Elsewhere we’ve addressed swearing, the virtues of simplicity and honesty, salutations, compliments, insults, and much more – all elements of language. But at a more basic level, remember that language is one of the most important expressions of who you are. In general, less is more; say just what you mean, and no more. Women like to talk, it often seems, like chatter is their primary sport and exercise, and they like a man who can listen. (See our section on listening and paying attention.) Having said that, there is a lost art of conversation, and a gentleman can intelligently converse on a wide variety of subjects. When doing so, unlike in most other area’s of manly deportment, form is more important than substance. It’s not important to know a lot about the subject you are discussing; in fact, it may be better if you don’t, as knowledgeable people often have a hard time resisting the urge to make sure that their conversational partners know just how much they know. A questioning, active, open mind is much more interesting than a know it all.
Most of all, a gentleman never pretends to know something that he doesn’t. When conversing on a subject, and asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, the best response is very simple: “I don’t know”. Given the vast ignorance of our species, this can never be said too often. Often – undoubtedly, far too often – you’ll find yourself in conversation with someone who is clearly full of it. In such cases, you don’t have to pretend that you have a full, well rehearsed set of rebuttals at hand; all you have to say is, “Well, I’m sure you know what your talking about, but that doesn’t sound quite right to me”, or, in dire cases, just the latter part. Many people are articulate fools, and many wise people aren’t very articulate. Far better to be the latter.
If one wants to know how to use the English language, the best place to start is by reading Jane Austen novels. Yes, people, at least the small proportion of educated people, really did speak that way. And, yes, it would sound funny if you did. Nonetheless, to understand communication as an art form, you can simply watch the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice – the older one with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. The scene in which Mr. Darcy makes his first proposal, and is refused by Ms. Bennett, is a seminar in how a gentleman and a lady engage in a furious, emotional, insulting, and very important dialogue – yet do so in an elevated and extremely eloquent manner. Compare this dialogue to the lyrics on any popular rap song, and you’ll have some feel for how far we’ve fallen.