It is little surprise that a master of the dramatic art of conversation such as Jane Austen would pay special attention to the art of changing a subject or refusing to change it, and its implications. In Pride & Prejudice, for example, part of the comic dance between Elizabeth and Darcy concerns the way that they explore subjects, Elizabeth with rapier wit and Darcy with a heavier tread. In one of their conversational dances, Elizabeth refuses to change the subject when it becomes evident that her curiosity about Wickham bothers Darcy. In another such example, Bingley wishes to drop the subject in a three-sided debate where Elizabeth has sought to provide the best possible motive for Bingley because he wishes to avoid a fight, and both Elizabeth and Darcy respect his wishes. Similarly, in Persuasion, we find in the dramatic climax of the novel a debate between Captain Harville and Anne Eliot about the constancy of men and women that ends up helping to decide Anne’s fate as her gracious answer demonstrates to the eavesdropping Captain Wentworth that she indeed does love him as he loves her, despite all of the miscommunication and resentment that has kept them apart over the course of the novel.
Changing the subject can be a delicate art. There are some people who object to a change in the subject, finding it unpleasant to be talking about one thing and then being asked suddenly and without seeming context to change the subject and instead talk about something else. In any given conversation, people will have varying degrees of interest in and knowledge of a particular topic, and some people may exhaust their information or their interest in a topic much quicker than others do. We are not always sensitive to the way that other people respond to our own thoughts and musings about a subject, and wax on for hours about something that people may care about only for minutes or seconds, if at all. Politeness is a street that runs both ways–at times it may encourage us to continue on a topic that we have little interest in so that we may avoid causing offense to others, while also trying to preserve our own politeness and good feeling, while at other times it may lead us to accept to a change of subject from a topic that we have much more to speak about because the subject bothers others. Some people are more alert to and aware of how others feel with regards to continuing a discussion about a topic, and others are unaware of anything except that which they wish to express to others.
It must be readily admitted that there are a variety of reasons why someone may want to change the subject. We may have a desire to avoid unnecessary conflict, and so seek to avoid crossing a conversational minefield that may blow up an interaction and create unpleasant feelings where we desire things to be as comfortable and cozy as possible. We may wish to change a subject because we have nothing further to say about a given subject. We may, alternatively, sense that someone else has nothing further to say about something and may prefer to carry on a conversation about a topic of mutual interest rather than to persist in a monologue with someone who is listening sullenly to us. Whether the desire to change a subject is based on knowledge about our own thoughts and feelings or based on our understanding or interpretation of the thoughts and feelings of others, a change in topic offers a chance to reset a conversation that is perhaps going awry on a basis that is more amenable to both sides, to offer a chance to keep talking rather than a decision to cease the conversation altogether out of boredom or anger.
As is the case with our interpretation of how a conversation is going, when someone expresses a desire to change the subject, this too must be interpreted. Generally speaking, I would prefer not to guess why someone wishes to change the subject of a conversation, as it is all too easy to guess incorrectly as to the motive in a particular situation. Insofar as is possible, I prefer to ask why someone wishes to change the topic when it occurs. This requires a fair amount of trust between the people involved, it must be admitted. It can be hard, for example, to admit that one is uncomfortable with the course of a conversation or the fact that a particular subject is dwelt upon for perhaps too long of a time or too frequent of a time in repeated conversations, and we may not wish to express how we are bothered or offended by this. At times, though, it can be a relief to express that it is not that we lack an interest in a topic but rather that we simply lack enough information to wish to continue in the topic, although there are certainly some people who may be unwilling to admit a lack of information about anything, it must be admitted. It must also be admitted that admitting a lack of information can be seen by some people as an invitation to continue talking at even more length and with even more enthusiasm about a subject that they are monomaniacally interested in. It may then be necessary to change the subject more subtly to avoid having to convey that our own interest has come to an end not only with regards to talking but also with regards to even listening.