Wield your wit in the polite attention to others.
Saturday last D. Todd Christofferson spoke about the learned aspects of manhood. In his address he suggested that men would do well to teach boys various lessons of manhood, including how to converse and relate with others. As he said that, my mind was turned to a lesson I’ve learned on my own, one I wonder if I could have been taught.
The last sentence of Douglas Harper’s entry for “gallant (adj.)” in his online etymology dictionary reads “Sense of ‘politely attentive to women’ was adopted 17c. from French.” ’Tis an interesting word, and not one I’d care to define nor, necessarily, advocate without reservation. But it does capture well a skill I believe is well practiced in conversation.
Sometimes when conversing with another it is all one can do to keep up. More often I find that I have time to consider my reactions and replies. When someone says “I’m good” I have time to think “should I interpret that to mean ‘I’m well’ or ‘I’m righteous’?” When someone shares a story I have the choice to reply with a similar story of my own, to express sympathy with the feelings the related experience likely evoked, to inquire further into the details of the tale, or to treat the topic as closed and move on. How should I make this choice?
I propose that in most settings the wisest decision is to be a gallant conversationalist. One of the core ideas behind gallantry and chivalry as currently envisioned is that the best demonstration of strength is its use in the benefit of others. Thus, the rapier wit should defend the honor of the audience, not threaten it.
I learned this lesson gradually. It first came when I decided to see if I could replace my sarcastic punning with twisting words to the complimenting of the speaker. I had long not enjoyed my habit of twisting words, but had previously been unsuccessful in resisting the temptation, so I decided this might be a suitable compromise. I was stunned when I realized how much actual good this could do. Replying to “how are you doing?” with “better since you arrived” was not just less annoying than “doing what?” but actually brought smiles and pleasure in most circumstances. Only most, I fear, because sometimes I was insincere and there is no virtue in hypocritical pleasantries.
From this simple beginning I have not improved that much; I find that, as James put it, “the tongue […] is an unruly evil”. But I have found that in each instance where I successfully act with conversational gallantry everyone wins. The recipient of the gallant words is benefited thereby and my own reputation receives a greater boost than even the most impressive of counter-stories could give it.
I wonder if I would have understood or followed this advice had I been given it in my youth. I wonder if I was given it then and simply didn’t notice or accept the counsel. No matter the answers to these questions, I give this advise now without reservation: seek to become a gallant conversationalist. Go beyond merely sheathing the sword of invective; wield your wit in the polite attention to others.
Hopefully you will have more constant success at this virtue than have I.