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Posts Tagged ‘how-to’

30 MAY, 2013

Coffee, It’s a Man’s Drink: Esquire’s Vintage Rules for Brewing the Perfect Cup

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“No aspect of your cooking skill will bring you greater or more lasting pleasure than the ability to prepare the drink that stimulates wit and digestion.”

We’ve seen how coffee changed the world, inspired Bach cantatas, became 20th-century art, and came to dominate many writers’ daily routines. But how, exactly, does one brew the perfect cup? After George Orwell’s 11 golden rules for the perfect cup of tea, it’s time for a vintage guide to coffee bliss. From a section titled “Coffee: The Cup That Cheers” in Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts: A Time-Honored Guide to the Perfect Party (public library) — the same 1949 time-capsule of the era’s gender stereotypes that gave us this amusingly appalling questionnaire to determine your attractiveness to the opposite sex — comes Esquire’s guide to the art of coffee. The magazine, of course being in the business of selling men their masculinity and assuaging their gender-role dissonance over mastering the domestic sphere of cooking and entertaining, makes no apologies for depicting this as a decidedly man’s art. Imbibe and chuckle.

When coffee was introduced in Europe in the 16th century, people thought that it rendered women frigid and even barren; a law was promptly passed in Constantinople giving husbands the right to prevent the use of coffee by their wives. Maybe that’s why the average woman, to this day, can’t make a good cup of coffee. It must be that, basically, coffee is a man’s drink. When subjected to the economies of drugstore waitresses or the casual inattention of wives, the cup that cheers but does not inebriate is apt to become a mean, thin liquid with almost unlimited capacities for discouraging real coffee lovers.

So know ye this: no aspect of your cooking skill will bring you greater or more lasting pleasure than the ability to prepare the drink that stimulates wit and digestion. Coffee splices all loose ends, greets the cheese gladly, and spreads a mantle of aromatic warmth.

Here are some of the basic rules for making it properly:

  1. Use only freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee.
  2. Start with cold, fresh water — and if it is to be poured over the coffee when boiling be sure to pour it as soon as it boils, lest the oxygen be dispelled and the water be made tasteless by long boiling.
  3. Make sure your equipment is spotlessly clean.
  4. Always measure ingredients carefully and time the brewing-period exactly — so you can be sure to duplicate your method time after time once you have settled on the proper combination of water, coffee and time.

Beyond that, your own taste is boss.

The guide then outlines four types of coffee to play with preparing:

Using one of the following systems, experiment until you’ve reached coffee of the proper strength to match your memory of the best cup of coffee you ever sipped. The proportion usually recommended is 1 tablespoon of coffee to each cup of water, with an extra tablespoon of coffee “for the pot.” With men who ken coffee, 2 tablespoons to 1 cup is a more favored strength. And some, to avoid long perking or simmering and the consequent bitter taste, use even a greater proportion of coffee. But there’s as much variation in the strength of different coffee blends as there is in the tastes of coffee-drinkers, so suit yourself.

DRIP COFFEE
Coffee is put into the top part of the drip coffeemaker. Water is brought to a boil separately, then poured over the coffee — to drip through to the bottom part of the coffeemaker. Some fanatics insist that the water be poured over the coffee a mere spoonful at a time; others run the water through the coffee 2 or 3 times for added strength. The only certain rules are: preheat the coffee pot with hot water; use drip-grind coffee; stand pot in a warm place so coffee won’t cool during the drip process.

GLASSMAKER COFFEE
Water is put into the lower bowl, upper bowl is fitted in, complete with filter or rod, then coffee is placed in the upper bowl. When water is hot, it rises through the tube into the upper bowl. Then as soon as stream comes up through the tube and agitates the mixture, the fire is turned off. Gradually, then, the coffee filters into the lower bowl — from which you serve it. Or — you may prefer to allow the coffee to simmer in the upper bowl for 2 to 5 minutes, for a stronger brew. Or — you may put only an inch or so of the water in the lower bowl (enough to create a vacuum when it boils) and heat the remainder of the required water separately, to be poured over the coffee grounds as for drip coffee. In any case, pulverized coffee is used.

OLD FASHIONED COFFEE POT
For this method, favored of our forebears, coffee should be coarsely ground. Dry coffee goes into the pot (or ordinary saucepan) first, then cold water. Bring to a boil, simmer 5-8 minutes, then take it off the stove. A dash of cold water will settle the grounds — or an eggshell thrown into the brew at the outset will have the same effect. Even so, you need a strainer for pouring.

PERCOLATOR COFFEE
Use same proportions as for pot coffee, but use medium-ground coffee — halfway between drip grind and pot grind. Coffee goes into the basket in the percolator, water into the pot; then the water “perks” through the coffee until it is the strength you like: about 8 minutes. With a glass percolator, you can see how you’re doing throughout the process; others have a glass piece on top so you can get a glimpse of the brew as it perks.

Whatever the method used, coffee is best when freshly made. ONce you’ve got your own coffeemaking timed, you’ll know just when to fade from your dinner table in order to have fresh coffee ready by dessert-time or maybe you’ll latch onto an electric coffeemaker that can do its fragrant work right at the table. Ben Jonson said, “as he brews, so shall he drink.” Good drinking!

Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts: A Time-Honored Guide to the Perfect Party goes on to offer a toolkit for entertaining spanning from the fine points of sauces to the art of conversation to after-dinner dirty tricks.

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14 MAY, 2013

How to Make the Perfect Cup of Tea: George Orwell’s 11 Golden Rules

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“One strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes.”

After the recently examined history of how coffee changed the world, the most democratic thing to do would be to offer those of us who prefer tea a comparable treat — and what would be more appropriate than a reading of George Orwell’s his secret to the perfect cup of tea? The passage, which discusses “one of the most controversial parts of all” — the matter of the milk — is part of his altogether fantastic 1945 essay “A Nice Cup of Tea,” originally published in the Evening Standard on January 12, 1946, and later included in the indispensable 1968 anthology George Orwell: As I Please, 1943-1945: The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, Vol 3 (public library). Excerpted below, it presents Orwell’s eleven “golden” rules for the ultimate tea experience.

UPDATE: There seems to be a bit of confusion about the recording: To clarify, it is a reading of Orwell, not by Orwell, from an old documentary. The voice is that of actor Chris Langham. No recording of Orwell’s voice is known to exist.

If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.

Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britannia ware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.

Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.

Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.

Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.

Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tea leaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

The same year, Orwell published one of his most celebrated and enduring essays, titled “Why I Write” and exploring the four universal motives for creation. It appears on this essential reading list of famous writers’ wisdom on writing.

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13 MAY, 2013

How to Worry Less About Money

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What Goethe can teach us about cultivating a healthy relationship with our finances.

The question of how people spend and earn money has been a cultural obsession since the dawn of economic history, but the psychology behind it is sometimes surprising and often riddled with various anxieties. In How to Worry Less about Money (public library) — another great installment in The School of Life’s heartening series reclaiming the traditional self-help genre as intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living, which previously gave us Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane, Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex, and Roman Krznaric’s How to Find Fulfilling Work — Melbourne Business School philosopher-in-residence John Armstrong guides us to arriving at our own “big views about money and its role in life,” transcending the narrow and often oppressive conceptions of our monoculture.

He begins with a crucial distinction, the heart of which echoes James Gordon Gilkey’s 1934 advice on how not to worry. Armstrong writes:

This book is about worries. It’s not about money troubles. There’s a crucial difference.

Troubles are urgent. They ask for direct action. … By contrast, worries often say more about the worrier than about the world.

[…]

So, addressing money worries should be quite different from dealing with money troubles. To address our worries we have to give attention to the pattern of thinking (ideology) and to the scheme of values (culture) as these are played out in our won individual, private existences.

While modern money-advice tends to fall into two main categories — how to get more money and how to get by on less — Armstrong points out that this bespeaks our culture’s fixation on troubles rather than worries. He writes:

This is a problem because the theme of money is so deep and pervasive in our lives. One’s relationship with money is lifelong, it colors one’s sense of identity, it shapes one’s attitude to other people, it connects and splits generations; money is the arena in which greed and generosity are played out, in which wisdom is exercised and folly committed. Freedom, desire, power, status, work, possession: these huge ideas that rule life are enacted, almost always, in and around money.

He draws an analogy from the philosophy of teaching, which distinguishes between training and education:

Training teaches how to carry out a specific task more efficiently and reliably. Education, on the other hand, opens and enriches a person’s mind. To train a person, you need know nothing about who they really are, or what they love, or why. Education reaches out to embrace the whole person. Historically, we have treated money as a matter of training, rather than education in its wider and more dignified sense.

Indianapolis Newsboys buying brass checks in a newspaper office, 1908

The U.S. National Archives, public domain

Underpinning our money worries, Armstrong argues, are four main questions that have far less to do with our financial standing than with psychoemotional and social factors — questions about why money is important to us, how much money we need to achieve what’s important to us, what the best way to acquire that money is, and what our economic responsibilities to others are in the course of acquiring and using that money. We’ll never overcome our money worries, he argues, unless we first recognize those underlying questions:

Our worries — when it comes to money — are about psychology as much as economics, the soul as much as the bank balance.

Key among Armstrong’s strategies for alleviating such worries is developing a good relationship with money, which parallels human-to-human dynamics:

One thing that’s characteristic of a good relationship is this: you get more accurate at assigning responsibility. When things go wrong you can see how much is your fault and how much is the fault of the other person. And the same holds when things go well. You know that part of it is your doing and part depends on the contribution of your partner.

This model applies to money. When things go well or badly, it’s partly about what you bring to the situation and partly about what money brings. What money brings is a certain level of spending power.

What you bring to this relationship includes imagination, values, emotions, attitudes, ambitious, fears, and memories. So the relationship is absolutely not just a matter of pure economic facts of how much you get and how much you spend.

In discussing research indicating that more money, after a certain threshold, doesn’t mean more happiness, Armstrong offers a necessary definition of happiness:

When we talk about happiness, what do we have in mind? Probably a mixture of buoyancy and serenity; you feel elated but safe.

The relationship money has to these attributes, he argues, is “real but diminishing.” While money can buy the accoutrements of buoyancy — chocolate, weekend getaways, expensive shoes — many people feel unhappy despite having these. His explanation, echoing the philosophy of Alan Watts, leads to the obvious conclusion:

Money can purchase the symbols but not the causes of serenity and buoyancy. In a straightforward way we must agree that money cannot buy happiness.

Market scene, 1922

The Field Museum Library, public domain

Since Armstrong’s main argument is premised on the idea that our culture is geared toward addressing troubles rather than amplifying well-being, which parallels the disconnect that Martin Seligman observed in the field of psychology when he founded the positive psychology movement, it comes as no surprise that Armstrong’s key construct in solving the conundrum mirrors Seligman’s philosophy of flourishing over “happiness.” Indeed, Armstrong argues that while serenity and buoyancy are appealing, they fall short of reflecting what people really want out of life:

Most people realize that they really need to do things for other people. There is a deep fear that one’s life will be lived in vain — without making a contribution, or a benign difference, to the lives of others.

[…]

Flourishing means getting on with the things that are important for you to do, exercising your capacities, actively trying to “realize” what you care about and bring it into life. But these activities involve anxiety, fear of failure and setbacks, as well as a sense of satisfaction, occasional triumphs and moments of excitement.

And yet this is in no way a motion to flatten the full dimensionality of the human experience:

A good life is still a life. It must involve a full share of suffering, loneliness, disappointment and coming to terms with one’s own mortality and the deaths of those one loves. To live a life that is good as a life involves all this.

While the things money can secure — like power, influence, and access to resources — may not be shortcuts to serenity and buoyancy, Armstrong argues, they are inextricably linked to flourishing by enabling you to pursue the things that are important to you and, in the process, to contribute to the lives of others. Here, the relationship between amount of money and potential for flourishing doesn’t flatline the way it does in a more narrow conception of happiness:

Armstrong’s key point, however, is that while this correlation of growth might be directly proportional, money isn’t a cause of flourishing but an ingredient in it, a mere resource with which to build the life we want, catalyzed by virtue:

Money brings about good consequences — helps us live valuable lives — only when joined with “virtues.” Virtues are good abilities of mind and character.

Reminiscent of Ben-Franklian virtues like temperance, frugality, and moderation is another essential skill in alleviating our money worries — the ability to distinguish between wants and needs. The need-desire distinction, Armstrong suggests, is useful in warding off mere desires, like the longing for the latest shiny gadget, even if it’s of little utilitarian value, or that sleek new bike, even if the old one works perfectly fine.

If we want to be wise about money we should resist the impulse to follow our desires and concentrate instead on getting what we need.

Need is deeper — bound up with the serious narrative of one’s life. “Do I need this”? is a way of asking: how important is this thing, how central is it to my becoming a good version of myself; what is it actually for in my life? This interrogation is designed to distinguish needs from mere wants. And that’s a good distinction to make.

But it is important to see that this is not the same as the “modest versus grand” distinction. Our needs are not always for the smaller, lesser, cheaper thing.

The ultimate purpose of purchases, he argues, is to help us flourish. His strategy for mastering the needs/wants balance thus rests on not conflating this dichotomy with familiar ones like basic/refined (“a distinction about the level of complexity of an object”) or cheap/luxurious (“a distinction to do with price and demand”). Instead, he recommends a seemingly counter-intuitive approach — to consider our needs first, without taking price into account.

But, ultimately, Armstrong points out that the things most essential to our flourishing — despite what our monoculture might dictate — are often unrelated to material goods:

The crucial developmental step in the economic lives of individuals and societies is their ability to cross from the pursuit of middle-order goods to higher-order goods. Sometimes we need to lessen our attachment to the middle needs like status and glamor in order to concentrate on higher things. This doesn’t take more money; it takes more independence of mind.

Still, the material and the spiritual are inextricably linked:

There are quite profound reasons why we should care simultaneously about having and doing. Both are connected to flourishing.

What we do with our lives is obviously central to who we are. What we expend our mental energy on, what we put our emotional resources into, where we deploy courage or daring or prudence or commitment: these are major parts of existence and are inevitably much connected with work and earning money. And we need these parts of existence in order to find proper application in activities that deserve our best efforts. We don’t’ want to reserve our central capacities for the margins and weekends of life.

Despite certain cultural stereotypes, Armstrong points out that, precisely because of these parallel forces, doing well and doing good don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and there could in fact exist a straight positive correlation between intrinsic worth and extrinsic, material reward:

At an individual level, one is trying to find a way of making this happen in one’s own life. But because intrinsic worth isn not just what is good for me, but what is actually good, this is a public service as well. It’s not greedy to want to make quite a lot of money — if you want to make it as a reward for doing things that are genuinely good for other people.

In considering yet another essential difference — that between price and value — Armstrong makes a key distinction, which most of us intuit but can rarely articulate with such eloquence:

Price is a public matter — a negotiation between supply and demand. A thing’s price is set in competition. So the price of a car is determined by how much some people want it, how much they are willing to pay, and how ready the manufacturer is to sell. It’s a public activity: lots of people are involved in the process, but your voice is almost never important in setting the price.

Value, on the other hand, is a personal, ethical and aesthetic judgment — assigned finally by individuals, and founded on their perceptiveness, wisdom and character.

Armstrong finds a certain artfulness to the issue of managing our money-worries:

Ultimately, one is cultivating an art — one of the minor political arts, the art of domestic finance. By saying that it is an art, one is getting at the idea that there are multiple motives and rewards, which are integrated. There is an aesthetic or order — a physical beauty that is connected to neatness and clarity — like the beauty of the periodic table, or the elegance of a mathematical equation, or the rightness of a note in a sonata. It is a classical beauty.

In a chapter considering the problems of the rich, who are able to use money to fulfill their desires, Armstrong writes, with a wince and a wink at the “hedonic treadmill”:

Money does not liberate people in the way that we assume it must.

[…]

There is a very imperfect relationship between desire and flourishing. Desire aims at pleasure. Whereas the achievement of a good life depends upon the good we create. And the opportunity to follow whatever desire one might happen to have is the enemy of the effort, concentration, devotion, patience and self-sacrifice that are necessary if we are to achieve worthwhile ends.

Armstrong goes on to outline a number of practical strategies for improving our relationship with money and thus mastering our worries, concluding with a wonderful anecdote of a man who epitomized that relationship at its healthiest: Goethe.

'The civilized ideal: elegance and devotion to work.'

Jonathan Joseph Schmeller, Goethe in His Study Dictating to His Secretary John, 1831

From his many writings about his own experiences, we know that he was determined to get well paid for his work. He came from a well-off background but sought independence. He switched careers, from law to government adviser so as to be able to earn more (which made sense then; today the trajectory might be in the opposite direction. He coped with serious setbacks. His first novel was extremely popular but he made no money from it because of inadequate copyright laws. Later, he negotiated better contracts. He was very competent in financial matters and kept meticulous records of his income and expenditure. He liked what money could buy — including … a stylish house-coat (his study has no heating). But for all this, money and money worries did not dominate his inner life. He wrote with astonishing sensitivity about love and beauty. He was completely realistic and pragmatic when it came to money but this did not lead him to neglect the worth of exploring bigger, more important concepts in life.

Complement How to Worry Less about Money with The School of Life’s How to Find Fulfilling Work and How to Stay Sane.

Quoted text excerpted from How to Worry Less about Money by John Armstrong. Copyright © 2012 by The School of Life.

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23 APRIL, 2013

How to Find Fulfilling Work

By:

On the art-science of “allowing the various petals of our identity to fully unfold.”

“If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment,” wrote Dostoevsky, “all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.” Indeed, the quest to avoid work and make a living of doing what you love is a constant conundrum of modern life. In How to Find Fulfilling Work (public library) — the latest installment in The School of Life’s wonderful series reclaiming the traditional self-help genre as intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living, which previously gave us Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane and Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex — philosopher Roman Krznaric (remember him?) explores the roots of this contemporary quandary and guides us to its fruitful resolution:

The desire for fulfilling work — a job that provides a deep sense of purpose, and reflects our values, passions and personality — is a modern invention. … For centuries, most inhabitants of the Western world were too busy struggling to meet their subsistence needs to worry about whether they had an exciting career that used their talents and nurtured their wellbeing. But today, the spread of material prosperity has freed our minds to expect much more from the adventure of life.

We have entered a new age of fulfillment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning.

Krznaric goes on to outline two key afflictions of the modern workplace — “a plague of job dissatisfaction” and “uncertainty about how to choose the right career” — and frames the problem:

Never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles, and been so unsure what to do about it. Most surveys in the West reveal that at least half the workforce are unhappy in their jobs. One cross-European study showed that 60 per cent of workers would choose a different career if they could start again. In the United States, job satisfaction is at its lowest level — 45 per cent — since record-keeping began over two decades ago.

Of course, Krznaric points out, there’s plenty of cynicism and skepticism to go around, with people questioning whether it’s even possible to find a job in which we thrive and feel complete. He offers an antidote to the default thinking:

There are two broad ways of thinking about these questions. The first is the ‘grin and bear it’ approach. This is the view that we should get our expectations under control and recognize that work, for the vast majority of humanity — including ourselves — is mostly drudgery and always will be. Forget the heady dream of fulfillment and remember Mark Twain’s maxim. “Work is a necessary evil to be avoided.” … The history is captured in the word itself. The Latin labor means drudgery or toil, while the French travail derives from the tripalium, an ancient Roman instrument of torture made of three sticks. … The message of the ‘grin and bear it’ school of thought is that we need to accept the inevitable and put up with whatever job we can get, as long as it meets our financial needs and leaves us enough time to pursue our ‘real life’ outside office hours. The best way to protect ourselves from all the optimistic pundits pedaling fulfillment is to develop a hardy philosophy of acceptance, even resignation, and not set our hearts on finding a meaningful career.

I am more hopeful than this, and subscribe to a different approach, which is that it is possible to find work that is life-enhancing, that broadens our horizons and makes us feel more human.

[…]

This is a book for those who are looking for a job that is big enough for their spirit, something more than a ‘day job’ whose main function is to pay the bills.

'Never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles, and been so unsure what to do about it.'

As we turn the corner of the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, Krznaric reminds us of the pivotal role the emancipation of women played in the conception of modern work culture:

If the expansion of public education was the main event in the story of career choice in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth it was the growing number of women who entered the paid workforce. In the US in 1950 around 30 per cent of women had jobs, but by the end of the century that figure had more than doubled, a pattern which was repeated throughout the West. This change partly resulted from the struggle for the vote and the legitimacy gained from doing factory work in two World Wars. Perhaps more significant was the impact of the pill. Within just fifteen years of its invention in 1955, over twenty million women were using oral contraceptives, with more than ten million using the coil. By gaining more control over their own bodies, women now had greater scope to pursue their chosen professions without the interruption of unwanted pregnancy and childbearing. However, this victory for women’s liberation has been accompanied by severe dilemmas for both women and men as they attempt to find a balance between the demands of family life and their career ambitions.

Another culprit Krznaric points to in the stymying of our ability to find a calling is the industrial model of education:

The way that education can lock us into careers, or at least substantially direct the route we travel, would not be so problematic if we were excellent judges of our future interests and characters. But we are not. When you were 16, or even in your early twenties, how much did you know about what kind of career would stimulate your mind and offer a meaningful vocation? Did you even know the range of jobs that were out there? Most of us lack the experience of life — and of ourselves — to make a wise decision at that age, even with the help of well-meaning career advisers.

Krznaric considers the five keys to making a career meaningful — earning money, achieving status, making a difference, following our passions, and using our talents — but goes on to demonstrate that they aren’t all created equal. In particular, he echoes 1970s Zen pioneer Alan Watts and modern science in arguing that money alone is a poor motivator:

Schopenhauer may have been right that the desire for money is widespread, but he was wrong on the issue of equating money with happiness. Overwhelming evidence has emerged in the last two decades that the pursuit of wealth is an unlikely path to achieving personal wellbeing — the ancient Greek ideal of eudaimonia or ‘the good life.’ The lack of any clear positive relationship between rising income and rising happiness has become one of the most powerful findings in the modern social sciences. Once our income reaches an amount that covers our basic needs, further increases add little, if anything, to our levels of life satisfaction.

The second false prophet of fulfillment, as Y-Combinator Paul Graham has poignantly cautioned and Debbie Millman has poetically articulated, is prestige. Krznaric admonishes:

We can easily find ourselves pursuing a career that society considers prestigious, but which we are not intrinsically devoted to ourselves — one that does not fulfill us on a day-to-day basis.

Krznaric pits respect, which he defines as “being appreciated for what we personally bring to a job, and being valued for our individual contribution,” as the positive counterpart to prestige and status, arguing that “in our quest for fulfilling work, we should seek a job that offers not just good status prospects, but good respect prospects.”

Rather than hoping to create a harmonious union between the pursuit of money and values, we might have better luck trying to combine values with talents. This idea comes courtesy of Aristotle, who is attributed with saying, ‘Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.’

Krznaric quotes the French writer François-René de Chateaubriand, who wrote over a century ago:

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, arms stretched out wide, is the quintessential symbol of the Renaissance wide achiever.

And yet, Krznaric argues, a significant culprit in our vocational dissatisfaction is the fact that the Industrial Revolution ushered in a cult of specialization, leading us to believe that the best way to be successful is to become an expert in a narrow field. Like Buckminster Fuller, who famously admonished against specialization, Krznaric cautions that this cult robs us of an essential part of being human: the fluidity of character and our multiple selves:

Specialization may be all well very well if you happen to have skills particularly suited to these jobs, or if you are passionate about a niche area of work, and of course there is also the benefit of feeling pride in being considered an expert. But there is equally the danger of becoming dissatisfied by the repetition inherent in many specialist professions. … Moreover, our culture of specialization conflicts with something most of us intuitively recognize, but which career advisers are only beginning to understand: we each have multiple selves. … We have complex, multi-faceted experiences, interests, values and talents, which might mean that we could also find fulfillment as a web designer, or a community police officer, or running an organic cafe.

This is a potentially liberating idea with radical implications. It raises the possibility that we might discover career fulfillment by escaping the confines of specialization and cultivating ourselves as wide achievers … allowing the various petals of our identity to fully unfold.

Krznaric advocates for finding purpose as an active aspiration rather than a passive gift:

“Without work, all life goes rotten, but when work is soulless, life stifles and dies,” wrote Albert Camus. Finding work with a soul has become one of the great aspirations of our age. … We have to realize that a vocation is not something we find, it’s something we grow — and grow into.

It is common to think of a vocation as a career that you somehow feel you were “meant to do.” I prefer a different definition, one closer to the historical origins of the concept: a vocation is a career that not only gives you fulfillment — meaning, flow, freedom — but that also has a definitive goal or a clear purpose to strive for attached to it, which drives your life and motivates you to get up in the morning.

And yet fulfilling work doesn’t come from the path of least resistance. He cites from Viktor Frankl’s famous treatise on the meaning of life:

What man actually needs is not some tension-less state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.

Marie Curie didn't find her vocation. She grew it.

For a perfect example, Krznaric points to reconstructionist Marie Curie:

Curie was absolutely committed to her career. She lived an almost monastic lifestyle in her early years in Paris, surviving on nothing but buttered bread and tea for weeks at a time, which left her anemic and regularly fainting from hunger. She shunned her growing fame, had no interest in material comforts, preferring to live in a virtually unfurnished home: status and money mattered little to her. When a relative offered to buy her a wedding dress, she insisted that “if you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.” Before her death in 1934, aged 67, she summed up her philosophy of work: “Life is not easy for any of us,” she said. “But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”

But while Curie’s career embodies the essential elements of meaning — she employed her intellectual talents in the direction of her passion for science, which she pursued with “Aristotelean sense of purpose” — Krznaric debunks the eureka! myth of genius and points out that Curie’s rise to vocational fulfillment was incremental, as she allowed her mind to remain open rather than closed in on her specialization, recognizing the usefulness of useless knowledge:

Marie Curie never had [a] miraculous moment of insight, when she knew that she must dedicate her working life to researching the properties of radioactive materials. What really occurred was that this goal quietly crept up on her during years of sustained scientific research. … Her obsession grew in stages, without any Tannoy announcement from the heavens that issued her a calling. That’s the way it typically happens: although people occasionally have those explosive epiphanies, more commonly a vocation crystallizes slowly, almost without us realizing it.

So there is no great mystery behind it all. If we want a job that is also a vocation, we should not passively wait around for it to appear out of thin air. Instead we should take action and endeavor to grow it like Marie curie. How? Simply by devoting ourselves to work that gives us deep fulfillment through meaning, flow and freedom. … Over time, a tangible and inspiring goal may quietly germinate, grow larger, and eventually flower into life.

A quick yet disproportionately enriching read, How to Find Fulfilling Work is excellent in its entirety. Complement it with this timelessly wonderful 1949 guide to avoiding work.

Excerpted from How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric. Copyright © 2012 by The School of Life. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. Reprinted by arrangement with Picador.

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17 APRIL, 2013

The Art of Conversation: Timeless, Timely Do’s and Don’ts from 1866

By:

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

Manners today are often seen as a quaint subject that belongs in Lord Chesterfield’s outlandish advice on the art of pleasing or Esquire‘s dated guide to dating. But in a culture where we regularly do online what we’d never do in person and behave offline in ways our grandparents wouldn’t have dared dream of even in their most defiant fantasies, there’s something to be said for the lost art of, if not “manners,” politeness and simple respect in communication. Though originally published in 1866, Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness (public library; public domain; free Kindle download) by Arthur Martine contains a treasure trove of timeless — and increasingly timely — pointers on the necessary art of living up to our social-animal destiny.

Martine contextualizes his mission:

Politeness has been defined as an “artificial good-nature;” but it would be better said that good-nature is natural politeness. It inspires us with an unremitting attention, both to please others and to avoid giving them offense. Its code is a ceremonial, agreed upon and established among mankind, to give each other external testimonies of friendship or respect. Politeness and etiquette form a sort of supplement to the law, which enables society to protect itself against offenses which the law cannot touch. For instance, the law cannot punish a man for habitually staring at people in an insolent and annoying manner, but etiquette can banish such an offender from the circles of good society, and fix upon him the brand of vulgarity. Etiquette consists in certain forms, ceremonies, and rules which the principle of politeness establishes and enforces for the regulation of the manners of men and women in their intercourse with each other.

[…]

The true aim of politeness, is to make those with whom you associate as well satisfied with themselves as possible. … Politeness is a sort of social benevolence, which avoids wounding the pride, or shocking the prejudices of those around you.

But he offers an important disclaimer:

[Politeness] must be cultivated, for the promptings of nature are eminently selfish, and courtesy and good-breeding are only attainable by effort and discipline. But even courtesy has limits where dignity should govern it, for when carried to excess, particularly in manner, it borders on sycophancy, which is almost as despicable as rudeness. To overburden people with attention; to render them uncomfortable with a prodigality of proffered services; to insist upon obligations which they do not desire, is not only to render yourself disagreeable, but contemptible.

Among Martine’s most timeless advice are his guidelines on the art of conversation, to which an entire section of the book is dedicated. He begins:

As the object of conversation is pleasure and improvement, those subjects only which are of universal interest can be made legitimate topics of pleasantry or discussion. And it is the gift of expressing thoughts and fancies in a quick, brilliant, and graceful manner on such topics,—of striking out new ideas, eliciting the views and opinions of others, of attaching the interest of all to the subject discussed, giving it, however trifling in itself, weight and importance in the estimation of the hearers, that constitutes the great talent for conversation. But this talent can never, we may safely aver, be displayed except in a good cause, and when conversation is carried on in a spirit of genuine charity and benevolence.

He offers a few pointers:

  1. Know when not to speak:
  2. The power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse; and those who cannot preserve it, have really no business to speak. … The silence that, without any deferential air, listens with polite attention, is more flattering than compliments, and more frequently broken for the purpose of encouraging others to speak, than to display the listener’s own powers. This is the really eloquent silence. It requires great genius—more perhaps than speaking—and few are gifted with the talent…

  3. Mind the rudeness of laconic response:
  4. Never give short or sharp answers in ordinary conversation, unless you aspire to gain distinction by mere rudeness; for they have in fact no merit, and are only uncivil. “I do not know,” “I cannot tell,” are the most harmless words possible, and may yet be rendered very offensive by the tone and manner in which they are pronounced. Never reply, in answer to a question like the following, “Did Mrs. Spitewell tell you how Miss Rosebud’s marriage was getting on?” “I did not ask.” It is almost like saying, I never ask impertinent questions, though you do; we learn plenty of things in the world without having first inquired about them. If you must say, you did not ask, say, that “you forgot to ask,” “neglected it,” or “did not think of it.” We can always be ordinarily civil, even if we cannot always be absolutely wise.

  5. Don’t be a self-righteous contrarian:
  6. Leave quibbling of every kind to lawyers pleading at the bar for the life of a culprit; in society and conversation it is invariably out of place, unless when Laughter is going his merry round. At all other times it is a proof of bad breeding.

He then goes on to outline a cautionary taxonomy of “bores” and other ill-mannered conversation archetypes, diagnosing the specific downfall of each:

  1. The loud talker, who “silences a whole party by his sole power of lungs”:
  2. All subjects are alike to him; he speaks on every topic with equal fluency, is never at a loss, quotes high authority for every assertion, and allows no one else to utter a word; he silences, without the least ceremony, every attempt at interruption, however cleverly managed. … Great, and especially loud and positive talkers, have been denounced by all writers on manners as shallow and superficial persons.

  3. The excessive life-sharer, whom you no doubt know well from your Facebook timeline:
  4. [This is] the man who gives an account of his dogs, horses, lands, books, and pictures. Whatever is his, must, he thinks, interest others; and listen they must, however resolutely they may attempt to change the current of his discourse.

    Women of this class are sometimes too fond of praising their children. It is no doubt an amiable weakness; but I would still advise them to indulge as little as possible in the practice; for however dear the rosy-cheeked, curly-headed prattlers may be to them, the chances are, that others will vote the darlings to be great bores; you that have children, never speak of them in company.

  5. The clever bore “takes up every idle speech, to show his wisdom at a cheap rate”:
  6. The grave expounder of truisms belongs to this class. He cannot allow the simplest conversation to go on, without entering into proofs and details familiar to every child nine years of age; and the tenor of his discourse, however courteous in terms and manner, pays you the very indifferent compliment, of supposing that you have fallen from some other planet, in total and absolute ignorance of the most ordinary and every-day things connected with this little world of ours. All foreigners are particularly great at this style of boring.

  7. The indifferent or apathetic bore parades his inattentiveness in your face:
  8. If he refrains from the direct and absolute rudeness of yawning in your face, [he] shows, by short and drawling answers, given at fits and starts, and completely at variance with the object of the conversation, that he affects at least a total indifference to the party present, and to the subject of discourse. In society, the absent man is uncivil; he who affects to be so, is rude and vulgar. All persons who speak of their ailings, diseases, or bodily infirmities, are offensive bores. Subjects of this sort should be addressed to doctors, who are paid for listening to them, and to no one else. Bad taste is the failing of these bores.

  9. The lingering bore who overstays his welcome:
  10. [These are] the ladies and gentlemen who pay long visits, and who, meeting you at the door prepared to sally forth, keep you talking near the fire till the beauty of the day is passed; and then take their leave, “hoping they have not detained you.” Bad feeling or want of tact here predominates.

  11. The hobby-riders, who sound like a broken record:
  12. [They] constantly speak on the same eternal subject [and] bore you at all times and at all hours, whether you are in health or in sickness, in spirits or in sorrow, with the same endless topic, must not be overlooked in our list; though it is sufficient to denounce them. Their failing is occasioned by a total want of judgment.

  13. The Malaprops, with their special gift for choosing the least appropriate topics of conversation:
  14. A numerous and unhappy family [who] are constantly addressing the most unsuitable speeches to individuals or parties. To the blind they will speak of fine pictures and scenery; and will entertain a person in deep mourning with the anticipated pleasures of to-morrow’s ball. A total want of ordinary thought and observation, is the general cause of the Malaprop failing.

  15. The egotistical bore, who stifles with his vanity:
  16. It is truly revolting, indeed, to approach the very Boa-constrictor of good society; the snake who comes upon us, not in the natural form of a huge, coarse, slow reptile, but Proteus-like, in a thousand different forms; though all displaying at the first sight the boa-bore, ready to slime over every subject of discourse with the vile saliva of selfish vanity. Pah! it is repulsive even to speak of the species, numerous, too, as the sands along the shore.

Martine adds an admonition against talking too much by way of Jonathan Swift, who observed:

Nothing is more generally exploded than the folly of talking too much; yet I rarely remember to have seen five people together, where some one among them hath not been predominant in that kind, to the great constraint and disgust of all the rest. But among such as deal in multitudes of words, none are comparable to the sober, deliberate talker, who proceedeth with much thought and caution, maketh his preface, brancheth out into several digressions, findeth a hint that putteth him in mind of another story, which he promises to tell you when this is done, cometh back regularly to his subject, cannot readily call to mind some person’s name, holdeth his head, complaineth of his memory; the whole company all this while in suspense; at last says, it is no matter, and so goes on. And to crown the business, it perhaps proveth at last a story the company has heard fifty times before, or at best some insipid adventure of the relater.

He then offers his own counsel on striking the right balance:

In conversation there must be, as in love and in war, some hazarding, some rattling on; nor need twenty falls affect you, so long as you take cheerfulness and good humor for your guides; but the careful and measured conversation just described is always, though perfectly correct, extremely dull and tedious — a vast blunder from first to last.

Martine quotes La Bruyère:

The great charm of conversation consists less in the display of one’s own wit and intelligence, than in the power to draw forth the resources of others; he who leaves you after a long conversation, pleased with himself and the part he has taken in the discourse, will be your warmest admirer. Men do not care to admire you, they wish you to be pleased with them; they do not seek for instruction or even amusement from your discourse, but they do wish you to be made acquainted with their talents and powers of conversation; and the true man of genius will delicately make all who come in contact with him feel the exquisite satisfaction of knowing that they have appeared to advantage.

Of the vanity of knowledge — which makes it tempting to learn to talk about books you haven’t read — Martine observes:

No, no, let us not deceive ourselves; we never want subjects of conversation; but we often want the knowledge how to treat them; above all, how to bring them forward in a graceful and pleasing manner.

He then recapitulates the essence of the art of conversation:

Cheerfulness, unaffected cheerfulness, a sincere desire to please and be pleased, unchecked by any efforts to shine, are the qualities you must bring with you into society, if you wish to succeed in conversation. … a light and airy equanimity of temper,—that spirit which never rises to boisterousness, and never sinks to immovable dullness; that moves gracefully from “grave to gay, from serious to serene,” and by mere manner gives proof of a feeling heart and generous mind.

The chapter ends with some “general rules for conversation,” in which Martine presents a selection of do’s and don’ts. Here is a synthesis of his most salient points:

  1. Don’t correct your conversation partner or go on righteousness crusades. It is a sign of, at best, vanity or, at worst, sheer rudeness to force your opinion on another.
  2. Reproof is a medicine like mercury or opium; if it be improperly administered, with report either to the adviser or the advised, it will do harm instead of good.

    If a man is telling that which is as old as the hills, or which you believe to be false, the better way is to let him go on. Why should you refuse a man the pleasure of believing that he is telling you something which you never heard before? Besides, by refusing to believe him, or by telling him that his story is old, you not only mortify him, but the whole company is made uneasy, and, by sympathy, share his mortification.

    It is bad manners to satirize lawyers in the presence of lawyers, or doctors in the presence of one of that calling, and so of all the professions. Nor should you rail against bribery and corruption in the presence of politicians, (especially of a New York politician,) or members of Congress, as they will have good reason to suppose that you are hinting at them. It is the aim of politeness to leave the arena of social intercourse untainted with any severity of language, or bitterness of feeling.

    Whenever the lady or gentleman with whom you are discussing a point, whether of love, war, science or politics, begins to sophisticate, drop the subject instantly. Your adversary either wants the ability to maintain his opinion,– and then it would be uncivil to press it — or he wants the still more useful ability to yield the point with unaffected grace and good-humor; or what is also possible, his vanity is in some way engaged in defending views on which he may probably have acted, so that to demolish his opinions is perhaps to reprove his conduct, and no well-bred man goes into society for the purpose of sermonizing.

    To reprove with success, the following circumstances are necessary, viz.: mildness, secrecy, intimacy, and the esteem of the person you would reprove.

  3. Be selective. Novelist William Gibson has stressed the importance of a “personal micro-culture”. Susan Sontag wrote in her diary that she’s only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation. Artist Austin Kleon has astutely argued that “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.” Martine suggests the same is true of selecting your conversation company:
  4. If you have been once in company with an idle person, it is enough. You need never go again. You have heard all he knows. And he has had no opportunity of learning anything new. For idle people make no improvements.

    Don’t give your time to every superficial acquaintance: it is bestowing what is to you of inestimable worth, upon one who is not likely to be the better for it.

  5. Keep your commitments but give those who fail to keep theirs the benefit of the doubt:
  6. Be careful of your word, even in keeping the most trifling appointment. But do not blame another for a failure of that kind, till you have heard his excuse.

  7. Be mindful of your audience and don’t parade your knowledge before those less learned:
  8. All local wits, all those whose jests are understood only within the range of their own circle or coterie, are decided objectionables in general society. It is the height of ill-breeding, in fact, to converse, or jest, on subjects that are not perfectly understood by the party at large; it is a species of rude mystification, as uncivil as whispering, or as speaking in language that may not be familiar to some of the party. But you must not make a fool of yourself, even if others show themselves deficient in good manners; and must not, like inflated simpletons, fancy yourself the object of every idle jest you do not understand, or of every laugh that chance may have called forth. Ladies and gentlemen feel that they are neither laughed at nor ridiculed.

    In society, the object of conversation is of course entertainment and improvement, and it must, therefore, be adapted to the circle in which it is carried on, and must be neither too high nor too deep for the party at large, so that every one may contribute his share, just at his pleasure, and to the best of his ability.

    A gentleman will, by all means, avoid showing his learning and accomplishments in the presence of ignorant and vulgar people, who can, by no possibility, understand or appreciate them. It is a pretty sure sign of bad breeding to set people to staring and feeling uncomfortable.

    In a mixed company, never speak to your friend of a matter which the rest do not understand, unless it is something which you can explain to them, and which may be made interesting to the whole party.

    Do not endeavor to shine in all companies. Leave room for your hearers to imagine something within you beyond all you have said.

    Think like the wise; but talk like ordinary people. Never go out of the common road, but for somewhat.

    Put yourself on the same level as the person to whom you speak, and under penalty of being considered a pedantic idiot, refrain from explaining any expression or word that you may use.

  9. Omission isn’t lying, it’s politeness. (Here we might disagree with Martine.) Learn to evade.
  10. You need not tell all the truth, unless to those who have a right to know it all. But let all you tell be truth.

  11. Say “yes” whenever possible. When you say “no,” do so firmly:
  12. If a favor is asked of you, grant it, if you can. If not, refuse it in such a manner, as that one denial may be sufficient.

  13. Let your opinion change — advice particularly apt in today’s hasty culture where not having an opinion is considered an embarrassment; seek to understand rather than to be right, and don’t be a know-it-all:
  14. Fools pretend to foretell what will be the issue of things, and are laughed at for their awkward conjectures. Wise men, being aware of the uncertainty of human affairs, and having observed how small a matter often produces a great change, are modest in their conjectures.

    Reflect upon the different appearances things make to you from what they did some years ago, and don’t imagine that your opinion will never alter, because you are extremely positive at present. Let the remembrance of your past changes of sentiment make you more flexible.

    In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.

    Give your opinion modestly, but freely; hear that of others with candor; and ever endeavor to find out, and to communicate truth.

    It is an advantage to have concealed one’s opinion. For by that means you may change your judgment of things (which every wise man finds reason to do) and not be accused of fickleness.

  15. Don’t be pretentious and do away with affectation:
  16. Avoid the habit of employing French words in English conversation; it is extremely bad taste to be always using such expressions as ci-devant, soi-disant, en masse, couleur de rose, etc. Do not salute your acquaintances with bon jour, nor reply to every proposition, volontiers.

    There is an affected humility more insufferable than downright pride, as hypocrisy is more abominable than libertinism. Take care that your virtues be genuine and unsophisticated.

    If you can express yourself to be perfectly understood in ten words, never use a dozen. Go not about to prove, by a long series of reasoning, what all the world is ready to own.

    You will please so much the less, if you go into company determined to shine. Let your conversation appear to rise out of thoughts suggested by the occasion, not strained or premeditated: nature always pleases: affectation is always odious.

  17. Practice genuine humility and avoid arrogance:
  18. Nothing is more nauseous than apparent self-sufficiency. For it shows the company two things, which are extremely disagreeable: that you have a high opinion of yourself, and that you have comparatively a mean opinion of them.

    The modest man is seldom the object of envy.

    If you are really a wit, remember that in conversation its true office consists more in finding it in others, than showing off a great deal of it yourself. He who goes out of your company pleased with himself is sure to be pleased with you.

Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness is a treat in its entirety. It’s available as a free download in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg, or as a cleaned up and formatted free Kindle book.

Public domain photographs via The Library of Congress

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