself.

11. In conversation with an individual, look him in the face, and keep your eye generally fixed on his, as far as you can without starring, and looking him out of countenance. The power of the eye, in seconding and enforcing what is said, is incalculable. Besides, by talking to an acquaintance without looking him in the face, you forego a great advantage. You lose the opportunity of perceiving what impression your re-marks make upon him; and of deciding, by his composure, or his sudden change of countenance, whether you are giving him pleasure or pain by your communication. Many a discerning speaker, by watching the countenance of him whom he addressed, has been warned, by its indication, of the delicate ground on which he was treading, and prevented from making further and perhaps very mischievous disclosures.

12. It is of great importance to a public character, and especially to a clergyman, to learn the art of opposing erroneous sentiments expressed in the course of conversation, with firmness, and at the same time, without offence. No discerning individual can converse many minutes together with almost anyone, without hearing something with which he cannot entirely agree. Now, to oppose such erroneous opinions is, in most cases, a duty; and yet to perform this duty seasonably, delicately, and with a proper reference to time, place, and company, is one of those things which, more than most others, put in requisition our judgment, taste, good tem-per, and good breeding. Sometimes the best expression of your disapprobation will be by perfect silence. In other cases, this would be want of fidelity. When you find yourself constrained, however, to give utterance to your dissent, let it be done mildly, respectfully, and in a manner fitted to win, rather than to revolt, the errorist. For example; instead of saying, to one who has been delivering sentiments in which you cannot concur, `You seem to me to talk absurdly;’ or `Such opinions are grossly erroneous and mischievous;’ or, `A person who can speak thus, must have either a weak head, or a bad heart.’ Rather say, `I cannot concur in that opinion, for the following reasons, etc.;’ or, `Perhaps you have not adverted to some of the consequences of the opinion which you have just expressed;’ and so in other cases. We are never so likely to benefit those who broach erroneous opinions in our presence, as when we oppose them, without acrimony; with a mild benevolence of manner; and with such an exhibition of our reasons, as is adapted to convince their judgment, without wounding their pride.

13. Avoid a haughty and authoritative manner in conversation. There are undoubtedly, many clergymen who allow themselves to feel in the parlor, very much as they do in the pulpit; as if it were their prerogative to dictate their sentiments ex cathedra; and as if they expected to be heard, not as friends, but as superiors, and authorized instructors. Hence they have habitually, something in their manner in company, which banishes ease, which chills confidence, which represses free inquiry, and which causes them to be listened to rather with constraint and timidity, than with affection. Carefully shun everything of this kind. When you are conversing with friends in a parlor, you meet them on terms of equality. You are to address them, not as a lordly dictator, but as a respectful friend: not as having authority over their consciences, but as a helper of their instruction and their innocent pleasure. Avoid, therefore, in such circumstances, all harsh, dogmatical expressions and tones. Do not think to convince by your ipse dixit, or to put down an opponent by your sovereign authority. This would be proud dictation, rather than conversing; and ought to be carefully avoided by one who wishes to succeed, by addressing and treating men as rational beings; by respecting the rights of conscience, and by convincing the understandings of those whom he desires to gain.

14. As far as you can, avoid controversy in conversation, especially in mixed companies. I say, as far as you can. It is not always possible to avoid it. An impudent, rough, or vulgar attack, may compel you to take the stand and tone of a polemic, when you least desire it. When such a case occurs, it ought to be studiously met without heat or passion, and brought to a close as speedily as possible. But many good men love controversy; or, at any rate, are easily betrayed into it. They have so little knowledge of the world, and so little discretion, that they are always ready to give battle, whenever they see the banner of a party raised. And even if they be seated in large, mixed companies, and be in danger of having all eyes and ears turned to them; still they imagine that no disputable sentiment must be allowed to pass. This is a real infirmity. Watch and pray against it without ceasing. Never suffer the truth, if you can help it, to be trampled under feet in your presence. But there are many ways of interposing a mild, conciliatory word in its behalf, and doing it firmly, without allowing yourself to be drawn into a dispute. And in this case, the old medical maxim, obsta principiis, is of great value. Be on the watch to avoid controversy, from the first moment you perceive a discrepancy of opinion. A slight effort may be sufficient, in the beginning, to avert the evil, which after going a few steps forward, will be utterly unavailing.

Before I take leave of this particular, allow me, with especial earnestness, to put you on your guard against being drawn into controversy, in company, with aged men and with females. Never dream that you will be able to convince, or by any means to effect an alteration in the opinions of a man who has passed the age of three score, or three score and ten. You do not dispute with such a one on equal terms. If his opinions be ever so erroneous, he is probably wedded to them by long habit, as well as by strong prejudice. He will naturally consider himself as your superior, and take for granted that you cannot instruct him. Of course, you will find it difficult to use the same freedom and scope of argument with him, that you would with one nearer to an equality with yourself in age. Many of the same considerations apply to females. In acuteness, wit, sprightliness, and delicate raillery, they often prove powerful opponents; while the hands of a male adversary are, in a great measure, tied, so that he cannot wield with unrestrained freedom many of those weapons which he might properly, and with great effect, employ against an adversary of his own sex.

15. Closely connected with this caution against sliding into unseasonable controversy in company, is another against losing your temper in controversy, when you happen to be either unavoidably dragged, or inadvertently betrayed, into it. Perhaps clergymen may be said to be peculiarly exposed to this temptation. For besides the various other infirmities, which they share in common with all good men, they are, perhaps, peculiarly liable to feel deeply, when their profession or their opinions are attacked. Always set a double guard, therefore, at this point. Recollect not only the sin of all rash and unseasonable anger; but how much the exhibition of it lowers the dignity of a grave, official man; and also that, in controversy, according to an old maxim, he who first gets angry will generally be considered as having the weaker side of the argument.

16. Endeavor to cultivate an easy, attractive manner in conversation. Not that I would have you put on the smiling, simpering countenance, which many affect, as giving them, what they think, a pleasant, social air. This is, to all discerning people, disgusting rather than attractive. But by the attractive manner which I would recommend, I mean that frank, courteous, unaffected, benign manner, which invites freedom of intercourse, and which is adapted to place all who approach us at their ease. Such a quality in a clergyman is peculiarly precious, and if properly cultivated and employed, may become a blessing to thousands. Of course, the attainment and exercise of it ought to be studied. And I know of no means of attaining it more effectual, than habitually cultivating that genuine Christian benevolence, which the spirit and the example of the blessed Savior so powerfully recommended. A thousand rules on this subject, expressed with all the point and eloquence imaginable, and day by day treasured up in the memory, are of small value when compared with this successful culture of the moral feelings, and the heart.

17. While you cultivate habitual affability, good nature, and benevolence in conversation, be not too ready to make promises of service to those with whom you converse. The inexperienced and the sanguine, who have naturally an obliging temper, are extremely apt to be betrayed into this fault. They feel much disposed to oblige; and they hastily make promises, and excite expectations, which they cannot fulfill. Be not ready to promise, unless you are sure of your ability to perform. Be sacredly careful not to disappoint the just expectations which you have excited; and make a point, instead of doing less than you say, to do more. I have known a number of men, and especially young men, in public stations, who were so ready to excite expectation of the great things they would do for individuals, or for public bodies, and so remarkably delinquent in accomplishing what they so hastily undertook, that, after a while, no confidence whatever was reposed in their undertakings.

18. It is of the utmost importance to one whose profession leads him much into society, that he be not ready to take offence at every trifle that occurs in the course of conversation. It is a real misfortune for any man, and especially for a clergyman, when his natural temper is jealous and suspicious, and when he is ever on the watch for some fancied design to offend him, or to wound his feelings. I have known men in the sacred office so extremely sensitive to everything of this kind, that their best friends were obliged to converse with them with a degree of caution truly painful. The most innocent remark sometimes became matter of offence, and where no one else saw the remotest purpose of personal application, an unfortunate individual was made an offender for a word. Guard, I pray you, against this unhappy temper with the utmost vigilance. Never think of taking offence, until you are very certain offence was intended. Be sure to err rather on the side of forbearance and charity than of excessive suspicion. Nay, even if you have proof that there was an intention to wound your feelings, rather set it down to the score of temporary peevishness, than of settled malignity; and be ready to meet the offending individual, on the next occasion, with the same serenity and good will as ever.

19. Avoid becoming suddenly and excessively intimate with strangers, at a first interview, and especially, committing yourself to them. This is a great mark of precipitancy and weakness. Be not ready to trust everybody. Confidential friendship is a plant of slow growth. Many people appear extremely plausible, and even fascinating at first interview, who are utterly unworthy of your confidence, and will be speedily discovered to be so.

20. Never, if you can help it, put yourself in the power of any man. It is, indeed, a common maxim, that you ought never to put yourself in the power of anyone but tried friends. I would go further; never do it in any case, unless it be absolutely necessary. For example, if it be impossible for you to proceed in a delicate and highly important matter, without making a confident of someone, submit to the necessity. Make the best choice you can. But, on no account, let your communication go further. It can do no good, and may do much harm, in ways that you never thought of anticipating. The most prudent and useful public men I have ever known, were found among those who exercised the most impenetrable reserve respecting the delicate concerns of themselves and others; who did not impart the knowledge of them even to their nearest relations.

21. When you are called to converse on a subject concerning which there is known to exist, or is likely to arise, a diversity of opinion, in your congregation or neighborhood, do not be forward to deliver your opinion upon it, unless you feel imperiously called by a sense of duty to do so. And when you are called to give your opinion on such a subject, be careful to express it in a manner as little calculated as possible to mortify or irritate those who differ from you. Why should you intimate that those who think otherwise are either `weak’ or `wicked?’ You will not be likely to do good by such language; and it may deeply wound, and even permanently alienate, many of your best friends.

22. Remember that a clergyman ought ever to maintain personal dignity in conversation. This is too often forgotten. Personal dignity, in this case, may be impaired, by levity, by buffoonery, by the recital of low, vulgar anecdotes, by anything in short which evinces the want of that seriousness and self-respect, which can never be abandoned with impunity. Remember that, though it be not only lawful, but desirable, that clergymen should be affable and cheerful; yet that they can never manifest a spirit of habitual levity and jesting, without giving pain to all correct persons who observe it. Dr. Johnson was far from being a precisian, either in his feelings or manners; yet when he saw a couple of clergymen indulging in considerable mirth and jollity at a dinner table, he said with emotion, his merriment of parsons is very disgusting. And truly, when ministers of the gospel, who ought to set an example of dignity, as well as piety, undertake to exhibit themselves for the entertainment of company; to recite low, common place stories; and not only to repeat, but also to act their narratives, with all the circumstances of comedy and farce which belong to them; it cannot fail to giving pain to every mind of correct Christian feeling, and of lowering the ministerial character.

23. Be not ready to join in noisy laughter against anyone who has inadvertently committed a blunder, either in speech or action. It gives pain; and is a mark of very coarse breeding. A dignified command of the countenance is a talent of great value to one in a public station, and adapted to save him from many an embarrassing and mortifying occurrence. It is a real infirmity, and, in a minister of the gospel, an unhappy one, to be ever ready to laugh, or to be noted as a great laugher.

24. It is a great offence against good breeding to be ever ready to turn the eyes of a company on a certain individual, to whom some remark, cursorily made, is supposed to be applicable, and thus, often times, deeply to embarrass him. I have often seen this rule violated in the public assembly, as well as in the parlor. A remark is made, perhaps, which is leveled at the particular denomination or party to which an individual present belongs, or at some opinion which he holds, or some conduct with which he is known to be chargeable. In an instant, every eye is turned toward him; and perhaps some fairly turn round in their seats, to gaze with a smirk or a sneer at the supposed delinquent. There is something so indelicate in this, that a person of truly correct feeling will by no means allow himself to practice it.

25. I have long thought that the practice of retailing anecdotes was one by far too much indulged by many clergymen. To be able to tell a seasonable, appropriate, short and pointed anecdote, now and then, is certainly an accomplishment by no means to be despised, and very proper to be indulged by a clergyman, as well as by any other man. But to abound in them; to be continually resorting to them; to make the repetition of them a favorite amusement, and one of our characteristics, is indeed unworthy of a Christian minister. I could name clergymen who have a set of anecdotes, which they are constantly retailing; some of them very vulgar; a large portion of them old and perfectly stale; not a few relating to ludicrous citations and expositions of Scripture, and of course, calculated to make the Scripture ridiculous in the view of many people; and these, perhaps, repeated the hundredth time, to the loathing of many who have heard them over and over again. A man must have a better memory, and a richer fund, than commonly fall to the lot of the retailers of anecdotes, who does not repeat the items in his list, many times over, to the same individuals. But this is not the worst. The persons in question, by the constant repetition of ludicrous stories, have insensibly cherished in their minds a habitual bias to levity, and have come at length to be expected to be the general jesters for their company.

26. This propensity to the incessant retailing of anecdotes becomes more highly exceptionable, when it leads, as it sometimes does, to the recital of those which include the repetition of profane or obscene language. It is in vain to say that he who only repeats the story, is not the author of the language, and by no means expresses his approbation of it. If the ear be polluted by the words of profaneness and obscenity, it matters little who first of all uttered them. The work of mischief is accumulating by every repetition; and the desire of every Christian ought to be that it never be heard again.

27. Nearly allied to the practice of constantly retailing common place or unseemly anecdotes, is that of habitually repeating old and stale proverbs. These, from the circumstances of their having been repeated so many thousand times, have ceased to be of interest; and many of them are truly vulgar, so that to be continually repeating them would be really to subject yourself to the charge of habitual vulgarity. The truth is, making yourself remarkable for the frequent repetition of any particular form of speech, or proverbial expression, is alike contrary to all good taste, and good breeding.

28. And this leads me to lay it down as another fundamental principle of conversation, that nothing in the least degree bordering on the indelicate, or the coarse, ought ever to escape in conversation from the lips of a minister. If you wish to know how far I would carry this principle, I answer, if there be a thought or a word which the most delicate female would shrink from uttering in a public company; if there be an anecdote, which the most scrupulous matron would be unwilling to relate, if all the world were her hearers; then let no clergyman venture to give utterance, in mixed companies, either to the one or the other. His delicacy ought to be quite as scrupulous and pure as that of the most refined lady.

29. It is one of the most obvious dictates of good manners, not to interrupt another person when he is speaking; and yet how frequently is this plain rule of decorum violated! To interrupt one in conversation almost always carries with it an offensive character. It implies either that we are not instructed or interested by what he is saying; that we have not patience to hear him to the end, and are anxious that he should come to a more speedy close; or that we are wiser than he, and more competent to give instruction on the subject on which he is speaking; neither of which is consistent with that respect and benevolence which we owe to those with whom we converse. But, while you sacredly guard against interrupting others in conversation, be not impatient of interruption yourself. Bear it with calmness, and without the least indication of irritated feeling. Set it down to the score of inadvertence, of nervous excitement, of irascible feeling, of constitutional impatience; in short, of anything rather than a design to give offence, unless you are compelled by unquestionable testimony to adopt this unfavorable construction.

30. Never allow yourself flatly and offensively to contradict anyone with whom you are conversing, provided you mean to remain on good terms with him. It is always a breach of good manners, and to many persons peculiarly painful and embarrassing. If you suspect, or even if you are certain, that a statement made is entirely incorrect, instead of saying bluntly, `that is false,’ or `that is not true;’ or `the fact is not as you state it;’ how much more delicate and proper to say, `Do you not mistake?’ `Are you not misinformed?’ `I cannot help thinking that you are deceived with respect to that matter.’ But, while you never allow yourself bluntly or harshly to contradict others in conversation, always make a point of bearing it patiently when you are contradicted yourself. Remember that it much oftener arises from coarseness of the mind, and ignorance of propriety, than from any intention to wound feelings; and therefore, ought in common to be pitied, rather than resented or made matter of offence.

31. Guard against the indulgence of personal vanity in conversation. This is a foible, or rather a sin, which so frequently lowers the dignity, and interferes with the usefulness of men, otherwise of great excellence, that you cannot be too careful to fly from its approaches. In any man it is revolting; but in a minister of the gospel, or in a candidate for the ministry, it is peculiarly offensive and degrading. Let not the excessive love of praise get possession of your mind. Despise the petty and unworthy arts of those who are constantly seeking to draw it toward themselves. Beware of seeming to court observation or attention. Always remember that the larger your demands on others for their respect and admiration, the less they will be disposed to yield to you. No man is so likely to be both honored and loved as he who appears never to think of soliciting or desiring either. Whereas he who insists on often dragging into view his own excellence, and who is continually blazoning his own talents, attainments and virtues, will generally be found to lose reputation just in proportion as he takes into his own hands the task of awarding it to himself.

32. Vanity, in general, is the parent of egotism in conversation; another foible, against which I exhort you to guard. Let not the idea of yourself appear to be always present to your imagination. Talk not of yourself, your plans, your doings, or your affairs in company, if you can easily avoid it. Do not embrace every opportunity of relating something to your own advantage, or that of your family or relatives. It can scarcely be done in any shape, however ingenious, without having an unpleasant appearance, and had, therefore, better be omitted altogether. Even speaking of your own defects and weaknesses, will be considered by many as an indirect compliment to yourself; because it conveys the idea that you feel so secure in the acknowledged possession of higher and nobler qualities, that you can afford to be thought defective in those of minor importance.

33. Do not affect wit in conversation. Wit, like poetry, to be tolerable, must be very good. Now, very few persons are possessed of this commodity in its genuine, attractive character. The greater part of what is called wit, like most of the versifying in our world, is but an humble and vapid imitation of that which it wishes to be thought. Never attempt to force nature, then, in the one case, any more than you would in the other. Few things are more undignified and paltry, than to see a man impotently struggling with attempts at wit, when the only thing really ludicrous about the matter is, the utter failure of the effort. The probability is that you have not real wit. If you have, it will occasionally disclose itself in spite of your efforts to repress it. And after all, it is not a very desirable accomplishment for a minister of the gospel. It has been commonly found to be a snare rather than a treasure to those who really possessed it.

34. Do not indulge pedantry in conversation. By this you will understand me to mean a formal and unseasonable ostentation of learning; a fault into which men of superficial knowledge, more particularly professional men, are extremely apt to fall, and with which some clergymen, and especially young clergymen, are frequently chargeable. If you have ever so much learning, there is littleness in making a parade of it; and if you have but a small portion, there is something bordering on dishonesty in vaunting it as if you had much. The best rule in the world on this subject is, to get as much knowledge of every valuable kind as you can; and never to make any further display of it than the discharge of your duty necessarily demands. If you were to hear a physician or lawyer holding forth, in mixed company, on the technicalities and the recondite lore of his profession, would you not be disposed to smile? And ought you not to guard against exciting a smile in others by similar conduct on your own part?

35. Both the spirit and the language of flattery in conversation, are utterly unworthy an ambassador of Christ. In any man it is base; but in him who ought to be a pattern and a leader in all that is good, it is pre-eminently base. Yet there are clergymen who are by no means free from this charge. Their opinions of so many persons and things are either openly solicited, or indirectly required; and their temptations to gratify the feelings of many different classes of people, are so powerful, that they are not always able to resist them. I will not suppose anyone who bears the sacred office, to be so unprincipled as to indulge in the habit of indiscriminate flattery, which, as it must defeat its own purpose, is as foolish and contemptible, as it is wicked. But what I warn you against is that delicate flattery, to which many good men are prone; which frequently disguises itself under the name of benevolence; and of which, perhaps, the poison is the more deleterious, because it is so delicately and sparingly administered. Never flatter anyone. Never make your praise cheap. It is not sinful, indeed, to commend another, where commendation is really deserved; but let it be bestowed at a proper time and place; and be conscientious in falling short of what is due, rather than going beyond it. Remember how inflammable a thing human vanity is; and guard against the risk of kindling it into a flame. He that flatters his neighbor, says the wise man, spreadeth a net for his feet.

36. And as I would warn you against flattering others, so I would warn you, with no less solemnity, against inviting commendation and flattery from others to yourself. Nothing is more common, than what is most expressively called fishing for praise. Sometimes it is almost extorted; and what is it then worth? Despise the littleness, as well as abhor the sin of this miserable beggary. I have known ministers who were in the constant habit, immediately after descending from the pulpit, if they fell in with a brother clergyman, of asking him his opinion of the sermon which he had just heard. Where such inquiries are confined to very intimate friends, they are, perhaps, not to be wholly blamed; although even then, they are in a greater or less degree, indications of vanity, and spread a snare for the honesty of our friends, and had better be omitted. But when addressed, as I have known them to be, to strangers as well as friends, there is a littleness about them truly contemptible. The same general remark may be applied to those cases in which, though there is not a direct solicitation to praise a discourse, there is evidently a door opened for that purpose. I once knew a clergyman, who, so far as I had an opportunity of observing, never failed of saying, to every hearer whom he fell in with, for half an hour or an hour after the close of his own sermon, Sabbath after Sabbath, `We’ve had a very solemn subject today.’ This I have heard him repeat and repeat until it became perfectly nauseating; and have observed him to bow and smile with much complacency, when his own indirect compliment to his sermon, drew from one good-natured auditor after another, a dose of flattery.

37. Do not speak of your own performances at all, after they are brought to a close, if you can consistently with duty avoid it. If you appear satisfied with them, it will be thought vanity. If you profess yourself dissatisfied, it will be considered as an indirect method of inviting praise. If you merely make the general subject on which you have been discoursing, the subject of conversation in company afterwards, even with the purest motives, it will be apt to be misconstrued as an ingenious device to extort commendation for what you have done. Never boast, on the one hand, of the length of time, or the care which you have bestowed on your discourses; or, on the other, of the expedition and ease with which you prepare them. Never allow yourself to talk at all on such subjects, unless you are compelled to do it. A thousand other subjects, more likely in those circumstances to be useful, lie before you. If a discourse which you have delivered be commended in your presence, do not appear either to be too much gratified with the commendation, or to despise it. Receive the compliment either with respectful silence, with a slight bow, or with the shortest possible expression of thanks; and, as soon as is consistent with courtesy, change the subject.

38. Some persons, under the notion of avoiding formality and flattery, give way to a rude familiarity, which they call, indeed, by some favorable name; but which deserves to be severely reprobated. I have often known young preachers, when they had become a little familiar with their companions, in the habit when addressing them, of calling them by their Christian names only, or by their surnames only; and indulging habitually, not merely in the freedom, but also in all the coarseness of unbridled raillery. Rely upon it, this is in general not wise. Mutual dignity, and mutual respect, are indispensable to the continued existence of Christian friendship, in its most pure, delicate and profitable form. If you wish to maintain such friendship, be free and unconstrained; but never indulge in rude and coarse familiarity. Those who are worthy of your love, will certainly be repelled rather than attracted by it.

39. When I remind you of the importance of maintaining a constant regard to truth in conversation, you will consider me as enforcing a plain point in ethics, which no one can dispute. But I wish to go further than this language will be popularly considered as importing. I mean much more than that a minister of the gospel ought to avoid downright lying in company, whether the object of the lie be to flatter or to injure. It ought to be his object, in making every statement, in repeating the most trivial narrative, to guard as carefully against misrepresenting, or exaggerating any fact, as if he were on oath; to give no false coloring, no over-coloring, and not, even in jest, to misstate the smallest circumstance. I have had the happiness to be acquainted with a few men whose habits were of this kind; and it was delightful to observe what weight it imparted to their word; and how completely they were de-livered from all those troublesome explanations and retractions, to which the less scrupulous were constantly exposed.

40. Be strictly attentive to the circumstances of time, place, and company in conversation. Look round the room, before you introduce a particular new topic, and ask yourself, whether it is a suitable one for that company; or, whether there be any individuals present to whom it may be peculiarly unwelcome or embarrassing. There is an old French proverb, the import of which is, be careful never to mention a rope in the family of a man who has been hanged. It is a proverb full of good sense, and social delicacy. Yet nothing is more common than to see persons of absent or coarse minds, violating this rule. They introduce subjects, or indulge remarks, calculated to wound the feelings of some of the most estimable individuals present; and this, not for the laudable purpose of benefiting the individuals in question, or of bearing an honest testimony against vice; but from mere inadvertence or want of feeling. Think, therefore, before you speak, not only what you are about to say, but also to whom you are about to address it. It is said that Bishop Burnett was so apt to wound the feelings of those with whom he was conversing, by an infraction of this rule, from mere absence of mind, that some of his best friends were afraid of introducing him to distinguished strangers, lest he should embarrass them as well as himself by an infirmity, which, if its effects had not been sometimes painful, would have been often unspeakably ludicrous. Direct particular attention to this object; and it will soon become as much a fixed habit of your mind to advert to the persons addressed in every conversation, as to any other circumstances attending the communication.

41. When any persons impart to you a knowledge of facts in confidence, make a point of being delicately faithful to the trust committed to you. It not unfrequently happens that the sick and the dying; persons in difficulty and distresses; and persons under anxiety of mind respecting their eternal state, make communications in confidence to ministers of the gospel; under the impression that they, of all men, may be most safely trusted. In every such case, preserve the most inviolable secrecy. But there are many other cases, in which, though no formal injunction of secrecy is expressed, still it ought by all means to be understood, by every delicately prudent mind. We all know how frequently, and with what strict honor, professional secrets are kept by lawyers and physicians; and I have long been of the opinion that habits of more strict reserve than have commonly been thought needful, ought to be maintained by clergymen, with regard to all communications made to them as such, whether formally confidential or not; and that even after an ordinary conversation on any delicate or important subject, it is always best to avoid repeating what has been communicated. No one can tell how many things may occur which may render it peculiarly important that he should have kept it to himself. You may publish your own secrets; but you have no right to publish those of others. In general, a public man ought to repeat very little of what is communicated to him. It can do no harm, in common cases, to keep it secret, while the mischiefs of disclosing it may be endless.

43. It is the fault of many to be loud, and even boisterous in conversation. If the company be ever so large, the moment they become a little engaged and animated, they speak loud enough not only to be heard in every part of the room, but so as to attract and even force the attention of the whole company; and that, perhaps, when conversing on a subject which ought not to be a matter of such public proclamation. There is not little indelicacy in this. When you are publicly addressed across a room, in such a manner as plainly evinces a desire that the whole company should hear your answer, let your reply be audible, but not loud. Let mildness and dignity mark every word, but not loud.

43. Guard against the too frequent use of superlatives in your social intercourse. Persons of ardent, impetuous minds, and especially the young, are apt to manifest an undue fondness for the superlative degree in conversation. If they praise any person or thing, they seem to think of using no epithets but those which indicate the highest grade of excellence. If they commend anyone’s talent, they are sure to represent them as of the highest order. If they would speak well of a sermon, they pronounce it incomparably excellent. On the contrary, if they undertake to express an unfavorable opinion, the terms, contemptible, execrable, detestable, are the softest which they think of employing. In short, the more high wrought their figures, and the more intense and ardent their whole style of expression, the more interesting they suppose their conversation to be. Let me entreat you to guard against the habitual use of this vehemence and intensity of language. It is seldom called for. Men of sense and good taste rarely permit themselves to employ it. A strict regard to truth generally forbids it. And with respect to those who are in the habit of employing it, both their praise and their blame soon become cheap, and at length, worthless. He who wishes his approbation or his censure to go for much, must not be very lavish of either.

44. Seek all convenient opportunities of conversing with the eminently wise and good, and of listening to their conversation. Especially when you are engaged in investigating an important subject, endeavor, if possible, to enjoy the privilege of conversing on that subject with some individual, and even with more than one, of profound views, and extensive reading. You may often learn more in an hour, by conversing with such an one, than by the solitary reading or meditation of a month. Dr. Franklin once told a friend that some of his most original thoughts were suggested by the collision of conversation; and that too, very often upon subjects foreign to those on which he was conversing. And Mr. Fox, the far famed parliamentary orator, declared in the British House of Commons, that he had learned more from Mr. Burke’s conversation than from all the books he had ever read in his life (Rush’s Introductory Lectures, p. 349).

45. Finally, be constantly and vigilantly observant of the habits in conversation of those persons who are considered as most pleasant and acceptable in this department of social intercourse. In every community there are those who are universally allowed to excel in colloquial accomplishments. Now it will be very unwise to be humble imitators of such persons; but it will, undoubtedly, be the part of wisdom to take notice of the means by which they attain success; and to make use of what you see, as your own particular habits and character may render proper. I doubt whether any man ever acquired much excellence in this important art, without the happy talent of close observation, and, in this way as well as by his own good sense, making himself master of the proprieties and delicacies which become the social circle.

  1. Samuel Miller, D. D. (1769-1850) Dr. Miller was licensed in 1791, and completed a theological education begun by his father, under Dr. Nisbet of Dickinson College. He became a co-worker with Dr. Rodgers and Dr. McKnight in New York in 1792. He served as Moderator of the General Assembly in 1806, and took a keen interest in the establishment of Princeton Seminary, from the time the idea was suggested by Dr. Alexander. In 1813 he himself was inducted into the Chair of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government. From the beginning of his career in New York Dr. Miller enjoyed a high reputation. “Besides having the advantage of a remarkably fine person, and most bland and attractive manners, he had, from the beginning, an uncommonly polished style, and there was an air of literary refinement pervading all his performances, that excited general admiration…”. He was the author of a great number of works. []