Let Us Make a Special Effort to Stop Communicating with Each Other, So We Can Have Some Conversation

Mark Twain? Miss Manners? Judith Martin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am considering using a quotation that is attributed to Mark Twain in the conclusion of my Master’s Thesis about social media. Unfortunately, I have been unable to verify the ascription, and the origin of the expression is uncertain:

Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.

I would be grateful for your assistance in tracing these words.

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said or wrote the statement above. It is not listed on Barbara Schmidt’s TwainQuotes.com website, an important reference tool for checking expressions ascribed to the humorist. The earliest relevant citation located by QI appeared many years after Twain’s death in 1910.

For more than three decades Judith Martin has authored a popular syndicated advice column called “Miss Manners”. In 1979 she wrote an article contrasting communication and conversation that began with the following initial sentence: 1 2

The new social season being now upon us, let us make a special effort to learn to stop communicating with one another, so that we can have some conversation.

Martin was opposed to the oversharing of inappropriate personal details with acquaintances:

In communication, people express their true feelings, and tell everything about themselves with complete honesty, holding back nothing except their last names.

She wished that discretion and propriety would return to discourse:

Miss Manners’ hope is that, having learned to communicate, people have now rid themselves of their emotional backlogs, and are willing to return to talking like civilized people.

QI hypothesizes that the quotation from Martin was streamlined and then incorrectly reassigned to Mark Twain.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1982 “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior” by Judith Martins was published and it included an instance of the quotation: 3

Let us make a special effort to learn to stop communicating with one another, so that we can have some conversation.
Miss Manners realizes that it is the national goal for everyone to communicate, and she appreciates what an effort that is.

In 1999 a simplified version of the quotation above that matched the expression given by the questioner was printed in “The Book of Classic Insults”. The words “to learn” were deleted, and the statement was credited to Miss Manners. Interestingly, the expression was adjacent to a quotation attributed to Mark Twain: 4

“Good breeding consists of concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.”
Mark Twain

“Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.”
Miss Manners

One important mechanism for generating misattributions is based on the misreading of neighboring quotations. A reader sometimes inadvertently transfers the ascription of one quote to a contiguous quote. In this case, an inattentive reader may have looked above the quote instead of below to find the originator.

In 2003 an instance of the quote credited to Mark Twain appeared in the forum section of the website Quoteland. Please note that this ascription was not vetted by the administrators at Quoteland. The post reflected the data available to the person who shared it: 5

Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.
–Mark Twain

In conclusion, QI believes that the quotation originated with Judith Martin writing as Miss Manners. The expression was slightly simplified and ultimately reassigned to Mark Twain. It is possible that the generation of the incorrect ascription was facilitated by the placement of Martin’s quote adjacent to a quote ascribed to Mark Twain.

(Great thanks to Renée David whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1979 September 1, The Bulletin, Miss Manners: Stop ‘communicating’ and start conversing by Judith Martin, (United Features Syndicate), Quote Page 19, Column 1, Bend, Deschutes County, Oregon. (Google News Archive)
  2. 1979 September 3, State Times Advocate, Miss Manners by Judith Martin, Quote Page 3B, Column 1, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1983 (Reprint of 1982 edition from Atheneum, New York), Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior by Judith Martin, Chapter: Social Intercourse, Quote Page 165, Warner Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1999, The Book of Classic Insults, Edited by Tom Steele, Section: Manners, Quote Page 130, A Quill Original: William Morrow, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  5. Website: “Quoteland.com: all the right words”, Section: Forum, Topic: Favorite Quotations I & II – Conversation, Author of Post: Apokryphos – Quoteland Fanatic, Timestamp on Post: 06-09-03 05:25 PM (June 9, 2013), Website description: Owned by Awards International, Chicago, Illinois. (Accessed forum.quoteland.com on October 27, 2013) link