Ethel Cotton's 1960 Course in Conversation Will Teach You Fancy Talkin'
The Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation
Author: Ethel Cotton Monahan
Publisher: Conversation Studies
Discovered at: Out of the Closet Thrift Store, 1295 Folsom
The Cover Promises: Good conversation is like wearing a ballgown shaped like a Christmas tree.
"Don't discuss detours, traffic cops, chicken dinners, and mileage."
"A woman who is interested in writing, sketching, singing, sewing, or any other activity is a richer companion during the hours of her leisure. Remember that, if your mind is blank or stagnant when you are alone, it is not likely to become suddenly alert and creative when you have company."
Look, we both know that it's probably healthier for each of us if you stop reading this, I stop writing this, and we each schlep bleary-eyed into the great wide outdoors and find a person for some good old-fashioned discoursin'. We both know that won't happen -- well, you might stop reading, but you aren't hauling your internet-softened body outside anytime soon.
But here's the good news: You know all those chattering sophisticates of earlier generations, the ones whose self-worth was measured in wit and vocabulary rather than profile pageviews? Turns out the only difference between them and us is that their social anxiety disorders went undiagnosed.
Page through the dozen breezy booklets comprising The Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation, and you'll see that our forebears were a lot like today's Twitterers: isolated, craving a crowd, and forever polishing up their remarks.
Sold via mail-order to shape the shy and tongue-tied into masters of repartee both warm and droll, all without the aid of actual human contact, Cotton's course is, if nothing else, laudably ambitious.
Cotton commands her students to recite Wordsworth, keep multiple journals, seek out trivia for doling out later, practice the surreptitious guiding of group discussions, and to become citizens of the spoken word no matter how much they hate talking to people. She insists, "Remember that however much you may harbor hermit tendencies, it is impossible to avoid all human associations."
One big step toward not being a hermit is to hole up with a newspaper and imitate Jay Leno:
Many news items are, though juxtaposition of words, careless punctuation, or typographical errors, highly amusing. There is at least one unintentional smile a day in your favorite newspaper.
Every day clip items which appeal to you as funny. Paste them in a scrapbook. Then try to write a caption for each of them. For example, the item, 'The Smiths' Ten Years of Martial Life,' you might caption, 'The Happy Warriors.'
But don't just clip every workaday typo!
To help you become a more original 'humor detective' I am giving you some special information. Here are some typographical errors which occur with greatest regularity in print: immorality for immortality, widow for window, bride for bridge, martial for marital. A classified advertisement for 'an experienced widow dresser' or an account of 'The Smiths' Ten Years of Martial Life' are funny, but commonplace. Try, therefore, to find humorous items not containing any of these well-worn errors.
The best of her humor detecting:
Memorize these, and you'll rule your cotillion like a godking of old!
Here, Cotton shows us how an adept conversationalist directs a handles a potentially tiresome discussion.
Actually, Cotton disdained racial prejudice and made so absolutely clear in her course. She felt so strongly about this that she sternly underlined the following admonition:
Go to the library and ask for books on the achievements of any group of people against whom you are prejudiced. This is most important.
Some less inspiring bits of Cotton's advice:
Be careful around the Gingriches
Do not refer to divorce in mixed company if you are unfamiliar with the marital conditions of every member present.
Regale others with your arbitrary opinions about form and function
Compare one building with another. Become very familiar with at least one noted building in your neighborhood. Decide as to its excellent or poor features. Then use this as a standard of judgment to measure your interest in any new building.
Seriously, just make up some opinions, would you?
Warning!!! Don't admit that the plays you see or the books you read have no effect on you. No matter whether you see or read comedy, tragedy, or drama, try to react.
But don't make them too opinionated
If you have made the statement that the Yosemite Valley in California is much more grand and picturesque than the Canadian Rockies, every loyal Canadian present will feel it his patriotic duty to disprove your statement. He may also doubt your judgment and be suspicious of your general intelligence.
Keep your problems to yourself. Also, act like you worked for George Lucas in the '90s
Never introduce into conversation topics regarding sickness, operations, or disease of any kind. Do not discuss personal losses or describe unhappy conditions. Do not flatly contradict anyone even if you know he is wrong.
Once in a while, just cold start punnin'
Play on Words and Repartee. There is no limit to play on words. Some examples are: Spic and Spanish. It's always dullest just before the yawn. Many a man loses his balance when his wife goes shopping. Fiction is waning because it can't hold a scandal to biography.
Be yourself ... unless you think you suck
Warning!!! Never admit that you are very self-conscious. If your feelings are easily hurt, conceal the fact. These are grave social defects. No matter how sympathetic people may appear they do not want timid, embarrassed, contractive companions with thin skins.
Guide conversation with bores the same way the invisible hand guides the free market
A great need of tact is required in changing the topic that has been introduced. The conversation must be guided so diplomatically that the one who introduced the original subject will not realize that it is being changed. You must not get the idea that changing the subject is to enable your own love of power. You must change the subject only when it is necessary for purely cultural reasons. Everyone, including the bore, will enjoy a conversation which does not leave him depressed, discouraged, or cynical.
Never tell guests that it's too early to break out the Manischewitz
It is a conversation asset to know the nationality of the person to whom you are speaking. Even the most cosmopolitan individual may retain traces of national traits and origins. For instance, people from the north of Ireland are generally Protestant; people from the south are more often Catholic. The Jewish people, having been constantly oppressed, are sensitive about restrictions.
Don't automatically assume you'll be called upon to sparkle in front of George Clooney, but prepare to anyway
When a celebrity visits your community, read all the references about him in the daily newspapers. You may or may not be invited to a reception given in his honor, but if you have collected information concerning many prominent people, you will be a more interesting person for any occasion.
For all her last-century frumpiness, once in a while Cotton is dead-on right. Here are two bits of advice that should be heeded not just by conversationalists but by anyone who wants to write anything ever:
Drop "nice" out of your vocabulary entirely. Whenever you start to use it, decide to substitute another word which more clearly expresses your meaning. For example, say invigorating weather, intelligent people, creative jobs, smart clothes.
And, finally, savor this gem, which should be part of the terms of service customers users have to agree to before posting reviews to Amazon, GoodReads, Netflix, ITunes, or anywhere else:
In expressing praise or censure of a play or book do not make such remarks as 'the greatest play ever produced' or 'the finest book ever written.' Such exaggerations are annoying to your hearers. They indicate a limitation of standards of comparison.
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