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Our words reveal our refinements; they tell the discerning listener of the company we have kept; they are the hallmarks of education and culture. – Dale Carnegie

Have we lost the art of conversation? Has the digital age with its shortened attention spans and 140 character limits shriveled what was once our primary form of engagement? I think that in some ways it has, but only because we allow it.  Part of that is due to the limitations of digital conversation, but part of it is also the fact that we’ve become lazy conversationalists over the past hundred years or so. 

The Victorians had it Buttoned Down

Back in the Victorian era, in-person conversation was the only way to engage with other people, and the art of being a good conversationalist was highly valued. Etiquette and manners were studied carefully. How a person dressed and moved, the modulation of their voice and the topics they chose to discuss were extremely important because of what they revealed about the person.

These things still reveal a lot about people. That’s why when we’re talking to someone we’ve just met, we tend to take a visual inventory, even if it’s on a subconscious level. It helps us learn something about them. How are they dressed? Do they have an accent? Are they loud and crude, or soft-spoken and pleasant?

Social Clues

Sometimes social clues are left on purpose, to draw other people who share the same interest, such as wearing a sports team jersey, or sporting a particular badge at an event. Others are a little harder to pick up (unless you’re observant).

Clues are often dropped in the form of conversation—which is why it’s important to listen first. Do they talk about their husband, wife or children? Do they like to ski or golf? How do they feel about recent world events? Are they discussing a particular book or publication? Did they move recently? If so, from where? Just as in the Victorian days, when you identify a common interest with someone based on those clues, you open up fertile ground for conversation. More importantly, you demonstrate to the other person that you are fully engaged, giving them the attention that they deserve.

Bring Back the Rules of Etiquette

Unfortunately, we’re often too lazy to pick up on visual or conversation cues today. We don’t listen for very long before we jump into conversation. We’re so busy thinking of what we’re going to say next, that we don’t really “hear” what they’re trying to say to us.  And that’s just in real-time, person-to-person conversations. How can we bring the art of in-person conversation into digital conversation?

First, we can start by observing some of the forgotten, but important, Victorian rules of etiquette (taken from

  • Remember that people are fond of talking of their own affairs. The mother likes to talk of her children, the mechanic of his workmanship, the laborer of what he can accomplish. Give everyone an opportunity, and you will gain much valuable information besides being thought courteous and well bred.
  • Beware of talking much about yourself. Your merits will be discovered in due time without the necessity of sounding your own praises.
  • Show the courtesy, when another person joins the group where you are relating an incident, of recapitulating what has been said for the advantage of the new-comer.
  • Be cool, collected and self-possessed, using respectful, chaste and appropriate language.

While these rules were written in the 1800s, they still apply today! Not only will practicing these rules help our in-person conversations, we can also use digital tools to “pick up” social clues to improve our online conversations:

  • Address people by name: Even the most sparsely completed social profiles offer the type of information that would take some serious sleuthing to uncover in person. Take the time to find it. If you connect with someone on Twitter with a handle that’s obviously not a name, dig for it on another channel and use it when you converse with them. People love to hear their name, and will appreciate that you took the time to find it and address them by it.
  • Look for commonalities: On most social sites, even a relatively empty profile is still likely to include a person’s name, their hometown, and a profile photo. You can still find plenty of common ground even with that limited information. Have you been to their hometown? If so, great! If not, work a little Google magic. Most people choose a profile photo that incorporates at least one of their interests. Where was the photo taken? Are there other people in it? What are the people in the photo doing? Every piece of information helps you find that invaluable common ground.
  • You have the advantage of past conversations:  We reveal plenty of information about our interests simply by being active on social. Every site is a bit different, but think about all you can learn by reading a connection’s recent public @ replies on Twitter, or public timeline posts on Facebook. What they comment on, what they share, and who they share it with can all reveal commonalities that you can use to develop or strengthen the relationship. Show them you’re listening by referencing those conversations.

Common sense applies, as always. Bring up something in which a person demonstrated interest over the last few weeks or months, and you demonstrate your attentiveness. Bring up a specific photo or comment your connection posted a few years ago, and you may be unwittingly sending a different message. For one, interests change, especially over the course of years. Why go on dated data when you have the new stuff right in front of you? Additionally, people tend to find it unsettling if you look back too far, which defeats the whole purpose of doing it in the first place. Don’t get creepy.

Here are some more rules from the Victorian era that we would do well to re-apply to today’s social conversations:

  • Do not manifest impatience.
  • Do not engage in argument.
  • Do not interrupt another when speaking.
  • Do not find fault, although you may gently criticize.
  • Do not appear to notice inaccuracies of speech in others.

Coach Your Employees

Do yourself a favor and pass this knowledge on to your customer facing employees as well—in fact, all of your employees. When you hire well, as the following video indicates, you’re not only looking for someone who can do a job—but for someone who “matches” your company in terms of their outlook and behavior—someone you can train easily who “gets” what your company is all about.

Whether you’re a restaurant owner or the CEO of a B2B company, coaching your existing employees who have a customer facing role on how to be better conversationalists is important, but also look for those qualities in your new hires as well.  There’s a reason why many HR professionals look closely at a prospective hire’s social profiles. The way we communicate there (as well as in person) says a lot about us as individuals.

If we all observed these age-old lessons in conversational etiquette it would go a long way toward cleaning up digital conversation, don’t you think? Just because our social reach is exponentially larger than it was for Victorians, and our conversations shorter and faster, that doesn’t mean we should stop practicing the art of being good conversationalists.

Your company is made up of people and does business with people, so we could all benefit from re-learning the lost art of conversation. The better you are at it, the more it sets you apart as a relationship builder—and that’s more important today than ever.

*This post was written in partnership with Progressive Insurance. I have been compensated, but the thoughts and ideas are my own. For additional small business tips, check out Progressive’s Small Business Big Dreams program.

Photo Credit: Singularity University NL: Man versus Machine – Biology Versus Technology by Sebastiaan ter Burg

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