Who is Miss Abigail?

Abigail Grotke
Silver Spring, MD
email: missabigail at missabigail dot com
twitter: @DearMissAbigail

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Miss Abigail has a collection of over 1,000 classic advice books, spanning from 1822 to 1978 and covering a variety of topics, from love and romance to etiquette and charm. The collection sparked the idea for this site, then a book, Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, and Marriage, which has inspired an Off-Broadway production of the same name!


Posts Tagged ‘conversation’

Making Conversation

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

why not just relax?Q Dear Miss Abigail:

I’ve noticed lately that I have a problem talking about things when I get introduced. I never know the proper response, and end up saying something dumb that doesn’t make any sense. Could you give me some advice on making conversation?


A Dear Michelle:

You are not alone, my dear. Personally, I have an awful times with names. Sometimes I don’t even try to remember them ~ it’s no use! And I know someone who pretends to sneeze in the event of a lull in the conversation, and countless friends who prefer to stay huddled in the corner at a rockin’ party rather than mingle with strangers.

Never fear, Vera Bloom (aka “the Entertaining Lady”) has a bit of advice for us all.

1949: Conversation

When you stop to think of it, the really great talkers and great wits have been so rare that, in nearly three centuries of conversation both here and in England, there are few we remember besides Dr. Johnson, Sidney Smith, Oscar Wilde, Whistler, Oliver Herford, Shaw, Alexander Woollcott, and Dorothy Parker. Why not just relax, and console ourselves with the though that wit is a very dangerous possession after all, especially for a woman. For in either talk or letters, wit and tact rarely go together, and the woman who lets her tongue rule her heart can hardly be surprised when she makes enemies right and left. No one likes to be a target ~ except for Cupid’s darts! So be gay and entertaining if you can; be witty if you must.

Of course there are as many kinds of conversation as there are kinds of people and kinds of situations they find themselves in. All of us grope for things to talk about in casual contacts ~ it’s only with tried and true friends, or in the friendly relaxation of good shop talk, that people can really lose themselves in their enthusiasms.

But in any situation simplicity, being yourself, and really hearing the person you’re talking to, instead of wasting your energy worrying about what impression you’re making, will do more toward making you a good conversationalist than all the high-pressure charm hints that have ever been given.

The good conversationalist is always a constructive listener. She is altruistic enough to be willing and able to make the other person feel more important than herself, which means that she is willing and able to fish around among a stranger’s or an acquaintance’s interests until she gets an enthusiastic nibble on her conversational bait.

Source: Bloom, Vera. The Entertaining Lady: An Informal Guide to Good Living. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1949.
~ pp. 192-93 ~

When and How to Tell Jokes

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

don't giggle all the way throughThat Estelle Hunter. She sure is a crack-up in her Personality Development, Unit Three: Voice and Expression. I mean, that salesman joke ~ hilarious!

1939: When and How to Tell Jokes

It is not unusual for a group to spend an hour or more in exchanging jokes or stories, but such conversation soon becomes wearisome and ceases to please. Don’t add your story unless it is better than any that have been told and you are sure that too many have not already been related. Remember that any story should be told only if it is interesting, if it is relevant, if it is in good taste, and if it has a good point.

Don’t laugh at your own joke, at least until everyone else has shown that he liked it. Don’t giggle all the way through a story or laugh before you come to the point. Don’t lose the point of the story as did a young woman who said to her brother:

“You’re a salesman so you’ll like this story. A salesman came into his office at night and someone asked him how he felt. He said ‘Pretty independent; I didn’t sell anyone anything today.'””You mean,” replied her brother, “that he said, ‘I didn’t take orders from anyone today.'”

When you have told a story successfully, don’t tempt Fate by telling another immediately. Turn the spotlight of attention on someone else by saying, for example, “John, what was the story about your guide in Italy last year? That was even more amusing than my experience.”

If John doesn’t tell his story exactly as you think he should, don’t correct him or attempt to add details. It is his story. Courtesy demands that you let him tell it as he will.

Source: Hunter, Estelle B. Personality Development, Unit Three: Voice and Expression. Chicago: The Better-Speech Institute of America, 1939.
~ pp. 82-83 ~

How To Cultivate an Agreeable Speech

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

twangslurshoutburr!In 1945, Emily Post’s etiquette book offers pages of advice on words, phrases, and pronunciation. Read this selection carefully, and make sure you enunciate!

1945: How To Cultivate an Agreeable Speech

The often-heard expression, “You know she is a lady as soon as she opens her mouth,” is not an exaggeration. The first requirement for charm of speech is a pleasing voice. A few singing lessons ~ even though you have no gift for music and will never sing a note ~ are of inestimable value in teaching you to place your speaking voice and in teaching you to breathe. A low voice ~ low in pitch, not in range ~ is always more pleasing than one forced up against the ceiling and apparently let out through a steam-vent in the roof! On the other hand, a voice uttered with so little strength that it threatens to be extinguished or so low as to be heard with effort is even more trying. Making yourself heard is chiefly a matter of enunciation; if you breathe properly and pronounce distinctly, a low voice carries well and delights a sensitive ear. Few people with loud voices have any idea that their steam-whistle screaming is not only ear-splitting but, in public, extremely bad form, as it attracts the attention of everyone within shouting radius.

As a nation we do not talk so much too fast, as too loud. Tens of thousands twang and slur and shout and burr! Many of us drawl and many others of us race tongues and breath at full speed, but, as already said, the speed of our speech does not matter so much. Pitch of voice matters very much, and so do pronunciation and enunciation, both of which are absolutely essential to the comfort of the listener.

Source: Post, Emily. Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company,1945.
~ p. 38 ~

Is it Forward for a Girl to Call a Boy?

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

brothers and sisters may teaseQ Dear Miss Abigail:

Is it forward for a girl to call a boy on the telephone just for the sake of conversation?


A Dear Jon:

The results are in, and it appears that us girls should call you boys only if there is a dire emergency. Well, maybe it isn’t that severe, but my advice to all young women out there is this: I wouldn’t fool around if I were you. Use that phone very carefully.

1956: If a Girl Must Telephone a Boy

In a poll of high-school boys more than two-thirds said that they do not like to have girls call them on the telephone. They feel that this is a boy’s privilege, and that a girl seems forward when she phones a boy. They furthermore report that their families tease them about the girls who call them up at home.

Yet there may be times when a girl really must call a boy with an urgent message, to give him an invitation, or to make a request that cannot wait until she next sees him. When such a call is necessary, the girl must be unusually careful to observe the expected telephone courtesies. She should protect both the boy and herself from embarrassment by keeping her call short, and not telephoning him too often.

Source: Duvall, Evelyn Millis. Facts of Life and Love for Teen-Agers. New York: Association Press, 1956.
~ p. 136 ~

1963: When Does a Girl Call a Boy?

Any time there’s a change of plans, any time she has important news, any time she wants to ask him to a party. But not just any time. A boy you see a great deal may ask you to call him now and then, but be wary: if you call often, young brothers and sisters may tease him about it; parents, possibly taught that girls never call boys, may be sharp-tongued about your excessive interest in their son. If this keeps up, girl may lose boy. You can also call a boy when he’s phoned and left a message for you to return his call. (That doesn’t happen often.)

Source: Haupt, Enid H. The Seventeen Book of Etiquette & Entertaining. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1963.
~ p. 132 ~

Boys, in 500 Words or Less

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

rough and readyQ Dear Miss Abigail:

What is the best way or sentence to sum up boys between the ages of thirteen and fifteen?


A Dear Meg:

Golly gee whiz, Miss Meg. You’re assignment is hard! I couldn’t find just one sentence to answer your question, so I’m going to ramble on a bit. Here is more than you ever wanted to know about teen boys, from authors Frances Bruce Strain, Harold Shyrock, Frank Howard Richardson, and Ellen Peck. Do I get an A?

1946: The Art of Conversation

Boys say, ‘Girl’s can’t talk about anything but their hair and clothes,’ or they say, ‘They gossip about other girls and other fellows. It makes you uncomfortable.’ If you listen to the talk of girls on the street or bus or in a tearoom you are inclined to agree with the boys.

Boys talk about athletics, school affairs, their jobs outside of school, about their hobbies, their clubs, camp, today’s news, politics, movies, television, radio programs ~ everything. The detail a boy’s mind can carry is amazing. He is ready at the drop of a hat to talk on a hundred topics. The other day I chanced to inquire of a fifteen-year-old high-schooler about a certain radio program. he knew not only the programs, but the hours, the networks, the artists and even the daily theme or motive of every program in the week!

Source: Strain, Frances Bruce. Teen Days: A Book for Boys and Girls. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1946.
~ pp. 153-54 ~

1951: Secrets About Boys

A teen-age boy is masculine in his attitude and somewhat rough and ready in his relations to the outside world.

Source: Shryock, Harold. On Becoming a Woman. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1951.
~ p. 27 ~

1961: What About Petting?

‘Lots of the boys who try to make you pet don’t really want you to at all. They do it because they think it makes them look like real he-men. They are what I like to call “sheep in wolves” clothing.’

Source: “Janie” in Richardson, Frank Howard. For Young Adults Only: The Doctor Discusses Your Personal Problems. Atlanta, Ga.: Tupper and Love, 1961.
~ p. 57 ~

1969: What the Teen-Age Boy Is Like

Actually, a handy definition of a teen-age boy, as far as you’re concerned, is a guy who yearns after sharp girls and wants like crazy to avoid losers. Reason? Insecurity. A sharp girl ~ a real winner ~ is going to make him feel more secure and sharp himself. (‘If she likes me, I must really be somebody,’ he’s thinking.) And a loser is going to make him feel more insecure than ever. (‘If that’s all I can get, I must be nowhere,’ is the flip side of the coin.)

How does a guy decide who’s sharp and who’s a loser? Every girl, all by herself, tells him. Generally, without saying a word.

Source: Peck, Ellen. How to Get a Teen-Age Boy and What To Do With Him When You Get Him. New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1969.
~ p. 57 ~

What Do Those Boys Talk About?

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

it sure does buck me upThe premise in For Boys Only is that Dr. Frank Howard Richardson has been tasked with explaining “what happens to you, now that you are changing from a boy to a man. It explains how and why girls and women are different from boys and men. It helps you to understand why it is that you feel and act the way you do, sometimes. It makes it easier for you to get along with girls, and other fellows, and Dad.”

I stumbled across it when looking for the answer to another question, and just had to share it with you. Sit back, relax, and enjoy this little conversation, which just happens to take place on a boat.

1952: What Do Those Boys Talk About?

“Do you know, Doc, that’s exactly what was eating on me the other night, when I was out with those older guys and got myself into the spot I was so tense about when I came to your office. I didn’t really want to have anything to do with that skirt. As a matter of fact, she was actually sort of disgusting to me. But I didn’t want the others to think there was anything wrong with me, or that I was ‘queer,’ or that I couldn’t rate with the rest of them.

“So I just went ahead and acted like a fool. And all I got out of what I see now was just a fool stunt was several days of sure-enough mental hell, before you told me I hadn’t caught any disease but was just imagining things. A dollar will get you five that I won’t be that sort of a come-on again,” and Bill slid back down on the bottom of the boat with a sigh of relief at the mere recollection of his escape from his little private Hades.

“I hate ‘dating,'” volunteered Jack, hesitantly. “But it sure does buck me up, to have the other fellows hear girls I’ve been around with say I’ve got a cute line, or that I’m not peasant for a tot my size. It really builds me,” and Jack, who had been listening in silence up until now, stuck out his chin with a pleased expression of self-satisfaction at what he considered his “sharp” vocabulary, then added:

“But I sure straighten up and die when a deep-pocket wipes me just because he has a big car.”

“Deflate, hub cap. Stop acting so sophisticated, and talk plain American,” and Harry shoved the subdued Jack over on the thwart with his elbow, then remarked thoughtfully: “I wonder if you can’t help me with something else that’s bothering me ~ ”

“Maybe, so, Harry. But first, Jack, get for’ard and cut up some of that bait; and break out the fishing tackle, will you Bill? And for Pete’s sake, Harry, give me a crack at that wheel! I brought you loafers along to act as a crew, not for a lot of passengers to keep me from having a little bit of fun myself with my own ship. Get going, sailor,” and the doctor pushed Harry to one side, took over the wheel, and gave her the gun.

Source: Richardson, Frank Howard. For Boys Only: The Doctor Discuss the Mysteries of Manhood. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1952 (reprinted 1970).
~ pp. 74-75 ~

Be Courteous

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Hey kids, trying to figure out how to ask that cute girl out on a date? Follow this script and you’re sure to have success.she likes this invite

1967: Be Courteous

As you ask a girl for a date, you should indicate that you really want to go out with her. Courtesy is very important when asking, for if the girl finds you are not too courteous on the phone, she may assume you’re also discourteous on dates. A typical phone call for a date might be something like this:

MARY: Hello.

JIM: Hi, Mary, this is Jim Jones.

MARY: Hi, Jim, how are you?

JIM: Fine, thanks. Say, did you understand that problem in math today? I found it rather confusing.

MARY: I did too, but I eventually figured it out.

JIM: So did I. Say, Mary, Bob and Larry are taking Jean and Jane to the White Kar roller skating rink this Saturday ~ about seven o’clock. I’d like very much to take you, and we’d be home by ten. Would you like to go?

MARY: It sounds like fun! I’d love to go skating with you, Jim. I’ll expect you Saturday about seven.

JIM: Fine, see you then. Good-by, Mary.

MARY: Good-by.

This conversation was a great help to Mary. She knows everything she needs to know. Mary knows that Jim really wants to take her skating. She knows that she should dress casually, and that she should be ready by seven. She can tell her parents that she will be home by ten. This is the kind of invitation she likes to receive, because nothing is left up in the air. He told her who he was at once, instead of playing childish “Guess-who-this-is” games. No girl likes to admit that she doesn’t recognize a boy’s voice, yet many voices sound similar over the phone.

Mary’s parents like this approach too. They know just what they can expect without having to quiz Jim when he comes to pick her up for the date. They like to know where their daughter is going and with whom, but they hate to give a boy the third degree before a date ~ just as much as a boy hates to get it.

Jim also feels happy about this conversation. He knows that Mary will be dressed for skating, and that her parents understand about the arrangements. He can also tell his parents when to expect him home. Dates with arrangements agreed on ahead of time are more fun. You can look forward to your plans, rather than wonder what you’re going to do and whether you’ll be dressed appropriately.

Source: Duvall, Evelyn Millis. The Art of Dating. New York: Association Press, 1967.
~ pp. 76-77 ~

Conversation Etiquette from 1848

Monday, January 18th, 2010

“Be sparing of anecdote, and only resort to it when you have a good illustration of some subject, or a piece of information of general interest. Do not attempt to relate every particular; but seize upon the grand points. Never relate the same anecdote the second time to the same company.”

This tip comes from the 1848 itty bitty book (about 2 x 3 inches), A Hand-book of Etiquette for Gentlemen, penned by an unnamed “American Gentlemen.” Here are a few more miscellaneous conversation rules to keep in mind while posting on Facebook:

If you are a wit, do not let your witty remarks engross the whole conversation, as it wounds the self-love of your hearers, who also wish to be heard, and becomes excessively fatiguing.
Flattery is a powerful weapon in conversation; all are susceptible to it. It should be used skillfully, never direct, but inferred; better acted than uttered. Let it seem to be the unwitting and even the unwilling expression of genuine admiration, the honest expression of the feelings.
When conversing with young and gay women, do not discourse of metaphysics, but chat about the last fashion, the new opera or play, the last concert of novel, &c.; With single ladies past twenty-five, speak of literary matters, music, &c.;, and silently compliment them by a proper deference to their opinions. With married ladies, inquire about the health of their children, speak of their grace and beauty, &c.;
Never introduce your own affairs for the amusement of the company; such a discussion cannot be interesting to others, and the probability is that the most patient listener is a complete gossip, laying the foundation for some tale to make you appear ridiculous.

1880: Advice for the Senate Judiciary Committee

Sunday, January 15th, 2006

My hope is to occasionally use this space to share some short excerpts from the advice books, taking clues from the news or personal experiences, or if I just happen to find some fun things to share.

To kick it all off, I’ve located some tips that I think the Senate Judiciary Committee may have benefited from as they droned on and on, lecturing – I mean asking – Samuel Alito questions this week.

Avoid long arguments
Long arguments in general company, however entertaining to the disputants, are tiresome to the last degree to all others. You should always endeavor to prevent the conversation from dwelling to long upon one topic.

Interrupting a Person While Speaking
Never interrupt a person who is speaking. It has been aptly said that “if you interrupt a speaker in the middle of a sentence, you act almost as rudely as if, when walking with a companion, you were to thrust yourself before him, and stop his progress.”

Source: Ruth, John A. Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of the Best American Society. New York: Union Publishing House, 1880.

To see more advice from Miss Abigail, wander on over to my newly revamped browse and search pages.