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Polite Conversation
by [?]

A man may live to be a hundred; he may have learnt to speak twelve different languages–all badly; he may know, in fact, everything a man ought to know, and have done everything a man ought to have done; but one thing he probably won’t have learnt–or, if he has done so, then he ought to be counted among the Twelve Apostles and other “wonders”–and that is the fact that, what interests him enormously to talk about won’t necessarily be anything but a bore for other people to listen to. Most people talk a great deal and tell you absolutely nothing you want particularly to know. The man or woman who can talk impersonally is as rare as a psychic phenomenon when you want to see it but won’t pay for a manifestation! Most people can talk of nothing but themselves because nothing else really interests them. I don’t mean to say that they boast, but, what they talk about is purely their own personal affair–ranging from golf to grandchildren. That is what makes dogs the most sympathetic listeners in the world. Could they speak, I fear me they would only tell us about their puppies, or of their new bone, or of the rat they worried to death the last time they scampered through the wood. Cats are far more egotistical, and consequently far more human. They can’t talk, it is true; neither can they listen. By their manner we know exactly what interests them at the moment, and if they appear to sympathise with us, it is only because what we want at the moment fits in admirably with their own desires. And so many people are just like cats in this. They invite us to their houses, presumably because they desire our company, but, in reality, in order that they may relate to us at length the incidents, big or small, which have marked the calendar of their recent very everyday existence.

But we, on our side, are not without our means of revenge. We invite them back again, under protestations of friendship, and, when we have got them, and, as it were, chained them down with the fetters of politeness, we relate to them in our turn everything which has happened to us and ours. We never ask ourselves if our children, or our cook, or our new hat, or our next summer holiday can interest anybody outside the radius of their influence. We demand another human being to smile when we smile, show anger when we show anger, echo our own admiration for our new hat, and generally retrace with us our life in retrospect and journey with us into the problematical future. For, as I said before, the wisdom which realises that the incidents of our own life need not–very probably do not, although they may be too polite to show it–interest other people, is the rarest wisdom of all. Most people will never, never learn it. And the more people love their own affairs, the more they seek the world for listeners whom, as it were, they may devour. They usually have hundreds of intimates, and boast at Christmas of having sent off a thousand cards! As a matter of fact, they very probably have not one real friend. But that does not trouble them. They don’t require friendship. They only need, as it were, a perpetual pair of ears into which to pour the trivialities of their daily life. Personally, I get so tired of listening to stories of children I have never seen; golfing “yarns” which I have heard before; servants–all as bad as each other; Lloyd George; new clothes; ailments; what Aunt Emily intends to do with last year’s frock, and of little Flora’s cough. I wish it were the fashion for people to ask their friends to do something, instead of securing their society, with nothing to do with it when they’ve got it, except to offer hours for conversation with literally nothing to say on either side. I should like to read a book in company, it is nice to work in company; a visit to a theatre with a congenial companion is delightful–and this, of course, applies to concerts, lectures, picture galleries, even shopping. But the usual form of friendly entertainment is a deadly thing. Only a cook, who at the same time is an artist, can make them possible. For you can endure hours of little other than the personal note in conversation with the compensation of a culinary chef’ d’oeuvre in front of you. That is why you so often hear of a “perfectly charming woman with a simply wonderful cook.” It’s the cook, I fancy, who is the real charmer.