For an introduction to ridicule, an entertaining French film by the name of Ridicule (1996) wonderfully portrays the aristocracy of the ancien régime and their obsession with wit and presige at the court of Versailles during the days of King Louis and Marie Antoinette. This was an era in France where wit could earn you a passport into courtly favor, and one verbal faux pas could ruin a man’s reputation and position in society. So much about a person was judged on the basis of how well they could stand to ridicule, and in fact ridicule others, that it’s a wonder anything ever got done! Instead of writing a review of the film, I thought it would be more interesting to study politeness and ridicule. One often hears advice on how to go about being more polite, and having better manners. But we hear much less about ridicule, mostly because it’s a learned through experience, not by instruction. I find that understanding enough about the social dynamics of ridicule could determine whether you sink or swim in many situations.

One striking thing about politeness is how consistent it remains over time, suggesting that there are real rights and wrongs in conversation, not just local conventions. Ridicule on the other hand, is much more evasive. For example, the principle that it is rude to interrupt another speaker goes back at least to Cicero, who said that good conversation required “alternation” among participants. In his essay On Duties, Cicero remarked that nobody, to his knowledge, had yet set down the rules for ordinary conversation, though many had done so for public speaking. He had a shot at it himself, and quickly arrived at the sort of list that self-help authors have been echoing ever since. The rules we learn from Cicero are these: speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticize people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.

Cicero’s rules of conversation seem to have been fairly common across cultures as well as time, if varying in strictness. It might reasonably be said that Italians are more tolerant of interruption, Americans of contradiction and the English of formality, for example. These rules of conversation also intersect with those of politeness more generally, as formulated by two American linguists, Penelope Brown and Steven Levinson, the pioneers of “politeness theory”.

Probably only two cardinal rules were lacking from Cicero’s list: remember people’s names, and be a good listener. Each of these pieces of advice also has a long pedigree. Both found a persuasive modern advocate in Dale Carnegie, a teacher of public speaking who decided in 1936 that Americans needed educating more broadly in “the fine art of getting along”. He designed a course on self-improvement and his book How to Win Friends and Influence People is still in print 70 years later and has sold 15 million copies. To remember names, and to listen well, are two of Carnegie’s “six ways to make people like you”. The others are to become genuinely interested in other people; smile; talk in terms of the other person’s interests; and make the other person feel important. Objectivists certainly contend that Carnegie’s self-improvement is manipulative in nature, which raises the question of whether politeness is simply indirect manipulation.

It is easy enough to see the usefulness of such tips, but they capture none of the joy which comes from the mastery of conversation. For enthusiasts conversation is an art, one of the great pleasures of life, even the basis of civilised society. Mme de Staël, a great talker and intellectual of the French ancien régime, called conversation “a means of reciprocally and rapidly giving one another pleasure; of speaking just as quickly as one thinks; of spontaneously enjoying one’s self; of being applauded without working… a sort of electricity that causes sparks to fly, and that relieves some people of the burden of their excess vivacity and awakens others from a state of painful apathy”.

The conversation of the French salons and dinner tables became as stylized as a ballet. And for a connosieur of the arts, one must know how to enjoy as well as ridicule the ballet. The basic skills brought to the courts and tables were expected to include politesse (sincere good manners), esprit (wit), galanterie (gallantry), complaisance (obligingness), enjouement (cheerfulness) and flatterie. More specific techniques would be required as the conversation took flight. A comic mood would require displays of raillerie (playful teasing), plaisanterie (joking), bons mots (epigrams), traits and pointes (rhetorical figures involving “subtle, unexpected wit”, according to Benedetta Craveri, a historian of the period), and, later, persiflage (mocking under the guise of praising). Even silences had to be finely judged. The Duc de La Rochefoucauld distinguished between an “eloquent” silence, a “mocking” silence and a “respectful” silence. The mastery of such “airs and tones”, he said, was “granted to few”.