Most Conversations Are Simply Monologues Delivered in the Presence of a Witness

Mark Twain? Margaret Millar? Elizabeth P. O’Connor? Rebecca West? Leo Buscaglia? Anonymous?

bat07Dear Quote Investigator: The following entertaining remark is often attributed to Mark Twain:

Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of witnesses.

I have also seen these words ascribed to the award-winning mystery writer Margaret Millar. Could you determine who should be credited?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain wrote or spoke the statement above. The phrase should be credited to Margaret Millar although the original wording was slightly different because it used the singular word “witness”. In the 1942 novel “The Weak-Eyed Bat” Millar wrote the following exchange. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“As a matter of fact, have you never noticed that most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness?”

“No,” Jakes said.

“Well, listen next time you hear a couple of women talking. They’ll each have a list of likes and dislikes that they intend to reel off. Now wouldn’t it be much simpler for Mrs. Smith to sit in front of a mirror and read her list without competition…”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1863 a story serialized in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper included a thematic precursor that highlighted the distinction between a dialogue and two disconnected monologues: 2

I hope there were no listeners within earshot, as I am sure the dialogue, or, more properly speaking, the two monologues, they would have heard—(for we spoke both together, neither of us paying the slightest attention to what the other was saying !)—must have been supremely ridiculous! He poured forth a perfect rigmarole of sentimental heroics; whilst I was equally voluble in angry remonstrance!

In a letter dated August 20, 1886 Mark Twain did present a humorous characterization for the activity of conversation; however, it differed greatly from the quotation. In 2010 Sotheby’s auction house sold a letter containing marital advice that was sent from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to family friend Clara Spalding. The following appeared in the correspondence: 3 4

All conversations are but debates, whether they get utterance in a capitol or a cabin; & in them one is always apt to say more than he meant to say. And whenever he does that just let him alone; don’t call him to account–he will do that himself, everytime.

In 1901 a critic commented on one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters, and noted that the character’s conversations were actually monologues: 5

…Hamlet’s rejoinder to Guildenstern is not so much reply as soliloquy. Soliloquy is natural to Hamlet as turbulence to the seas. His conversations are monologues. He takes other men’s words as points of departure. He deals in dissertations, not conversations.

A 1918 book titled “Herself—Ireland” by Elizabeth P. O’Connor recounted the assertion that traditional conversational interaction was absent in the United States: 6

A brilliant Englishman who travelled in America, said to me, “Do you know there is no such thing as conversation in your country; they indulge instead in a series of monologues. One man takes the floor and talks for ten minutes; he then yields it to another, and so they proceed; but there is no give and take as we have it in England.”

In 1935 the notable writer and critic Rebecca West published “The Harsh Voice: Four Short Novels” which included the following passage within the story “There Is No Conversation”: 7 8

There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.

In 1942 the quotation under investigation appeared in “The Weak-Eyed Bat” by suspense writer Margaret Millar as mentioned previously:

“As a matter of fact, have you never noticed that most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness?”

In 1966 the renowned short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges delivered a lecture on the prominent poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and remarked on Coleridge’s self-centered style of communication: 9

The fact is that Coleridge wasn’t interested in other people. Nor was he interested in convincing an audience or convincing his interlocutor. His conversations were monologues; and he accepted visits from strangers, but that was because it gave him the opportunity to talk out loud.

In 1987 a thematically related quotation was attributed to the popular author and motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia: 10

As Leo Buscaglia, Ph.D., once said, “Most conversations are just alternating monologues — the question is, is there any real listening going on?”

In 1990 the quotation collector Robert Byrne included the saying in his fourth compilation of “Best Things Anybody Ever Said”. The statement was credited to Millar, but the wording presented used the plural “witnesses” deviating from the 1942 text: 11

Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of witnesses.
Margaret Millar

By 2013 the saying had been reassigned to Mark Twain. For example, the self-help business book “Real Influence: Persuade without Pushing and Gain without Giving In” attributed the saying to Twain: 12

Disconnected influencers gravitate toward the least effective forms of listening, with the result that, as Mark Twain once said, “Most conversations are monologues in the presence of witnesses.”

In conclusion, this notion about conversation has been expressed in several different ways over the decades. The adage from the questioner should be credited to Margaret Millar based on the 1942 citation.

Image Notes: Bat image from the 67th plate from Ernst Haeckel’s ”Kunstformen der Natur” (1904). Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Kat Caverly whose inquiry motivated QI to construct this question and perform this exploration. Caverly listed Margaret Millar and Twain as possible ascriptions. Special thanks to the helpful librarians and the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Many thanks to Terri Guillemets who shared with QI several interesting citations for variants of the saying including the excellent quotation by Rebecca West. Guillemets operates the pioneering online quotation website The Quote Garden.)

Update History: On May 19, 2015 the 1863, 1919 and 1935 citations were added. The conclusion was rewritten.

Notes:

  1. 1942, The Weak-Eyed Bat by Margaret Millar, Quote Page 117, Published for the Crime Club by Doubleday, Doran & Co., Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to the library system of University of North Carolina, Greensboro)
  2. 1863 July 4, Southern Illustrated News, A Bundle of Old Letters (Continuation from previous issue), (Written for the Illustrated News), Start Page 6, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  3. Website: Sotheby’s Auction House, Auction date: June 17, 2010, Auction location: New York, Auction title: The James S. Copley Library: Arts & Sciences, Including the Mark Twain Collection, Lot number: 498, Lot description: “Clemens, Samuel L. Autograph letter signed (S. L. Clemens), 4 pages, ‘Rest & Be Thankful,’ 20 August 1886, to Clara Spalding, providing marital advice on the occasion of her marriage”, Lot Sold: 5,313 USD (Hammer Price with Buyer’s Premium) (Accessed sothebys.com on February 4, 2014) link
  4. Website: Doyle New York, Auctioneers & Appraisers, Auction date: November 3, 1999, Auction location: New York, Auction title: Books & Prints – Sale 9911031, Lot number: 21, Lot description: “Clemens, Samuel L. (Mark Twain), Autograph letter signed (S.L. Clemens), four pages, 8vo, Rest & Be-Thankful, 20 August 1886, to ‘Dear Clara [Spaulding]’, giving advice to the soon-to-be married”, Lot Sold: $5,000 (Includes Buyer’s Premium), (Letter text presented on this website) (Accessed doylenewyork.com on February 4, 2014) link
  5. 1901, The Poet’s Poet and Other Essays by William A. Quayle, (Fourth Edition), Quote Page 146, Jennings & Pye, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1918, Herself—Ireland by Elizabeth P. O’Connor (Mrs. T. P. O’Connor), Quote Page 149, Published by Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1956 (Reprint of 1935 edition), The Harsh Voice: Four Short Novels by Rebecca West, There Is No Conversation, Start Page 63, Quote Page 63, Published by Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England. (Verified on paper)
  8. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Rebecca West (Cicily Isabel Fairfield), Quote Page 810, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  9. 2013, Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, by Jorge Luis Borges, Edited, Researched and Annotated by Martín Hadis and Martín Arias, Translated from Spanish by Katherine Silver, (Class lecture dated November 18. 1966; transcribed by student), “Class 14: Coleridge’s Final Years, Coleridge Compared to Dante Alighieri, Coleridge’s Poems, ‘Kubla Khan’, Coleridge’s Dream”, Start Page 127, Quote Page 128, Published by New Directions Publishing, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  10. 1987, The Energetic Manager: Fred Pryor’s System for Unleashing the Power in Yourself and Your organization by Fred Pryor, Quote Page 129, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1990, The Fourth—and by Far the Most Recent—637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne, Quote Number 578, Page not numbered, (Quotations are numbered, but pages are not numbered), Atheneum, New York. (Verified on paper)
  12. 2013, Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In by Mark Goulston and John B. Ullmen, Chapter 8, Quote Page 91, Published by AMACOM, A Division of American Management Association, New York. (Google Books Preview)