Conversation was a polysemic practice of sociability in leisured and learned classes. Ideally, it cultivated politeness, pleasure, ease and reciprocity. At the same time, its plural meanings also accommodated tensions within the conversable world, encompassing controversy and collision of mind as well as harmony.
The rise of the leisure press after 1690 caused the appearance of new forms of middle-class sociability. The tea-table is a case in point, around which the two sexes gathered, read periodical essays together, which provided subject matter to polite conversation.
Joseph Farington (and his diary)
The Diary of Joseph Farington offers a rich source for thinking about sociability in the art world in London from 1793-1821. Nonetheless, it is striking that, while the Diary records a great deal of information – indeed ‘gossip’ - it seems as if this is of a rather distinctive character and suggests that a different sociability existed between men than among women.
Laughter was considered fundamental to sociability in eighteenth-century Britain, but it was a complex social signal: as Samuel Johnson observed, ‘you may laugh in as many ways as you talk’. In its various guises, laughing could communicate anything from warmth to outright hostility; a well-placed chuckle could be the epitome of politeness, while an uncontrolled guffaw – especially triggered by a ‘lowbrow’ joke – was anything but.
Public opinion (journalism and communication)
Journals and books played a relevant role in the construction of modern public opinion and the diffusion of new forms of sociability shrewdly investigated in the twentieth century. As some of the most significant scholars of cultural processes point out (such as Innis, Habermas, McLuhan, Williams), the construction of popular public opinion is one of the most significant characteristics of the eighteenth century, especially in England.
Touch and sociability
The historiography suggests a growing culture of polite sociability across the course of the eighteenth century. One dimension of this ‘politeness’ is the extent to which men came to respect and pay due deference to conventions of physical etiquette that women sought to claim (doing so, in part, to protect their reputation and their standing in society). The evidence suggests that, while norms may have gradually changed, these were often ignored by men. Violations of these standards of po