The rules of gracious conversation, on Twitter and in real life


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tour_1Twitter is a genius tool for building your personal brand.

The downside, it seems, is that a whole mess of people can’t figure out what to say on it, which leads to a never-ending stream of articles on how to use the tool — which are then posted on Twitter.

Twitter users struggle with what sort of comment is OK (“Do I mention that my cat barfed on the sofa this morning? Or will that tarnish my professional image?”), how to get their tweets retweeted, how to manage a swelling Twitter feed, what to say, what not to say, and on and on.

A lot of the answers have their roots in the Rules of Real-Life Conversation. Just ask manners doyenne Letitia Baldrige.

Letitia Baldrige (courtesy of the J.F.K. Library)

Letitia Baldrige (courtesy of the J.F.K. Library)

I doubt Tish even knows what Twitter is, but recently she and I were having lunch at Four Seasons and talking about how to be gracious in real life, and we kept circling back to the fact that, ultimately, it’s mostly about connecting with your community. (And isn’t that what Twitter is about?)

A little background: Letitia is best known as Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary and chief of staff during the White House years. But she has also been a lot of other things, such as the first female executive at Tiffany & Co. and a special assistant to Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce in Rome.

So, what can we learn about using Twitter from someone who grew up during the Depression? As it turns out, plenty.

Here’s how to be conversationally gracious, whether you’re doing it on Twitter or IRL (in real life):

Invite someone over. On Twitter, it looks like this: Right now Kirtsy is inviting folks to come to their deliciously free Hands On Kirtsy sessions across the U.S. And Pamela Slim, author of Escape From Cubicle Nation is tweeting about a free coaching call she’s offering today.

In real life, obviously, you can simply invite someone to your home. “We don’t entertain enough,” Tish says. “Just having somebody over for a hamburger is a gift.

“I lived in a home where my parents had people over all the time — even in the ’30s when my father was a flat-broke, young lawyer, being paid in eggs and chickens.”

Give a compliment. Retweeting is an easy way to make someone feel fascinating. You also see Twitter users giving shout-outs to one another for great blog posts or other achievements.

In real life, Tish says, we should deliver unexpected, uplifting messages. And she realizes that most of us are going to do this via email, rather than in person. She suggests this as an example: “You didn’t see me, but I saw you on the street today. I’ve never seen anyone bounce back from an operation so beautifully. You looked terrific!”

“Those kind of messages — unexpected, undemanded — just make life worthwhile,” she says.

Make newcomers feel welcome. You see this all the time in Twitterland. “Welcome my friend @johndoe! He’s new to Twitter.”

Tish believes people used to be better at this in her day (the ’30s and ’40s). Her theory: Parents have gotten lax about teaching and enforcing manners. When she was a child, her parents made Tish and her two siblings sit in the room with the grownups who came over for cocktails, and to chit-chat with them for 30 minutes.

“In the beginning it was tiresome and horrible, and then we started to really look forward to it. Except for having to get dressed up properly.

“That’s graciousness. It’s the way of saying hello to people, the way of greeting them, the way of picking out of the room the person who’s alone and having a tough time, who is obviously shy and just hating every minute, and going over and saying a couple of sentences. That person will be able to get through the whole party because of that little gesture on the part of the person who feels secure at that moment.”

Listen. “We’ve got to start listening,” says Tish, and at this point she’s ranting over our salads at the Four Seasons. “Not to our iPods and our BlackBerrys and our Raspberrys and Blueberrys. But to each other. Be interested in something other than yourself.”

Social media should be two-way. Too many times, it sounds like a bunch of people shouting from their desktops. But gracious Twitter conversation is about taking time to weigh in, when someone asks a question or needs help, or simply commiserating with someone who’s having a tough day.

Here’s one of Tish’s “back in the day” stories that resonated with me:

“During World War II, I remember there was a widow in northwest Washington, who had two stars on the flag hanging in her front window. That means you’ve lost two children. Then one day there were three stars on the flag. And people noticed it, and they went up and rang the doorbell. I remember that time. This was just a lady in northwest Washington, a nobody in a row house. But the flag. They noticed the flag, the people who walked to work every day. So they went up to pay their condolences to an absolute stranger.

“That’s the way we were.”

[P.S. For the record, I just heard from a mutual friend that Tish does, in fact, know what Twitter is.]

Related posts:

  1. Two little words worth writing often
  2. Why having good conversations is more important than ever
  3. It’s a new week. Who are you going to meet?
  4. What a mentor can teach you
  5. What’d I miss? Tracking online conversations

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  1. Jennifer H.’s avatar

    Great advice — love how you made long-held standards of conversational graciousness so relevant for present day. (Lets hope we all take notice!)

    Just wondering about the source(s)/attribution for the Baldridge quotes. All one book? (I read through the post several times but can’t find it/them.) Thanks.

  2. Robert Dagnall’s avatar

    Alice,

    Nice article on a timely but often overlooked subject: given the amazing tools we have to communicate, how do we use them properly? I wonder if the arts of letter-writing and gracious communication might see a resurgence.

    Then again, Twitter lets me put my foot in my mouth in real time before an audience of hundreds, which is fun :)

    Robert

  3. Alice Bumgarner’s avatar

    Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for the good words! And, yes, I definitely believe the same standards apply to all these conversations.

    The Baldrige quotes came directly from her, over lunch at Four Seasons, not from a book. Perhaps I should make that clearer in the post. I appreciate your pointing that out!

    Alice

  4. Jennifer H.’s avatar

    Wow, Alice. My sister and I are long-time LB fans. And Tish at the Four Seasons? That’s even cooler! (I’m sure it wasn’t at all daunting to conduct an interview while also having to display impeccable table manners.) :-)

    I guess you do sort of say it — “recently we were talking about how to be gracious in real life…” — but I assumed the “we” was referring to your chatting with a group of your friends or some such.

    Again, great material. Looking forward to spending some more time poking around your blog in the near future…

  5. tish jett’s avatar

    Alice,

    I adore the way you nonchalantly throw in “while we were having lunch at The Four Seasons” — too chic for words. She’s divine isn’t she?

    Love, loved, loved this post. In France everyone entertains and impeccable manners are of the utmost importance. Good manners are kindness and respect and ultimately make life infinitely more pleasant.

    We went to a dinner party last night and everyone started talking about the proper way to eat cheese. Very amusing. (There’s only one way btw.)

    It’s so strange to see someone called “Tish”.

    xoxoxo,
    Letitia

  6. Alice Bumgarner’s avatar

    Thanks, Tish. I think it’s strange that I’ve known two Tishes so well. What are the odds?

    You can’t just mention that there’s only one way to eat cheese and then not tell me how it’s done. I remember seeing people (in France) eat it with the knife. But that can’t be right, can it? Would a How To Eat Cheese post seem out of place on your blog?

    xoxoxo

  7. tish jett’s avatar

    No maybe not. Hmmmm.

    Where are you? What are you doing? You are sorely missed???

    You know Letitia Baldrige well??? Well, well.

    xoxox,
    Tish

  8. Bob Cramblitt’s avatar

    Thanks for the reminder, Alice, that good manners can be universal. Just wish more people would realize that twitter is supposed to be a conversation.