PRACTICAL PHILOSOPHY OF SOCIAL LIFE.
General Rules and Observations to guide us in our Conversations.Interpreted by Chris Knigge, January 2024
†This principle holds a significant influence in social life and could easily fill a lengthy volume discussing behavior and tactics for succeeding in various situations. Throughout history, this idea has proven true time and again. It demonstrates that those who boast and present themselves with confidence can sway the opinions of others, even if their claims aren't entirely accurate.
Consider the case of someone who boasts of connections with influential figures like emperors and ministers, even if those claims are unsubstantiated. People tend to accept such declarations without investigating their authenticity. This individual might gain attention and even some benefits from this perception of importance. An example comes to mind of a person who consistently mentioned their close ties to Emperor Joseph II and Prince Kaunitz. In reality, these figures likely had no knowledge of this person, but their extravagant claims garnered them favor and opportunities.
This phenomenon extends to less knowledgeable individuals who assert their opinions confidently, dissuading others from challenging them. It emboldens individuals with shallow insights to confidently express opinions beyond their understanding, discouraging those with more expertise from intervening. This dynamic can enable people without true talent or knowledge to become essential to the influential.
It's worth noting that artists, writers, and musicians also capitalize on this principle. Foreign artists, for instance, might charge exorbitant prices for their work, even if it pales in comparison to the offerings of local talent. Because of their reputation, their works are highly sought after, and they often employ local artisans to fulfill orders under their name.
Writers, too, exploit this concept. They may write prefaces suggesting that their work was urged into publication by esteemed scholars and experts, even if this is far from true. This creates an illusion of credibility that can attract readers.
Furthermore, this idea influences social interactions on various levels. Those seeking protection or favors often do so assertively and confidently, and such demands are frequently met positively. Meanwhile, those who approach with humility or caution often receive indifference or rejection.
However, while this concept can serve those who boast and exaggerate, it also offers a lesson for honest individuals. It advises us to present ourselves in the best light possible without resorting to lies or deception. Rather than blatantly showcasing our achievements, a subtler approach can be more effective. Demonstrating our abilities and merits through our actions, while maintaining a sense of humility and dignity, allows us to gain respect without drawing excessive attention. It's essential to strike a balance between showcasing our strengths and maintaining authenticity, avoiding both excessive arrogance and unnecessary self-deprecation.
Always aim for improvement. However, be careful not to appear as if you are flawless or never make mistakes. People judge you based on how you present yourself, and sometimes it's even a good thing if they don't assume you have qualities you don't actually possess. Otherwise, if you make even a small mistake, others might react strongly, saying things like, "Oh, that's unacceptable from someone like him!" People who feel inferior to you often feel better about themselves when they find a flaw in someone they see as better than them. So, they might criticize you more harshly for a small error than they would someone else for a series of foolish actions or dishonesty.
Stay true to yourself and be consistent in your actions. If you're behaving in the right way, you shouldn't worry too much about the criticism or judgment from others. It's not worth much to display a collection of outward virtues if you're hiding a negative and unkind character beneath that surface. Putting on a faÁade of goodness only to impress people is not valuable at all. Your genuine inner qualities matter more than any external show.
Don't lose faith in yourself, your belief in God, your trust in good people, and your hope in luck. When your face shows discontent and hopelessness, even your friends may leave you. Yet, it's worth noting that those facing misfortune often unfairly judge others and tend to misunderstand any signs of distance or indifference. This happens because they think everyone can see their suffering and wants to avoid helping them.
If you're treated kindly or given attention in social settings because of your association with a notable person, don't become arrogant about it. Instead, be humble and recognize that your treatment might be different without that connection. Aim to earn respect for your own qualities. It's much better to stand out with your own abilities, even if it's in a less prominent position, rather than being seen as a reflection of someone else's greatness or a follower of another's lead.
even if you're facing adversity or need help. But do so only with someone you're sure can find †relief, even your closest freind or your spouse. Few people are truly capable and willing to lighten your burden; many may only make it heavier. In fact, some might avoid you if they see misfortune, and everyone might leave if they think you have no solutions or support left. It's rare for anyone to boldly stand up for a person abandoned by the world. Who has the courage to say, "I know him, he's my friend, and he's worth more than all those who criticize him"? Even if you find such a friend in times of need, they might be struggling themselves, forced by desperation to join their fate with yours. Their support could end up doing more harm than good.
Donít showcase excessive opulence, wealth, or brilliance. Only a few will see such accomplishments without feeling resentful or envious. Similarly, I'd suggest not being excessively generous to others. People often tend to avoid an overly generous benefactor, much like we evade a creditor we can never repay. Therefore, be cautious not to seem too extraordinary to your peers. Furthermore, they might come to expect too much from you, and a single refusal could make them quickly forget the many favors you've done for them.
in a mean-spirited way just to make yourself look better; don't use the faults of others to enhance your own image.
Give others a chance to shine over your own eagerness to stand out in social gatherings if you seek to please and be applauded. Few individuals can tolerate seeing others display their superiority, as they would rather pardon an ambiguous action or even a wrongdoing than witness an act that outshines them. However, if you maintain some distance from them and do not encroach upon their area of expertise, they might eventually acknowledge your abilities.
I've often gained a reputation for being witty and intelligent in gatherings where I hardly uttered a rational sentence. Instead, I patiently listened to fashionable but half-informed chatter or steered conversations toward topics others wished to discuss. It amuses me when people introduce themselves with humility, claiming they've come to pay their respects to a celebrated author (myself), yet they dominate the conversation and leave thinking highly of me for my ability to listen.
Be patient with such quirks and weaknesses. For instance, if someone enjoys recounting a story or anecdote they find delightful, don't make them feel their subject is tiresome to you simply because you've heard it before or even shared it with them. What could be more harmless than indulging in such exchanges if they help you build a good reputation and bring joy to others?
If individuals have a harmless obsession, like talking about their pets, hobbies, or enjoying a glass of wine, it's kind to indulge them in these harmless interests if it doesn't inconvenience you or involve deceit. I've never been able to conform to the practice of certain courtiers who pretend to listen intently to everyone, sometimes even interrupting us mid-sentence, just to maintain appearances.
The ability to stay composed and think on your feet is a rare and valuable quality that can greatly enhance your interactions in social situations. While it's a natural talent, it's not something that can be learned through deliberate practice. However, if you lack this gift, there are steps you can take to mitigate the deficiency. One way is to always remain vigilant and cautious in your conversations, refraining from hasty speech that could lead to confusion for yourself or others. This is especially important for individuals with lively and quick-witted personalities.
For those who might struggle with quick thinking, especially when faced with unexpected questions or unusual situations, I recommend a simple approach. If caught off guard, take a brief pause, giving yourself a moment to gather your thoughts and formulate a suitable response. By allowing yourself this time, you can ensure that your reaction aligns with the situation and helps you navigate it effectively.
Keep in mind that hastily spoken words or impulsive actions, driven by confusion, can lead to regrettable outcomes. On the other hand, well-considered decisions made in the heat of the moment can often lead to positive results, providing you with a sense of safety, contentment, and reassurance, especially in critical moments when you might be caught off guard.
If you want opportunities, support, or a job, you have to ask for it. Don't expect people to help you automatically, even if you're skilled and your needs are known. People are focused on themselves and their families. Many talented individuals go unnoticed because they're too shy to promote themselves. As a result, they miss chances to contribute to their community simply because they can't ask or seek attention.
People often expect significant returns for small services, limiting your freedom and choices. Even well-intentioned offers of help can come with strings attached. It's wiser to give and serve others than to be in debt to them. Many may gladly serve when it's not needed, like the spendthrift with money or the blockhead with advice. Be cautious not to ask favors from someone who may find it hard to refuse, especially if they're indebted to you. Receiving too many favors can make you dependent and lead to compromises or accusations of ingratitude. To be independent, limit your desires, stay moderate, and avoid unnecessary wants, especially if fueled by ambitions, avarice, or indulgent desires.
This doesn't contradict the advice to be prudent about how much you do for others. Be generally obliging, but don't force your services on others or become the confidant of everyone. Refrain from criticizing, correcting, or advising unless absolutely necessary, as few will appreciate it, and many have already made up their minds. Avoid burdening friends with trivial tasks like buying something for you or delivering messages. Refuse such commissions, as they often consume time and money with little gratitude. Steer clear of meddling in domestic disputes, and be cautious about reconciling enemies, as they might turn against you. Leave matchmaking to fate and seasoned individuals.
No principle is more universally advantageous, and none demands more scrupulous observance, than the one guiding us to steadfastly uphold our promises, even in the most trivial matters. It insists on fidelity to every commitment, urging us never to stray from the straight path of truth and veracity. Regardless of the urgency or motive, there is no justification for uttering anything contrary to our genuine beliefs. No situation, no matter how pressing, excuses untruthfulness. History attests that every departure from veracity, sooner or later, brings about undesirable consequences. In contrast, a person known for unwavering commitment to their word earns trust, a commendable reputation, and widespread esteem.
Maintain strictness, punctuality, regularity, assiduity, and diligence in your profession. Organize your belongings, including papers and keys, with such precision that you can locate any item even in the dark. Exercise heightened care for the possessions entrusted to you by others. Refrain from lending books you've borrowed, and promptly return any lent to you without inconveniencing others to retrieve them. Establish a reputation for punctuality in both words and actions, as people appreciate connections and business dealings with individuals they can depend on. Keep your promises to appear at agreed-upon locations on time, even if you seem to be the only one adhering to such regularity. Setting a good example tends to influence others, and the irregularity of others should not serve as an excuse for our own.
if you expect them to reciprocate. A lack of empathy, friendship, benevolence, and love, coupled with a self-centered existence, will likely result in finding oneself alone when in need of assistance from others.
Refrain from expecting those you are associated with to take sides in disputes between yourself and others. Consider the perspective of others by frequently putting yourself in their shoes, contemplating how you would feel in a similar situation, and questioning what would please or displease you under such circumstances. This aligns with the timeless advice: "Put yourself in the place of others and ask yourself how you would want to be treated, or if you were required to take so much effort to provide such assistance or give such an explanation."
Don't concern yourself with the actions of others unless they directly relate to you or have a moral significance that demands your voice. Why should you care about someone's walking pace, sleep habits, time spent at home, choice of clothing, beverage preferences, financial habits, or personal relationships? Focus on what truly matters, and remember that sometimes straightforward information comes best from those who convey it without clever embellishments or intentional distortionsóoften found in the narratives of straightforward individuals.
Never abandon your principles when you are convinced they are just. Making exceptions can be dangerous and lead to compromises you didn't intend. If you've decided, after careful thought, not to lend books or limit your wine intake, for example, stick to those decisions even if someone close urges otherwise, as long as the original reasons for your choice still apply. Be resolute but not inflexible in trivial matters.
Consistency is crucial. Establish a life plan and deviate from it only after careful consideration of all possible scenarios. Stay true to your principles with unwavering dedication. People may initially talk about your uniqueness, but eventually, they will respect and appreciate your steadfastness. Consistent actions, like durable materials, stand the test of time. When noble actions are undervalued, it's often because the public suspects a misalignment with the person's usual behavior, highlighting the importance of maintaining consistency.
Above all, maintain a clear conscience. Avoid giving your heart any reason for reproach regarding your actions and the means you employ. Always choose straight paths, and you can trust in positive outcomes, the support of God, and assistance from good people when needed. Even if misfortune temporarily hinders you, the blissful consciousness of your good intentions and the righteousness of your heart will provide exceptional strength and comfort. Your sincere countenance will captivate others more than the artificial smiles of a villain who appears happy.
Be consistent in your behavior, regardless of the role you've chosen to play.. Don't shift from being warm, civil, and obliging one day to being cool, rude, and silent the nextóit's difficult and unpleasant to engage with people of such a fickle disposition. When they're in a good mood or when there's no one of higher rank or better flattery around, they treat us with utmost cordiality. We're charmed, relying on their kindness, and return a few days later for another visit to the person who was so delighted to see us. However, our reception is vastly different this time! Met with coldness and grave looks, our host leaves us in a corner, responding only briefly. It turns out, he's surrounded by sycophants who can flatter him better. I recommend gradually ending connections with such people. If they later seek your company due to a whim, receive them with dignified seriousness and subtly withdraw from their society.
Distinguish your outward behavior towards those you interact with and the attention you express. Don't shake hands with everyone or embrace all acquaintances indiscriminately. Save these gestures for your true friends, those close to your heart, and those whom you genuinely prefer and value. This way, your signs of friendship and esteem will carry more weight and meaning, reserved for those who truly matter.
Two reasons guide us against excessive openness. Firstly, the fear of revealing vulnerabilities and becoming susceptible to exploitation. Secondly, the awareness that if we make a habit of sharing all our concerns with others, they may come to expect to be informed about every trivial aspect of our lives, expecting consultation on every matter. On the other hand, excessive reserve should also be avoided. It may lead others to suspect hidden or potentially harmful motives behind our actions, resulting in unpleasant situations, especially during travel or in foreign settings. Excessive reserve can also hinder our social interactions and harm our relationships with genuine friends.
Strive to never make someone a source of ridicule in a group, regardless of their flaws. If the person is dull, mocking them won't earn you much respect; if, however, they're more astute than you presume, you might become the target. Ridiculing someone noble-hearted can hurt them deeply, and if dealing with a malicious individual, it may lead to resentment. Moreover, public opinion, if swayed by our judgments, can harm a good person's reputation or crush the ambitions and talents of a weaker individual by exposing their flaws to scorn and disgrace.
Avoid terrifying or teasing anyone, even close friends, with false reports or vexatious jokes that could cause momentary distress. Considering the numerous real challenges people face, it's our duty to alleviate, not add, to their burdens. Prudence dictates against sharing fictitious joyful news for momentary pleasure, as it can be both wrong and imprudent. Refrain from creating unnecessary mystery or tormenting others with unfinished sentences. If someone is about to commit a blunder, help them gracefully rather than letting them face unnecessary perplexity. In Social Conversation, it's generally best to minimize causing discomfort and to handle mistakes with tact and understanding.
Never forget that people desire to be amused and entertained. Even the most instructive conversation becomes wearisome without occasional sallies of wit and good humor. While flattery is effective, it's beneath the dignity of a rational man to act as a mean jester and unworthy of an honest person to flatter meanly. Find a medium that praises genuinely without degrading yourself. Every person has at least one commendable quality worthy of praise. Such commendations, when spoken by a person of understanding and judgment, can inspire others to strive for greater perfection.
Project an unruffled and serene countenance, as there's nothing more charming and amiable than a jovial and cheerful disposition flowing from a guiltless heart untouched by the tempests of warring passions. Someone consistently pursuing witticisms, demonstrating a studied effort to amuse, may capture attention briefly and entertain a few. However, their company won't be sought after by those desiring more substantial conversation and Socratic engagement of the mind.
One who positions themselves as a purveyor of witticisms and jokes not only exhausts their novelty quickly but often experiences the misfortune of offending companions, especially when inclined to unleash a torrent of humorous treasures. Every invitation to a meal, every courtesy shown to them, seems burdened with the expectation of justifying such honor with a display of jokes. If they attempt a serious subject, laughter ensues before completing a sentence. True humor and genuine wit can't be forced; they're felt like the presence of a celestial being, evoking pleasure, congenial warmth, and secret awe. When aiming to showcase wit, consider the company; what's entertaining to one group may be tedious or improper to another. A humorous remark embraced in a gathering of gentlemen might be misplaced in the company of ladies.
Avoid leaving the company of anyone without sharing something obliging or instructive in a way that doesn't offend their modesty or seem contrived. Ensure they don't feel their time spent with you is wasted, understanding that you genuinely care about their happiness. Be mindful not to indulge in idle talk and only express things that are useful or genuinely pleasant to the listener. Discourage the habit of incessant empty compliments and flatteries that don't contribute to meaningful conversation. While avoiding unnecessary praise, occasional well-meant expressions of civility or modest commendation can encourage the pursuit of virtue. Here's an example to illustrate this point: At a dinner, I initially engaged only with a beautiful young lady, neglecting an elderly and less attractive woman. Realizing my rudeness, I attempted to rectify it by insincerely flattering the neglected woman about her age. This flattery, although achieving a temporary positive response, was unmanly and dishonorable. Instead, I should have found a topic of genuine interest to engage her during the meal, fulfilling my duty rather than resorting to such a demeaning tactic. However, it's crucial to be aware that even seemingly positive remarks can unintentionally offend certain individuals, such as those who might react negatively to being called good-natured or healthy-looking.
If you aim for lasting respect, avoid consistently seasoning your discourse with aspersions, ridicule, backbiting, and the contemptible habit of jeering. While these behaviors may amuse temporarily, a person who constantly seeks to entertain at the expense of others or truth will eventually be shunned and despised. This is well-deserved, as individuals with feelings and understanding tolerate the failings of others and desire more substantial and useful conversation.
It's essential not to condemn all ridicule universally, as it can effectively counteract follies and absurdities, especially in less familiar circles. However, such ridicule should be fine, not too plain, and not excessively personal. Don't feel compelled to applaud everything or excuse all faults, as this can lead to suspicion. Be cautious of those who cover all defects with the cloak of charity, as they may be hypocrites seeking to distract from their own wrongdoings. It's important to maintain a balance, not indulging in constant criticism but also not overly excusing faults.
As much as possible, avoid relaying anecdotes, especially those that cast others in an unfavorable light, particularly if they're based on hearsay. These anecdotes are often idle inventions, or they may have gone through numerous retellings, leading to significant exaggerations or alterations. By sharing such anecdotes, you risk seriously harming innocent and deserving individuals and, more frequently, getting yourself entangled in great difficulties.
Exercise caution to avoid carrying stories from one household to another, and refrain from sharing familiar table talks, family discussions, and observations you've made about the domestic affairs and lives of people with whom you frequently interact. Even if you don't intend to be malicious, such officious gossiping can breed mistrust and lead to considerable animosity and disharmony.
Exercise caution when censuring and contradicting others. Most things in the world have at least two different sides, and prejudices can obscure even the judgment of a wise person. It's challenging to always form a just idea of others' situations. Be especially careful not to hastily judge the actions of judicious individuals unless your modesty suggests that you are wiser than those you criticize. However, this internal sense of superiority is often suspect. A wise person is generally more discerning, contends with more intense passions, cares little for the opinion of the multitude, and is less anxious than others to justify the purity of their motives. In all, it's wise to inquire before passing judgment on others: "What good does that person do? Are they useful to their brethren?" If they are, it's advisable to overlook their minor flaws, which may be harmful to no one but themselves or, at most, cause only trifling and transient harm.
Do not presume to meticulously weigh the motives that drive others to do good. Such scrutiny might often diminish even your own deeds, including those that bring you the greatest satisfaction. The impact that an action has on the happiness of the world should always be the standard by which we evaluate its merits or demerits.
Take care not to exhaust the patience of your listeners with lengthy and tedious discourses. Embrace a certain laconismónot to the extent of affectedly speaking only in sentences and aphorisms, but rather as the art of conveying much in a few words. This involves keeping the attention alive by omitting unimportant details and rendering trifling circumstances interesting through lively narration. I'll delve into this further elsewhere, but for now, my advice is to avoid excessive talking. Be frugal with your words and knowledge to prevent your store from depleting too quickly. Don't disclose what you neither should nor intended to, as this only makes your discourse tedious. Allow others to speak and contribute to the conversation. Some people unintentionally monopolize discussions, even in a group of more than fifty, finding a way to be the sole speakers. This is unpleasant for everyone. On the contrary, it is equally disheartening when people stand mute, seemingly like spies, catching every improper word in conversation for some sinister purpose.
There are individuals in social life who are always ready to receive but never willing to give. They desire to be entertained, instructed, served, applauded, paid, and cared for by the public without offering anything in return. They complain of being bored by the dullness of their companions without realizing that others might have the same complaint against them. They sit quietly, enjoying the conversations of others without contributing to the company's amusement. This behavior is both unjust and tiresome
Similarly, some individuals constantly talk about themselves, their domestic concerns, relations, deeds, and official occupations. They turn every subject into a discussion about themselves and take every idea from these personal matters. It's important to avoid displaying a shape and speaking in a tone that is solely influenced by your special education, profession, or station in life. Don't discuss subjects that are interesting only to you, make no allusions to anecdotes unknown to the company, and refrain from quoting passages from books that they probably haven't read. Adjust your language to the tone of the society you're in.
In various social situations, it's crucial to be mindful of the interests and preferences of the people present. A physician, for example, should be aware that describing anatomical preparations might not be suitable for a group of young ladies who might find it uncomfortable or uninteresting. Similarly, a clergyman discussing intricate points of theology might not resonate well with a gathering of individuals more focused on worldly matters. Old scholars sharing details about their physical ailments might not be the most engaging topic for a young, lively person. Adaptability and awareness of the context are key to successful and enjoyable social interactions.
"Some people in social situations are quick to receive but hesitant to give back. They seek amusement, instruction, and attention without contributing to the company's enjoyment. Complaining about the dullness of others while failing to realize they might be equally tiresome. These individuals sit back, absorbing the exhilarating conversations without actively participating. It's unjust and wearisome.
There are also those who dominate discussions with their personal affairs, turning every topic into a channel for their own anecdotes and experiences. It's essential to avoid showcasing your specialized education or profession in mixed company. Instead, speak on subjects of common interest. Avoid anecdotes or references unfamiliar to the group. Communication in a language everyone understands is preferable.
In essence, adapt to the tone and interests of the group. A physician shouldn't delve into anatomical details when entertaining young ladies, and a clergyman shouldn't dive into complex theological discussions in a worldly setting. Being mindful of the group's interests is fundamental for engaging and enjoyable conversations."
Therefore, refrain from talking excessively about yourself, especially in circles where others may not be intimately interested in your affairs. Even among close friends, avoid excessive self-focus. If the conversation turns to you, your publications, or similar topics out of courtesy, exercise modesty. In these times, modesty is a highly attractive quality and is appreciated even more when it's rare.
Be cautious about eagerly presenting your literary works or showcasing your talents unless specifically asked to do so. Avoid putting others in an uncomfortable position by dominating conversations with your superiority, rendering them speechless or making them feel inadequate. It's important to maintain a balance in conversation, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to contribute and feel valued.
Ensure consistency in your conversations by avoiding contradictions, especially by endorsing a principle that you previously opposed. While it's natural to evolve and change opinions, exercising prudence involves refraining from making definitive judgments in company until you've thoroughly considered all the arguments for and against the matter at hand.
Avoid exposing yourself by repeating the same stories, anecdotes, or similes on every occasion. Cultivate a sharp memory and resist the urge to overly rely on written notes for everything you want to remember, especially in social conversations. Variety and freshness in your contributions can make your interactions more engaging and enjoyable for others.
Avoid incorporating duplicities into your conversations, and refrain from making allusions to subjects that might evoke aversion or embarrassment. Do not applaud those who engage in such discussions. Maintain your sense of shame and chastity, and express your aversion to obscenity, even if you are in the company of men. Sensible individuals appreciate conversations that are respectful and free from offensive content.
Avoid incorporating your conversations with flat, commonplace expressions. Steer clear of hackneyed assertions such as 'health is an invaluable treasure,' 'skating is a cold amusement,' 'everyone is his nearest neighbor,' 'all is well that ends well,' 'a burnt child fears the fire,' or 'time passes swiftly away,' which, by the way, is not entirely accurate. Time is measured against a fixed standard and cannot pass more quickly than it should. When someone perceives one year as passing more rapidly than another, it could be attributed to increased sleep or a lapse in their senses. Such phrases are often tiresome, nonsensical, and lack truth
Beware of becoming a mechanical speaker who relies on certain expressions without much thought. For example, encountering someone in bed who is dangerously ill, they might say, "I rejoice to see you well." If you show them your picture, they might comment, "It's an excellent likeness, but painted much too old." In their observations about children, they might claim, "They are very big for their age and very like their father or mother," and so on.
Avoid bombarding those you converse with useless questions. Some people structure all their conversations in a Q&A format, bombarding others with so many questions that it becomes impossible to have a meaningful conversation in a more natural manner.
Embrace the art of accepting contradiction gracefully. Avoid childish attachment to your opinions and resist the urge to become passionate or rude when your serious arguments face ridicule or jeering. Losing your composure, even if your cause is just, is a sure way to lose the chance to convince your opponent
Refrain from discussing your domestic matters or bringing up vexing subjects in places of entertainment like the playhouse or concerts. These venues are meant for diversion and relaxation, providing a break from the cares and troubles of daily life. It is therefore inappropriate to reintroduce our daily burdens in such settings.
I believe you'll concur that an honest and sensible person won't mock essential religious doctrines, even if they happen to question their truth. However, it's crucial to note that ridiculing religious rites, ceremonies considered significant by many as parts of their faith, or human institutions held dear by certain sects is equally inappropriate. Respecting what is sacred to others and allowing them the same liberty you seek for yourself is essential. Keep in mind that what one considers mental illumination might be darkness to another. Spare the prejudices that bring peace to your weaker brethren. Offer something better rather than taking from someone. Remember that ridicule seldom convinces others, our reason can easily err in such important matters, and attempting to overturn a defective system might inadvertently bring down the entire moral structure. Above all, such topics are unsuitable for discussion in mixed company.
In our era, there seems to be a studious avoidance of discussing religion. Some shy away from expressing a warm regard for divine worship, fearing accusations of intellectual deficiency. Others pretend to embrace religious sentiments, refraining from speaking against fanaticism to please the devout. Both attitudes, whether driven by fear or hypocrisy, are equally unbecoming of an honest person.
Whenever you discuss bodily, mental, moral, or other defects, or share anecdotes that cast certain principles in a ridiculous light or reflect blame on particular social ranks, be careful to ensure that no one present could be offended. Avoid ridiculing a person's shape, features, or appearance, as no mortal has the power to alter them.
It is distressing for someone with a unique countenance or figure to realize that it becomes an object of ridicule or surprise. Even among individuals familiar with the world and who have interacted with people of all forms and shapes, there are those, particularly among the female part, who lack self-control or possess indifferent notions of decorum and equity, unable to conceal their reaction to an unusual sight. This, however, reveals great weakness. Considering the relativity of our notions of beauty and deformity, the precariousness of our physiognomical knowledge, and the frequent coexistence of a beautiful heart and a great mind with an apparently unconventional form, it's evident how unjust we are to draw injurious inferences from external appearances.
Moreover, there are other objects, such as ridiculous and absurd manners, body distortions, imprudent conduct, or peculiar dress, that may strike us. Good breeding requires us not to express our astonishment at these singularities through sarcastic smiles or signs to those present, as it would only increase the confusion of the person involved.
If you need to speak to your friend about a person present (though generally, whispering is highly improper), take the precaution not to look or point at the individual you're discussing. Similarly, if you find yourself in a situation where others are discussing you at a distance, prudence dictates that you avoid turning your gaze in that direction. People listen with their ears, not their eyes, and maintaining discretion in such situations is wise.
Be cautious not to bring up unpleasant matters without a necessity to do so. Some individuals, driven by imprudent curiosity, inquire about our economic or other unpleasant circumstances, even when they can be of no assistance, forcing us to dwell on matters we'd rather forget in social settings where we seek enjoyment. This behavior is highly inappropriate, imprudent, and, if not certain to provide comfort, can be cruel. Avoid prejudicing people against something they possess and cannot easily change, and refrain from making negative representations of their situation. Some individuals undermine innocent prejudices, robbing others of their comfort. This is unbecoming and can lead to lamentable consequences.
When someone shares disagreeable things or embarrasses another, refrain from participating or showing approval through smiles. Instead, act as if you haven't heard it. Such noble conduct is often felt and appreciated.
I will delve into the custom of speaking in paradoxes, the spirit of contrasting and disputing, and the practice of quoting the opinions of others in a subsequent chapter of the second volume, to which I direct my readers.
Secrecy is a virtue often lacking in contemporary life. In our times, individuals can be remarkably dishonest in their promises, even breaking the most solemn assurances and oaths without hesitation to reveal secrets entrusted to them. Others, though less unscrupulous, are heedless, unable to restrain their loquacity and, out of imprudence, share important secrets in public places. These individuals, thoughtless about their own secrets and plans, end up harming their temporal happiness and undermining their best intentions.
The damage caused by imprudent disclosure of secrets, both our own and others', is evident. There are also matters that, while not exactly secrets, reason dictates would be better concealed than divulged since their communication is neither useful nor instructive and can be harmful to someone. I recommend a prudent reserve, avoiding, however, descending into ridiculous mysteriousness. It's worth noting that, in general, people tend to be more reserved in despotic states due to fear and mistrust, whereas in countries with more freedom, individuals often freely share their ideas.
If compelled to entrust the same secret to multiple individuals simultaneously, it is wise to emphasize the strictest secrecy to each one, making each believe they are the sole possessor and solely accountable for keeping it.
Some people may not clearly express their willingness to keep a secret when asked. Good nature might lead us to overlook this lack of commitment. However, an honest individual declares their intentions without reserve, and a true gentleman does not entertain the disclosure of a secret until they have clarified the extent to which they can commit to keeping it.
The French call it "contenance" ó that balance, harmony, and consistency in our external conduct. Equanimity, abstaining from violence, passionate heat, and precipitation, should be a particular focus for those of a more volatile temperament.
The art of expressing ourselves concisely, clearly, and with energy is a talent that can be acquired only through study and close application. We must study our person, have command over our countenance, avoid unnatural distortions of the face, and adjust our gestures to maintain a noble posture. When speaking on unimportant subjects, it's improper to put our head, arms, and limbs in motion like those of the lowest class. In conversation, we should look at others mildly and modestly, avoiding unnecessary fidgeting.
Observing rules of strict decorum, even within family circles, is crucial to making these behaviors natural and habitual. Interrupting others while they speak, mishandling table etiquette, turning our backs inappropriately, and committing mistakes in names and titles are examples of breaches of decorum that ought to be avoided.
It's improper to stare impudently, speak too loudly, or take the lead in all conversations. Offering the left arm to a lady, opening a window or making a gesture when someone passes by, and yielding the right side or the middle when walking with someone of higher rank are examples of proper conduct. When walking with a lady, offering the left arm if she doesn't walk conveniently on the right side is advised. On steep stairs, letting ladies go first while descending and walking ahead while ascending is the courteous approach.
Avoiding whispers, leaning the head on hands at the table, making odd faces, and spoiling innocent jokes in company are considered breaches of good breeding. Returning a toothpick after use, repeatedly calling someone back for trivialities, always having something between fingers or in the mouth during conversation, and failing to beg leave before reading a letter in the presence of others are examples of actions deemed unbecoming.
Observing these seemingly trivial rules is essential, especially for those in certain ranks or with a refined education. Neglecting them can affect one's reputation and opinions formed by those who might influence one's fortune.
††† Sleeping during a sermon.
††† Talking loudly in a concert.
††† Whispering into a friend's ear behind the back of another.
††† Having private conversations in the company.
††† Dancing or playing an instrument poorly, causing amusement or boredom.
††† Running into people when they're trying to make room for you.
††† Playing cards without knowing the game well, frustrating others.
††† Humming the tune while dancing.
††† Standing in the playhouse and blocking the view of those behind.
††† Arriving late, leaving early, or staying longer than others.
These seemingly trivial actions can affect the atmosphere of a gathering and make conversation less pleasant. It's essential to refrain from looking into others' papers, avoid staying alone in a room with valuable items, and respect the privacy of conversations. If you notice two people ahead of you conversing quietly, making some noise can prevent the perception of eavesdropping and spare them from discomfort. While these may seem like small acts of discretion, they contribute to a more enjoyable and relaxed social environment.
We often find ourselves fatigued and irritated by the tedious and lengthy conversations of those we encounter. In such situations, reason, prudence, and charity demand that we exercise patience, especially if avoiding these individuals is not possible. It is crucial not to express our displeasure through rudeness or insulting behavior. When faced with a dull conversation, particularly if the speaker is excessively talkative, we have the freedom to redirect our thoughts to more engaging subjects. However, even if that's not an option, we should recognize how many hours we spend idly daydreaming. Moreover, we owe it to the social groups we engage with to make some sacrifices, acknowledging that, like others, we might inadvertently tire people with our own discourses, regardless of our perception of their significance.
naturally excel in conversing with others, effortlessly forming new connections
and earning the good opinion of those they meet. On the other hand, some
struggle with a persistent timidity and shyness, even in the presence of new
faces. This timidity can often be attributed to a flawed or inadequate
upbringing, and at times, it may stem from an underlying vanity that makes
individuals fear appearing less than impressive. For
many, this shyness in the company of strangers seems ingrained, persisting
despite efforts to overcome it.
The ability to converse easily, make a positive impression upon first meetings, and engage effortlessly with strangers, discerning the appropriate topics to introduce, are qualities that warrant dedicated cultivation. It's crucial, however, that this skill doesn't transform into the kind of impudence and forwardness characteristic of adventurers who, within an hour, might learn the life stories of an entire company and eagerly share their own exploits. There's an art to adapting to the tone of unfamiliar circles without veering into intrusive behaviors, offering unsolicited friendships, or proposing services and protection to those encountered for the first time. In conversation, the key lies in seamlessly aligning with the prevailing atmosphere, contributing elements that are valued and understood within the specific social context.
imperative, therefore, that you do not carry excessive expectations into every
social circle you enter. Prudence dictates that you shouldn't anticipate being
the central figure in every gathering, striving to shine and stand out, nor
should you presume that all attention and focus must be exclusively on you.
Disregarding this advice is a sure path to feeling neglected in various
settings, playing a pitiful role, becoming burdensome to both yourself and others, and eventually avoiding society, only
to be avoided in return.
many individuals of this type, who must always be the focal point when they aim
to present themselves in a favorable light. Similarly, there are numerous
people in social settings who can tolerate the company of no one they perceive
as comparable to them. They exhibit excellence, nobility, greatness,
usefulness, benevolence, and wit when they are the sole recipients of our
discourse, requests, expectations, and hopes. However, they quickly turn petty,
mean, revengeful, and weak as soon as they are required to align themselves
within a group, dismantling any structure not supervised by them, including
their own creation if someone else has added a small embellishment. This
disposition is unfortunate and antisocial.
If your goal is to lead a happy life and contribute to the happiness of others, I would advise you, in general, to expect and demand as little as possible from this worldly existence.
So much for external decorum and good manners! I'll now add a few more words on dress. Ensure that your attire aligns with your situation and fortuneóneither above nor beneath it. Avoid being overly fantastical, excessively bright, or ostentatiously extravagant. Instead, opt for cleanliness, decency, and tastefulness. If you choose a more lavish style, let your expenses contribute to solidity and elegance. Strive to strike a balanceóneither sticking to outdated fashions nor blindly following every passing trend. Pay extra attention to your attire when mingling with higher social classes. Feeling improperly dressed can be distressing in company.
Above all, never wear borrowed garments, as it can have detrimental effects on your character in more ways than one.
If you're wondering whether it's better to socialize frequently or infrequently, the answer depends on your individual situation. Consider your circumstances, needs, and various factors that might make one option more advisable for you. As a general guideline, avoid intruding on people or visiting too frequently. It's preferable for friends and acquaintances to wonder why you see them so rarely rather than complain about your frequent visits. Trust your internal sense to gauge whether your presence is welcomed or if it's time to take your leave.
Additionally, be cautious about forming too many familiar connections. Choose a small circle of friends and be selective about expanding it. Over-familiarity can lead to either abuse or neglect from others. To live comfortably, it's often wise to maintain a certain degree of distance. This way, people are more likely to respect and appreciate your company. Living in larger cities can be advantageous as it allows you to interact with various people regularly. For those comfortable among strangers, this setting offers the chance to overhear valuable information and make useful observations without the constant scrutiny of familiar faces.
situations, I strongly advise you, for your own benefit and that of others,
never to dismiss any society as entirely uninteresting or consider anyone's
conversation as completely devoid of value. Always remain open to the
possibility of learning something or finding material for reflection even in
seemingly indifferent or mundane conversations.
Avoid the desire to always encounter profound knowledge and refined culture in every gathering. Instead, value and encourage genuine natural understanding and common sense. Provide opportunities for those possessing such qualities to express and apply them. Engage with people from diverse backgrounds and social ranks. Over time, you'll naturally develop the tone and mindset that are appropriate for different situations and circumstances.
The choice of
our most frequent conversational companions depends on our individual
circumstances. Ideally, if we have the option (which is often more common than
we realize), it is advisable to surround ourselves with those wiser than
usóindividuals from whom we can glean valuable insights and who surpass us in
certain aspects. However, a common tendency is to gather a circle of less
accomplished minds, who orbit around us in servile compliance whenever our
superior intellect chooses to wield its influence. The unfortunate outcome is
that we remain stagnant, never progressing in wisdom and virtue.
Certainly, there are social situations where it's beneficial and enlightening to engage with people of varied capacities. There are times when it's not just about learning from others but also sharing knowledge with those who may benefit, even if they have no inherent right to demand it. However, this willingness to engage should never be taken to an extreme that jeopardizes the account we must one day provide for the use of our life and our duty to strive for greater perfection.
The prevailing tone in social circles can often be peculiar and tiresome, influenced by factors like prejudice, vanity, custom, and a desire to imitate. People may find themselves trapped in repetitive and tedious conversations, even with those they've known for years. Despite the discomfort, many feel obligated to endure such social situations without interruption.
In fashionable circles, true enjoyment might be experienced by only a few individuals, as others may participate in activities like card-playing without genuine interest. It becomes somewhat absurd when individuals in smaller towns or villages try to emulate the fashionable follies of the capital, bending under the cumbersome yoke of fashion. Those with influence should work to make these circles more rational.
In populous cities, individuals may live more according to their inclinations, with less observation and restraint. However, in smaller towns, one might be burdened with maintaining social accounts, making frequent visits, and engaging in conversations that revolve around news and politics. While this can be painful for those with a sense of discernment, there are gradual means of refining the tone of conversation or, failing that, adopting a sociable demeanor.
Living in villages or country estates can be comfortable, offering numerous opportunities to contribute to the well-being of the community. Social pleasures might be more challenging to find in rural areas, particularly when one's closest friends are miles away. To be content in the country, one must learn to appreciate simple pleasures, manage time wisely, and maintain variety.
Conversation in the country can become dull due to constant proximity to family members. This can be alleviated by having a collection of good books, engaging in interesting correspondence, and wisely managing time. The pleasure of meeting one's social circle after a well-spent day is unparalleled, but it's crucial to avoid constant quarreling, especially in small towns where financial independence might not be feasible. Residents of small towns should be indulgent, obliging, and prudent to prevent misunderstandings, disgust, and aversion. Caution is particularly vital in places where a narrow-minded tone prevails, as people may have little amusement and tend to meddle in the affairs of their neighbors.
In foreign countries, one must exercise extreme caution in conversations, considering various factors. It's essential not to underestimate certain relationships, whether the purpose of travel is for education, political or economic matters, or merely for leisure. When traveling for instruction, it's crucial to assess the country's nature and whether discussing certain topics may lead to danger or annoyance. In some states, governments harshly penalize those who unveil certain concealed aspects. In such cases, circumspection is necessary in conversations, inquiries, and even in choosing connections.
It's worth noting that only a few travelers have a legitimate reason to delve into the internal workings of foreign countries. Nonetheless, curiosity and a restless desire for activity drive many to gather dubious anecdotes abroad for works that might not serve the greater good. This precaution becomes doubly important when there's something to ask or transact for personal benefit in a foreign place. In such cases, the eyes of many are on us, requiring avoidance of connections with disgruntled individuals eager to cross paths with foreigners. Such individuals, dissatisfied with the government or their fellow citizens, often have damaged their reputation with imprudent conduct, yet seek to present themselves as having connections abroad. A wise foreigner may roam with these usually talkative guides for a few days without much risk. However, someone intending a more extended stay or seeking entry into refined circles should carefully choose connections, considering public opinion.
Most towns harbor a group of discontented individuals unsatisfied with either the government or the majority of their fellow citizens. It's advisable not to associate with such people or form connections among them. They tend to feel entitled to attention, are often turbulent, slanderous, malevolent, artful, immoral, and arrogant. Shunned by their fellow citizens, they create an alliance, trying to entice people of understanding and probity through flattery and other dubious means. To live comfortably, it's recommended to avoid interactions with such groups and anything that exudes a party spirit.
Epistolary correspondence, or conversation through letters, aligns with many rules applicable to social conversation. However, it's essential to avoid excessive correspondence, as it serves little purpose, can be costly, and consumes time. The same caution should be exercised in choosing correspondents as in selecting daily companions. Commit to writing letters that contribute something useful or provide genuine pleasure to the recipient.
Circumspection is crucial in written communication, more so than in spoken words. Proper care of received letters is equally important, as neglecting this rule can lead to vexation, animosity, and discord. A single irrevocable word in a letter or a misplaced slip of paper has the potential to ruin peace and destroy familial happiness. Therefore, caution in letters and writing, in general, cannot be overstated. A heedless word spoken may be forgotten, but a written one can cause significant harm even after many years.
Letters of importance should be sent through regular mail for reliable delivery, avoiding reliance on travelers or third parties for reasons of economy. Reading letters in private is considered courteous, preventing the unintentional disclosure of contents through changes in facial expressions.
Some individuals, especially among women, have a habit of bombarding friends and acquaintances with notes and penny-post letters for trivial reasons. This practice is deemed improper as it infringes on the time of others who could utilize it more productively and may not have the leisure to read and respond to every frivolous message sent by idle individuals.
Always maintain a belief that individuals are not as virtuous as their friends portray them nor as wicked as depicted by their enemies. Judging people by their actions, not words, is a key principle. Choose moments of observation when they are unaware, focusing on less significant behaviors rather than major actions that are often performed with caution.
Pay attention to a person's morning demeanor, observing their preferences in food and drink, the way they walk, whether they enjoy solitude or prefer company, and various habits like interrupting conversations or being mysterious. Handwriting can also reveal aspects of character, although it's essential not to judge the entire character based on a few traits.
Collect these observations carefully, but avoid making sweeping judgments from isolated traits. Be cautious about favoring individuals who are overly courteous to you. Don't firmly rely on the love and friendship of others until they've shown affection through sacrifices. True attachment is demonstrated when individuals are willing to suppress their inclinations for the sake of our happiness.
Doing everything to please a friend when it's convenient is not a true measure of sincere concern. The genuine test lies in our willingness to prioritize their comfort even at the expense of our own preferences.
All the general and specific rules, along with many more left to the judgment of readers, aim to make conversation easy, pleasant, and enhance social life. However, some individuals might have specific reasons to disregard certain rules, and it's fair to allow everyone the liberty to pursue their happiness in their own way. No one should be compelled to conform to customs that don't align with their preferences.
For those who neither seek the favor of the great nor general applause, or fame, and who, due to their political, economic situation, or other reasons, have no need to expand their circle of acquaintances, or individuals compelled by old age or infirmity to avoid social conversation, these rules may not be applicable. It's essential to be just enough not to impose our customs on others; let each person navigate their course. The happiness of each individual depends on their own notions of it, and it would be cruel to force someone to be happy against their inclination.
It's intriguing to observe how some empty-headed individuals might actively criticize a worthy person who chooses not to conform to the prevailing tone in certain circles. Such individuals, perfectly content with their secluded existence, refuse to sacrifice their time to the whims of others. Refusing to be slaves to societal expectations might offend those idle critics who know no other occupation than moving from their beds to the looking-glass, then to dinner, the card-table, and back to bed. Yet, it's unjust to blame anyone for prioritizing duty over mere sociability. Staying at home to fulfill responsibilities is not an eccentricity.
Before I delve into the specific rules for engaging in conversation with others, I'd like to make one more observation. If I were writing exclusively or primarily for men, I might have omitted or at least modified many of the rules I'm about to present. In their place, I might have substituted others that would be less applicable to men. However, that is not the aim of this book. Providing the best guidance for regulating conduct in social life is a task best suited for experienced and wise women; it's not something a man would succeed in fully understanding. Nevertheless, if the fair sex discovers useful hints in this work that they can apply to themselves, it would bring me considerable satisfaction.
I must underscore here that women are subject to many considerations that don't apply to men. They rely more heavily on the opinion of society and must exercise greater caution and reserve in their conduct. On one hand, they may be granted more leniency than men for inadvertencies, and on the other, they may contend with more societal expectations. Their behavior tends to influence their character at an earlier stage, while boys and young men may be more careless without significantly harming themselves. Women's lives are, or at least should be, primarily focused on their domestic sphere, whereas a man is often more firmly connected to the broader social and political structure due to his position. Consequently, many virtues, vices, actions, and omissions can lead to entirely different consequences when committed by one gender compared to the other.