Have you ever suspected that your subjects of conversation emerge from the news you are shown by social media algorithms? Have you tried to avoid talking about gossip or the weather, only to find yourself helplessly drawn in when someone else focuses on them? Do you long for conversation that uplifts you, helps you love and edify your neighbor, and entices you to learn more about a particular topic?
If the answer is yes, the marvelous Miss Ethel Cotton developed the solution for you decades ago. Her book, The Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation, provides a thorough education in how to prepare yourself to converse pleasantly and intelligently. (The book is out of print but available on sites like Ebay.)
If you’re like me, you may get a delightful thrill just reading the author’s name. Doesn’t it sound deliciously prim and proper? I absolutely adore imagining Miss Cotton standing before me in a beautifully fitted and crisply starched shirtdress, wearing white gloves and a perky little hat perched perfectly on her elegantly coiffed hair, eager to instruct me in the high art of conversation. On the other hand, if you’re wondering how old Miss Cotton’s ideas could possibly be of interest to you, read on!
All of your most troubling conversational dilemmas and pitfalls are dealt with in simple lessons which are broken down into twelve subjects: Guiding Conversation, Getting Acquainted, Overcoming Irritation, Too Tired to Talk?, Humor in Conversation, Complexes, Discussing Books and Plays, Colorful Descriptions, Home and Business Conversations, Brief Conversations, Long Conversations, and Carrying on the Adventure.
Just reading through those lesson titles seared my brain with the shocking realization of how puny my own conversation muscles are, especially the one for discussing books and plays! I can’t even remember the last time I seriously engaged in such an endeavor, where I could contribute meaningfully to a literary discussion. However, I can recommend a podcast that inspires me with the kinds of book conversations I would like to have. It’s called “Close Reads” and is a production of the Circe Institute.
Here are some highlights from Lesson 1 of the 1962 edition of Miss Cotton’s course that you can easily incorporate into your daily life:
• Pay attention to your interlocutors so that you may draw them into conversation about their skills, hobbies, and experiences.
• If you’re in a conversation that is struggling to rise above the mundane, tactfully ask a thought-provoking question, or comment on something of beauty in the landscape. This is what Miss Cotton calls “guiding the conversation”.
• Cultivate your mind on a daily basis and take notes. If you watch an interesting video on saving seed or building a wooden canoe, or the life of a particular saint, jot down the highlights in a notebook. This same technique applies to books you are reading, concerts you attend, classes you take, etc.
• Additionally Miss Cotton encourages her students to record in the notebook interesting vocabulary, humorous stories, and quotations, and then review all these notes daily. In this way, when you are blessed with the opportunity for conversation, your quiver is full of straight and fully-feathered arrows, ready to speed to the mark of conversational bliss.
If you’re beginning to think that planning ahead is a large part of your conversation education, you are well on your way!
Those ideas are the heart of Lesson 1. You might consider sharing them with a few friends and asking them to participate in a conversation club with you. Or start by practicing with your own family. Or just go out every day prepared to positively engage with whomever of good will you chance to meet. The options are only limited by your imagination.
May your efforts be rewarded with delightful conversations, increased alertness, a sparkling choice of new vocabulary, restored contentment, and keener observation skills. Most of all, may your role in contributing to and guiding edifying conversations help restore civil discourse and lay the foundation for bringing about the Social Reign of Christ the King.