Publish at May 23 2022 Updated May 24 2022

What's new in collective intelligence? The salons of the 18th century!

The salons in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries teach us the art of discussion.

The art of conversation is getting lost. Debating, constructing arguments, using humor or even irony against our opponents can be dangerous. Spontaneity and blunt statements are more successful. And the times when it is possible to exchange more than a few minutes without interruption are rare!

Quality-conscious companies track the evolution of the "mean time between failures." Some post the number of days without accidents at the entrance to vehicle garages... In 2022, we could  analyze our "average time without interruption".  Enough to be nostalgic for the long literary or scientific discussions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Chantal Thomas is amused by this nostalgia. For centuries, intellectuals have always referred to an earlier period when discussions would have been livelier, more vivid and more participatory.. She also shows us, through three examples of "salons," that conversation can take many forms, serve different purposes, and above all, inspire our practices.

The relational skills useful for attending a salon

Why do salons appear? Probably because we are bored, looking for alliances, information on discoveries  or intellectual games. Chantal Thomas, author of The Art of Discussion, reminds us that women in the 17th century did not have access to the same education as men. To exercise their minds, to learn about arts and literature, to shine, to marvel and to seduce, and even to exercise power, the salons were an ideal space. Under frivolous and informal appearances, they are places for the dissemination of culture, and learning circles before their time!

Depending on the case, one attends scientific experiments, says poems, plays music, translates works, exchanges, debates and discusses a lot. One is also guilty of slander, but most often with style. We can draw up with Chantal Thomas a profile of the people who were able to feel at ease in the salons.

The guest should preferably have a pronounced taste for the unexpected. Hosts are keen to surprise, amaze and place their guests in the face of puzzles. Staircase wit can cost a reputation, a sense of repartee and bon mot can instead build a reputation!

Be "all there" in the time of the conversation. The level of the participants is often high, and the demands on the quality of expression force special attention. Language tics, hesitations and hollow formulas are quickly mocked in these spaces where a form of ease is cultivated, lighter than at court, but where everyone observes each other.

The guest will also have a balanced communication. He shall refrain from curt speech, even when he is the object of ridicule. Nor should he seek to impose himself excessively, monopolize the floor or speak loudly. Speech should remain fluid and balanced. But he or she should not be overly cautious either. If the fear of ridicule paralyzes our guest,  he or she will no longer be invited.

The show's failures: lack of manners, rudeness, abuse of persiflage, pedantry...

Posture is important, too. Our participant should not feel intimidated, but also should not give the feeling that he or she is giving others a "worldly examination." Comfortable enough to contribute to the discussion and the general atmosphere, and modest and open enough to receive, to appreciate, to witness the pleasure of being there.

Why discuss in a salon?

Conversing to seduce and get away from reality.

The first example Chantal Thomas gives concerns the salon of Madame de Rambouillet, born in 1688 . One meets in her blue room around language games, poems and surprises. One redoubles one's attention on the refinement of her expression. It is a benevolent space, far from the risks of the court where Madame de Rambouillet rarely goes, because of health problems.

During the time of the meetings, life and literature seem to be one. Married at the age of twelve, the hostess experiences autonomy and freer human relationships.

Conversing to distance

Madame du Deffand was fifty when she held her first salon. Very much at ease in worldly manners, she carries a great deal of pessimism. She regularly expresses her disinterest in the things of the world and her disgust for life to friends like Voltaire. Disgust that does not prevent the fear of dying. But she retains a source of interest and pleasure: language and discussion.

Participating in Madame du Deffand's salon is to live an experience in which the guests are the co-authors. Readings of excerpts from literary works or letters alternate with debates, improvisations, and courtesy exchanges. Humor and sometimes irony spice up these interactions.

The salon is a "drug", to use the words of Chantal Thomas.  It is essential to make her life acceptable!

Moliere's "Les femmes savantes" presents these salons as spaces where talentless pedants and love-starved people rub shoulders and squabble. But the salons also provide distance from the Court. If the discussion is very codified and if everyone observes the style and manners of the other participants, we also find a space where the mix is greater, where the relevance of a speech is not linked only to the rank of the one who expresses himself. 

Conversing to emancipate

Chantal Thomas introduces us to Madame de Staël , born in 1766. She explodes social shackles through conversation. When she receives people on rue du Bac in Paris, manners and style are less important than debates. One interrupts oneself, one takes the floor as one throws oneself into the void, one improvises... Madame de Staël shows in tenacity in her arguments that sometimes test the nerves of the guests.

In a conversation, can one risk breaking the relationship by continuing to argue, sometimes several days apart, or should one slip into other topics once one knows full well that one will never agree? Madame de Staël would have answered without hesitation that one must maintain the debate, at the risk of tiring one's friends.

Behind her writings and the activity of her salon, Madame de Staël claimed a right to happiness and to greater participation in the life of ideas and political choices for women.

Spaces of conversation are thus places of learning. A different social environment is created there, which produces its norms and uses but thus allows us to distance ourselves from the norms and uses that we hold to be universal. The emotional bond that is built, the relative benevolence that is found there, encourages people to dare, to test their ideas. The feeling of security shared by the guests also encourages one to enter the debates.

Conversation  moves away from the agreed and phatic language, where one speaks just to maintain the relationship. Conversation also has nothing to do with instructions and hierarchical discourse. It is not a succession of presentations or a cold demonstration. It expresses a style.

Has the spirit of conversation disappeared? Has digital technology buried it? Probably not. But as salons could sometimes seek the discretion of debates, private groups on social networks, Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook find the taste of language games, surprise, humor sometimes tinged with irony that these spaces of freedom had.

Illustrations: Frédéric Duriez


Espace Français - les salons littéraires - accessed May 15, 2022 -

Chantal Thomas - L'esprit de conversation - Rivages Poche- Petite bibliothèque Payot - 2021

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