What to Talk About, by Imogene B. Wolcott (1923)

nb_0635What proportion of your business is selling drugs?

Do you sell more drugs to keep people well or to help them recover from sickness?

What would you do if a man came into your store to purchase some bichlorid of mercury tablets?

These are a few of the questions that Imogene B. Wolcott (Mrs. Roger Wolcott, the title page advises us) proposes her reader ask a druggist. What to Talk About is a simple pocket-sized handbook full of what Mrs. Wolcott suggests are “Clever Questions” that aid in “Social, Professional, and Business Advancement.” Her theory is that the key to a successful conversation is to express interest in people: “Forget yourself and think only of the person to whom you are talking.”

And so she offers the reader nearly three hundred pages worth of questions to use in a conversation. What to Talk About is a classic of the first great era of the American self-help book, a contemporary of James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh and Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, when the shortest path between a person’s problems and their solution was a straight line. Like the first pre-packaged foods, all you had to do to enjoy the banquet you craved was add water and stir.

In Mrs. Wolcott’s world, a man’s line wasn’t something he used to pick up women in bars–it was his job, and his job was his identity. The first third of her book is devoted to questions organized by jobs and professions. Of civil engineers, she proposes one ask that probe their expertise: “Why is steel used to reinforce concrete?” “Which usually offers the greater engineering difficulties: drainage or irrigation?” She offers contemporary questions: “How much progress has been made on the tunnel under the English Channel?” “What use has been made of the valuation of the railroads made by the Interstate Commerce Commission?” And she explores the civil engineer’s philosophical side: “Which of these characteristics is most important to an engineering career–a mind of precise accuracy, the power to dream great dreams, or the ability to carry visions to a successful completion?”

Mrs. Wolcott’s selection of professions offers us insights into the working world of a century ago. Lumbermen and newspapermen rubbed elbows with trolley officials, steamship officials, detectives, dry goods merchants, jobbers, public office holders, and sculptors. Because it was the Roaring Twenties, she was careful to include flappers (“Why don’t you like chaperones?”), debutantes, and “Matrons (Society)”–for whom she offers the obvious question, “What do you think of the conduct of the younger generation?” (And its follow-up, “Does the fault lie with the young men of today, with the girls, or with their parents?” Me, I blame Society (Matrons)). She does not, however, provide a category for gangsters or rum-runners, so were the reader to run into Al Capone, he would have to make do with “Importers and Exporters”: “What proportion of our foreign trade is done on American bottoms?”

Mrs. Wolcott also wrote in the midst of the first great wave of American leisure time. And hence, she provides a substantial section devoted to questions based on a person’s hobby. This might be a sport (Ice Hockey, Jiu Jitsu, or Tobogganing) or an indoor occupation (Weaving, Stamps, or Painting). She was not above recognizing that some might indulge in minor vices (Billiards, Poker, or Smoking). She includes a sample of questions for the person interested in “Heredity and Eugenics” that would certainly liven up a conversation today: “Should first or second cousins marry?” “What is meant by the mutations theory?” Or, if you should run into a fan of this site, you can ask, “Which do you think is more healthful, the coarseness of the eighteenth century novel or the brutality of a school of our novelists?”

Finally, What to Talk About reminds us that there was a time when, no matter where you went, you never quite shook the dust of your home ground off your shoes. A time when people wore such labels as “Yankee,” “Dutchman,” “Irishman,” and “Philadelphian.” In fact, she suggests asking a Californian, “Do you see many Mexicans? Japanese? Chinese? Iowans?” Iowans? So it is only natural that Mrs. Wolcott ends her book with questions to ask the natives of such places as Denmark, Deauville, Indianapolis, Palm Beach, and “The South” and “The West.” Most aim at confirming some stereotype about each place and its inhabitants: “Is it ture that people of Charleston dine at four o’clock in the afternoon?” “Is cheapness of labor the only factor that permits China to compete in a commercial way with the rest of the world?” “Do the majority of the women who spend the winter in Florida try to get tanned or to avoid a coat of tan?” “Is it true that one seldom sees a sunset in Pittsburgh?” “What has been done in your section of the South to combat the boll weevil?”

A few of her questions, though, would probably stump even a native nowadays:

“What is meant by the three-cent cult?” (Cleveland, Ohio)

“What has the Pan-American Conference accomplished?” (South America)

“In what regard do Philadelphians hold Edward Bok?”

“Did you see many lepers?” (Holy Land)

“Were you shown the site of Annette Kellerman’s diving activities in the preparation of her most famous moving picture?” (Anyone? Anyone? … The correct answer is Bermuda.)

A book as full of questions as this one cannot help but raise a few that reach beyond the limits of place, profession, and hobby, timeless questions we could all do well to take a moment to ponder:

“Does the fear of death become stronger or less strong as one grows older?”

“Does personality or ability count more in business?”

“At what age does a hen cease to be profitable?”

“What is the future of Palestine?”

And one many of us have asked recently:

“Why is it that so many of our Vice-Presidents have come from Indiana?”


What to Talk About: The Clever Question As an Aid to Social, Professional, and Business Advancement, by Imogene B. Wolcott
New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923

2 thoughts on “What to Talk About, by Imogene B. Wolcott (1923)

  1. “Which of these characteristics is most important to an engineering career–a mind of precise accuracy, the power to dream great dreams, or the ability to carry visions to a successful completion?” As a mechanical engineer, I would say that (to me) the most important is the ability to carry the visions through to a successful completion. This book sounds fascinating! It should be available on line.

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