How shall a young girl fit herself to enjoy and to afford enjoyment in general society? Certainly the first requisites are intelligence, a good knowledge of standard literature, a general knowledge of the more important events that are taking place in the world, and such a knowledge of the best current literature as may be obtained from the regular reading of one or two of the standard monthly magazines.
And here it may help you if I particularize a little in regard to a knowledge of important events of the day and also of general and current literature. Of course the main source of knowledge of the more important events that are going on in the world is the daily or weekly newspaper; and yet there is scarcely any reading so utterly demoralizing to good mental habits as the ordinary daily paper. More than three-fourths of the matter printed in the "great city dailies" is not only of no use to anyone, but it is a positive damage to habits of mental application to read it. It is a waste of time even to undertake to sift the important from the unimportant. The most that any earnest person should attempt to do with a daily paper is to glance over the headlines which give the gist of the news, and then to read such editorial comments as enable the reader to understand the more important events and affairs that are transpiring in the world so that reference to them in conversation would be intelligent and intelligible. But if one should never see a daily paper, yet should every week carefully read a digest of news prepared for a good weekly paper, one would be thoroughly furnished with all necessary knowledge of contemporaneous events, and the time thus saved from daily papers could be profitably employed in other reading.
The field of literature is now so vast that no one can hope to be well acquainted with more than a small portion of it. Yet every well-informed young person should know the general character of the principal writers since the time of Shakespere, even though one should never read their works. You may remember how, in the recently finished novel of "The Rise of Silas Lapham," the novelist, with a few sentences, shows how ridiculous a really beautiful and amiable girl with a high-school education may make herself in conversation by her lack of knowledge of standard literature. She was telling a young gentleman where the book-shelves were to be in the splendid new house being built by her father, and suggesting that the shelves would look nice if the books had nice bindings.
"'Of course, I presume,' said Irene, thoughtfully, 'we shall have to have Gibbon.'
"'If you want to read him,' said Corey, with a laugh of sympathy for an imaginable joke.
"'We had a good deal about him in school. I believe we had one of his books. Mine's lost, but Pen will remember.'
"The young man looked at her, and then said seriously, 'You'll want Green, of course, and Motley, and Parkman.'
"'Yes. What kind of writers are they?'
"'They're historians, too.'
"'Oh, yes; I remember now. That's what Gibbon was. Is it Gibbon or Gibbons?'
"The young man decided the point with apparently superfluous delicacy. 'Gibbon, I think.'
"'There used to be so many of them,' said Irene, gaily. 'I used to get them mixed up with each other, and I couldn't tell them from the poets. Should you want to have poetry?'
"'Yes. I suppose some edition of the English poets.'
"'We don't any of us like poetry. Do you like it?'
"'I'm afraid I don't, very much,' Corey owned. 'But of course there was a time when Tennyson was a great deal more to me than he is now.'
"'We had something about him at school, too. I think I remember the name. I think we ought to have all the American poets.'
"'Well, not all. Five or six of the best; you want Longfellow, and Bryant, and Whittier, and Emerson, and Lowell.'
"'And Shakespere,' she added. 'Don't you like Shakespere's plays?... We had ever so much about Shakespere. Weren't you perfectly astonished when you found out how many other plays there were of his? I always thought there was nothing but "Hamlet," and "Romeo and Juliet," and "Macbeth," and "Richard III.," and "King Lear," and that one that Robson and Crane have -- oh, yes, "Comedy of Errors!"'"
So you see how ridiculous this young girl, by the betrayal of such ignorance, made herself in conversation with a cultured young gentleman whose good opinion she was most anxious to win. And yet, to talk too much about books is not well; it often marks the pedantic and egotistic character. It is safe to say that unless one happens to meet a very congenial mind among conversers in general society, to introduce the subject of books is liable to be misconstrued. It is not very long since another popular modern novelist held up to scorn and ridicule the young woman whose particular ambition seemed to be to let society know what an immense number of books she had been reading. Nevertheless, one must have a good groundwork of knowledge of books in order to avoid mistakes such as poor Irene made in talking with young Corey.
Directions and suggestions for aiding young people to become agreeable and pleasant conversers must necessarily be mainly negative. Taken for granted that a young person possesses animation good sense, intelligence, and a genuine interest in her companions and the world around her; is observing, and can speak grammatically without hesitating; knows the difference between "you and I" and "you and me" (which I am sorry to say a great many young girls of my acquaintance do not, for I constantly hear them saying, "He brought you and I a bouquet," or, "You and me are invited to tea this evening"), she can almost certainly be a pleasant and entertaining converser if she avoids certain things, as, for instance:
1. She must avoid talking about herself, her exploits, her acquirements, her entertainments, her beaux, etc. Especially should she avoid seeking to make an impression by frequent mention of advantageous friends or circumstances. The greatest observer and commentator upon manners that ever wrote was Mr. Emerson. In one of his essays he says: "You shall not enumerate your brilliant acquaintances, nor tell me by their titles what books you have read. I am to infer that you keep good company by your good manners and better information; and to infer your reading from the wealth, and accuracy of your conversation."
2. She must avoid a loud tone of voice, and also avoid laughing too much and too easily. To laugh aloud is a dangerous thing, unless all noise and harshness have been cultivated out of the voice, as ought to be done in every good school. The culture of the voice is one of the most important elements in making a pleasant converser. American girls and women are accused by cultivated foreigners of having loud, harsh, strident voices; and there is too much truth in the accusation. Nor is there any excuse for unpleasant, harsh, rough, nasal tones of voice in these days when in every good school instruction is given in the management of the voice for reading and conversation. The cause of harshness and loudness is often mere carelessness on the part of young people. But talking in too loud a tone is scarcely less unpleasant to the listeners than the use of too low a tone, which is generally an affectation.
3. She must avoid frequent attempts at wit; avoid punning, which is the cheapest possible form of wit; and avoid sarcasm. The talent for being sarcastic is a most dangerous one. 'No one ever knew a sarcastic woman who could keep friends. The temptation to be bright and interesting and to attract attention by the use of sarcasm is very strong, for nearly all will be interested in it and enjoy it for a little. But were I obliged to choose between sarcasm and dullness in a young girl, I should prefer dullness. Happily, this is not a necessary alternative.
4. She must avoid a kind of joking and badinage that should never be heard among well-bred young people in society -- that about courtship and marriage. Much harm, much blunting of fine sensibilities, much destruction of that delicate modesty which is the priceless dower of young girlhood, comes of such jesting and joking where it is permitted without restraint or reproof. A young girl may not be called upon to reprove it, but she certainly can shun the company of those who are given to such vulgarity (for no other term will rightly describe it), and she can certainly refrain from joining in any conversation of this description.
Always remember that to be a good converser you must be a good listener. Very often people acquire a pleasant reputation and popularity in society by the exercise of this talent alone -- that of listening with attention and interest to what other people say. Be especially careful to avoid interrupting one who is speaking. Many a fine and noble thought, many an interesting discussion, is broken off and lost by the irrelevant interruption of some thoughtless person. One reason why the art of conversation has so degenerated in these days is that so few have a real interest in hearing the fine thoughts of good thinker and talkers. So many people want to talk about themselves, or their affairs, that it is in many circles almost an impossibility to maintain a high and elevating conversation. Until years and experience, as well as wide reading and information, have given you the right to express freely your opinions in society, it will be well to listen a great deal more than you speak, especially when in the company of your elders. Avoid all sentimentality, or the discussion of subjects that would expose the private and sacred feelings of the heart. Do not quote poetry; do not ask people's opinions on delicate and individual questions. I have heard a young boarding-school graduate embarrass a whole room-full of excellent and educated people by asking a young gentleman if he did not think Longfellow very inferior to Lowell in his love poems. Among those of your own age let what you have to say relate to everything more than to the doings or sayings of other people. In this way you will avoid that bane of social conversation -- gossip. In all social relations strive to throw your influence for that which is faithful, sincere, kind, generous, and just. Have a special thought and regard for those who may labor under disadvantages? be especially kind to the shrinking and timid, to the poor and unfortunate. Strive to be worthy of the confidence and respect and love of your associates, and all your relations to society will be easily and naturally and happily adjusted.