David Bruce: Anecdotes About Conversation



When Ralph Nader’s mother, Rose, was in her eighties, he and she took a five-hour plane ride to San Francisco. Sitting in the row behind them was a young man who kept talking for the entire five hours, with brief breaks only to quickly eat a meal or to visit the restroom. After the plane had landed, his mother told Ralph, “He didn’t learn much in the last five hours, did he?” Her advice to her children while they were growing up—and after—was this: “The more you talk, the less you’ll have to say. The more you listen, the more sensible will be what you say.”

James McNeill Whistler attended West Point, but he failed to pass a military history exam, shocking the board of examiners, one of whom said to him, “What! You don’t know the date of the Battle of Buena Vista? Suppose you went out to dinner and the company began to talk about the Mexican War, and you, a West Point man, were asked the date of the battle — what you do?” Always in possession of his wits, Mr. Whistler replied, “I should refuse to associate with people who could talk of such things at dinner.”

Constance Benson didn’t care much for Oscar Wilde, who she felt was “gross” in appearance but capable of brilliant conversation. But she felt that even his conversation was unappealing sometimes, because he would say something witty even if it hurt someone else. For example, his brother borrowed too much money and didn’t wash enough, so Mr. Wilde said, “He sponges on everybody but himself.” In addition, Ms. Benson said that Mr. Wilde often repeated his witty remarks.

After Punch published a parody of a conversation between Oscar Wilde and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Mr. Wilde sent Mr. Whistler this telegram: “Punch too ridiculous. When you and I are together we never talk about anything except ourselves.” Mr. Whistler replied by telegram, “No, no, Oscar, you forget. When you and I are together we never talk about anything except me.”

Quaker humorist Tom Mullen frequently visited an old man who told the same stories over and over, so instead of listening to the old man, sometimes he tuned out and merely said “uh-huh” at pauses in the old man’s conversation. Once, the old man asked, “Is ‘uh-huh’ all you can say to me?” With his mind still on automatic pilot, Mr. Mullen replied, “Uh-huh.”

A student once asked Professor Charles T. Copeland of Harvard, “Is there anything I can do to learn the art of conversation?” Professor Copeland answered, “Yes, there is one thing. If you will listen, I will tell you.” Following a period of silence, the student said, “I am listening.” Professor Copeland replied, “You see! You are learning already!”

A hearing-able man once started to communicate with a deaf woman by writing messages on paper. Later, another hearing-able man joined the conversation, also writing messages on paper. Soon, the deaf woman left, but the two man continued their paper-and-pen conversation, with neither of them realizing that the other could hear.

John Waters is a trial junkie who really enjoys attending the trials of famous criminals such as Charles Manson. Once, he even took his mother to the Watergate trial of President Richard Nixon, and they waited 15 hours in the rain to get a seat. His father thought they were crazy, but his mother said, “I had cocktail chatter for a month.”

Rabbi Israel Salanter once spent some time joking with a common man who seemed illiterate. This shocked observers, who knew that Rabbi Israel did not waste his time. Later, they learned that the man who seemed illiterate had suffered misfortunes, and that Rabbi Israel was attempting to cheer him up, at least for a short time.

Henry Fuseli (1741-1823) once was bored by the conversation of some guests, so he suddenly exclaimed, “We had pork for dinner today.” This surprised his guests, one of whom said, “Mr. Fuseli! What an odd remark!” Mr. Fuseli replied, “Why, it is as good as anything you have been saying for the last half-hour.”

A grandmother went to see Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues with some family and friends. After the performance, she told her granddaughter, “Honey, next time I get together with my lady friends, we are going to talk about our vaginas. And if they say WHAT are you talking about? I’m going to say CUNT, CUNT.”

Grover Jones was a radio and movie writer who was very talkative. At story conferences, he would talk and talk, while other writers would take notes on his best ideas. At one story conference, Mr. Jones suddenly said, “Good God, I’m loquacious! Isn’t it fortunate I’m interesting?”

Anna Pavlova was once annoyed by several dancers outside her dressing room door who were all talking at the same time. She opened the door and asked, “Who is listening?” All of the dancers quickly became silent.

Oscar Wilde once listened to Frank Harris tell a long story which turned out to be a paraphrase of a story by Anatole France. Afterward, Mr. Wilde said, “What a charming story, Frank. Anatole France would have spoiled it.”

“The ablest and most highly cultivated people continually discuss religion, politics, and sex; it is hardly an exaggeration to say that they discuss nothing else with fully awakened interest.” — George Bernard Shaw.

Pope John XXIII could be very informal. He once met an ambassador and said, “Your Excellency, let us hand over these formal speeches to our secretaries and you and I will go to my office and have a quiet talk.”

Sophie Arnould once met Voltaire, who told her, “I am 84 years old, and I have committed 84 follies.” She replied, “A mere trifle. I am not yet 40, and I have committed more than a thousand.”

Baseball player Mark Fidrych was known for talking to the ball. Pitcher Rip Sewell once joked that he also talked to the ball. Sometimes after throwing it, he would yell, “Come back! Come back!”

I recently saw retired English professor Edgar Whan. This is how the conversation went: Edgar: “Are you behaving OK?” Me: “Yeah.” Edgar: “Well, stop it.”

“We need to talk.” — God.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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