The Young Man's Guide to the Harmonious
Development of Christian Character

by Harvey Newcomb, 1847


There is, perhaps, no accomplishment which will add so much to your character and influence, as the art of conversing agreeably and well. To do this, however, requires a cultivated mind, richly stored with a variety of useful information; a good taste; a delicate sense of propriety; a good use of language; and an easy and fluent expression.

The most of these requisites can be acquired; and the rest, if naturally deficient, can be greatly improved. An easy, fluent expression is sometimes a natural talent; but, when not joined with a good understanding and a cultivated mind, it degenerates into mere talkativeness. But, in order to be prepared to converse well, you must not only have your mind well stored, but its contents, if I may so speak, well arranged; so that you can at any time call forth its resources, upon any subject, when they are needed.

One of the principal difficulties, in the way of conversing well, is a hesitancy of speech—a difficulty of expressing one's ideas with ease and grace. This may arise from various causes. It may proceed from affectation—a desire to speak in fine, showy style. This will invariably defeat its object. You can never appear, in the eyes of intelligent and well-bred people, to be what you are not. The more simple and unaffected your style is, provided it be pure and chaste, the better you will appear. Affectation will only make you ridiculous.

But the same difficulty may arise from self-distrust, which leads to embarrassment; and embarrassment clouds the memory, and produces confusion of mind and hesitancy of speech. This must be overcome by degrees, by cultivating self-possession, and frequenting good society. The same difficulty may, likewise, arise from the lack of a sufficient command of language to express one's ideas with ease and fluency. This is to be obtained by writing; by reading the most pure and classic authors; and by observing the conversation of well-educated people. In order to have a good supply of well-chosen words at ready command, Mr. Whelpley recommends selecting from a dictionary several hundred words, such as are in most common use, and required especially in ordinary conversation, writing them down, and committing them to memory, so as to have them as familiar as the letters of the alphabet. A professional gentleman informs me, that he has overcome this difficulty by reading a well-written story until it becomes trite and uninteresting, and then frequently reading it aloud, without any regard to the story, but only to the language, in order to accustom the organs of speech to an easy flow of words. I have no doubt that such experiments as these would be successful in giving a freedom and ease of expression, which is often greatly impeded for lack of just the word that is needed at a given time.

There is no species of information but may be available to improve and enrich the conversation, and make it interesting to the various classes of people. As an example of this, a clergyman recently informed me that a rich man, who is engaged extensively in the iron business, but who is very impious, put up with him for the night. The minister, knowing the character of his guest, directed his conversation to those subjects in which he supposed him to be chiefly interested. He exhibited specimens of iron ore, of which he possessed a variety; explained their different qualities; spoke of the various modes of manufacturing it; explained the process of manufacturing steel, etc.; interspersing his conversation with occasional serious reflections on the wisdom and goodness of God, in providing so abundantly the metals most necessary for the common purposes of life, and thus leading the man's mind "from Nature up to Nature's God." The man entered readily into the conversation, appeared deeply interested, and afterwards expressed his great admiration of the minister. The man was prejudiced against ministers. This conversation may so far remove his prejudices as to open his ear to the truth. But all this the minister was enabled to do, by acquainting himself with a branch of knowledge which many would suppose to be of no use to a minister. By conversing freely with all sorts of people upon that which chiefly interests them, you may not only secure their good-will, but greatly increase your own stock of knowledge. There is no one so ignorant but he may, in this way, add something to your general information; and you may improve the opportunity it gives to impart useful information, without seeming to do it.


I. Avoid affectation. Instead of making you appear to better advantage, it will only expose you to ridicule.

II. Avoid base expressions. There is a dialect peculiar to vulgar people, which you cannot imitate without appearing as if you were yourself low-bred.

III. Avoid provincialisms. There are certain expressions peculiar to particular sections of the country. For example, in New England, many people are in the habit of interlarding their conversation with the phrase, "You see." In Pennsylvania and New York, the same use is made of "You know." And in the West and South, phrases peculiar to those sections of the country are still more common and ludicrous. Avoid all these expressions, and strive after a pure, chaste, and simple style.

IV. Avoid all ungrammatical expressions.

V. Avoid unmeaning exclamations, as, "O my!" "O mercy!" etc.

VI. Never speak unless you have something to say. "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver."

VII. Avoid wordiness. Make your language concise and perspicuous, and strive not to prolong your speech beyond what is necessary, remembering that others wish to speak as well as yourself. Be sparing of anecdote; and only resort to it when you have a good illustration of some subject before the company, or when you have a piece of information of general interest. To tell a story well, is a great art. To be tedious and verbose in story-telling, is insufferable. To avoid this, do not attempt to relate every minute particular; but seize upon the grand points. Take the following specimen of the relation of the same incident by two different people—"You see, I got up this morning, and dressed myself, and came down stairs, and opened the front door; and O, if it didn't look beautiful! For, you see, the sun shone on the dew—the dew, you know, that hangs in great drops on the grass in the morning. Well, as the sun shone on the dewdrops, it was all sparkling, like so many diamonds; and it looked so inviting, you see, I thought I must have a walk. So, you see, I went out into the street, and got over the fence—the fence, you know, the back side of the barn. Well, I got over it, and walked into the grove, and there I heard the blue jay, and robin, and ever so many pretty birds, singing so sweetly. I went along the foot-path to a place where there is a stump—the great stump, you know, James, by the side of the path. Well, there—O, my!—what should I see, but a gray squirrel running up a tree!"

How much better the following—"Early this morning, just as the sun was peeping over the hill, and the green grass was all over sparkling with diamonds, as the sun shone upon the dewdrops, I had a delightful walk in the grove, listening to the sweet music of the birds, and watching the motions of a beautiful gray squirrel, running up a tree, and hopping nimbly from branch to branch." Here is the story, better told, in less than half the words.

Never specify any superfluous particulars. In the relation of this incident, all the circumstances detailed in the first specimen, previous to entering the grove, are superfluous; for if you were in the grove early in the morning, you could not get there without getting out of your bed, dressing yourself, opening the door, going into the street, and getting over the fence. The moment you speak of being in the grove early in the morning, the mind of the hearer supplies all these preliminaries; and your specifying them only excites his impatience to get at the point of your story. Be careful, also, that you never relate the same anecdote the second time to the same company; neither set up a laugh at your own story.

VIII. Never interrupt others while they are speaking. Quietly wait until they have finished what they have to say, before you reply. To interrupt others in conversation is very unmannerly.

IX. You will sometimes meet with very talkative people, who are not disposed to give you a fair chance. Let them talk on. They will be better pleased, and you will save your words and your feelings.

X. Avoid, as much as possible, speaking of yourself. When we meet a person who is always saying "I", telling what he has done, and how he does things—the impression it gives us of him is unpleasant. We say, "He thinks he knows everything, and can teach everybody. He is great in his own eyes. He thinks more of himself than of everybody else." True politeness leads us to keep ourselves out of view, and show an interest in other people's affairs.

XI. Endeavor to make your conversation useful. Introduce some subject which will be profitable to the company you are in. You feel dissatisfied when you retire from company where nothing useful has been said. But there is no amusement more interesting, to a sensible person, than intelligent conversation upon elevated subjects. It leaves a happy impression upon the mind. You can retire from it, and lay your head upon your pillow with a quiet conscience.