Learn the Art of Intellectual Foreplay

“Words really flattering are not those which we propose but those which escape us unthinkably.”
-Ninon de L’Enclos
Sitting at a dinner party in the South of France many years ago, I was captivated by the conversation.  All the topics that I was taught were off limits at any social function — sex, religion and politics – were openly discussed with fervor.

The conversation morphed throughout the night.  Discussions about who was a better artist, Van Gogh or the creator of the Ferrari (yes, there were Italians there too), the state of the European economy, the age of Enlightenment and the value of extramarital relations had my mind whirling.

At the moment I was about to sink my teeth into the Tiramisu, a young Frenchman turned to me and asked, “Tonya, what do you do?”

“I’m a nurse.”


“I don’t mean what you do for a living, but what do you do in your life that brings you passion,” he said.

Uh….hhhmm…well…I like to workout.

Oh God.  Did I really just say that?

This was proof that I had worked hard on keeping up myself physically, but I had let myself go intellectually.

Next. Moving on.  Skipped right over.

Okay, so I felt a bit lost (scratch that, I was a lot lost).  Though, more than lost, I felt dull, a word most people wouldn’t use to describe me back home.  The truth is that I had never given myself permission to have intellectual pursuits.  I was too busy with the everyday stuff of life.  I was a woman of duty, not desires.

Suddenly, I realized that the people sitting around that table possessed something that I didn’t: a passion for life coupled with an arsenal of intellectual and conversational skills that had somehow escaped me during my over three decades on this earth.

As I watched the playful and at times tense (think Italians flailing their arms around in the air and the French shrugging their shoulders and rolling their eyes) exchange of ideas and opinions, I made another observation.  The most captivating woman in the room was not necessarily the most beautiful one or the one carrying the Birkin (now don’t get me wrong, I love a Birkin). She was the one who knew how to use her passion paired with words to charm the audience.

I walked away from that experience determined to learn the art of intellectual foreplay.

The first thing I did was begin to learn a new language (for which, I’m still struggling).  I did this for two reasons.  First, being able to speak another language makes you more cosmopolitan, a lady who can cross cultures with ease.

Second, in France, words are used as play.  It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.  It didn’t take me long to realize that my direct American-style way of speaking was often viewed as rude (or dull) in a French conversation.  The French have a way of adding humor, wit and charm to very serious topics, making it easier to digest.  Looking back, had I said, “I put my mouth on those who are on the brink of death and breath life back into them,” instead of “I’m a nurse,” I would have gained instant conversational credibility.

Upon returning home, I also threw out all the diet books I owned realizing that nothing would have bored that group more than to hear me talk about how many calories were in our meal, especially that Tiramisu.  I also began to pursue my own intellectual passions,  enrolling in sommelier school, getting a liberal arts degree, writing daily, watching foreign films, reading Proust and Hemingway, learning the art of French cooking and traveling to places that would inspire me.

Fast forward to many years later.  I was sitting at table in Monaco with many of the same people.  The once quiet, “I’m a nurse” girl (yes, that would be moi) when asked what she did, said, “I French Kiss Life,” followed by my favorite quote by Hafiz, “Oh World, One regret that I am determined not to have when lying upon my death bed is that I did not kiss thee enough.”

Fancy, right?

The conversation exploded into the impact of Sufism on the modern world to the painful existence of regret.  I sat back and smirked at the spark I had ignited from a few years of pursuing my passions.

Still, I was mesmerized.  How did these people know so much about everything? In studying the French culture, I’ve come to realize what sets them apart from us.  Americans tend to be one-dimensional, specializing and focusing on one thing.  Sure, this makes them experts in their field, but it can also make them appear like I did at that dinner table: boring.  The French on the other hand are schooled on philosophy, art and culture from very young ages, giving them a one up in a conversation.

French women, especially, are able to converse about a wide range of topics without being pretentious or crude.  They stay current on world events, sports, politics, art, film, fashion and science.  She’s not afraid to combine her intellect with a dose of her sexuality, making her an irresistible conversationlist.  It’s not enough to just be a pretty face in France; you must also have an interesting mind.

While it’s difficult to make up all those lost years of cultural abandon, it’s not too late to become a lady who knows how to engage in tantalizing intellectual foreplay.

At the end of the night, what really makes one stand out from the crowd is her passion, beautifully presented through word and gestures.  Had I spoken about my career as a nurse from a place of intense conviction, I would have captivated those in the room.  Had I asked questions, expressed my opinion and been authentically me, instead of worrying what everyone thought, I would have been instantly charming.  Had I thrown in the few French words I did know at the time, I would have appeared to be a woman on an intellectual quest.  Also, knowing when to be quiet and truly listen is a gift.  And, had I thrown my hands up in the air when I tasted the Tiramisu and shouted, “Dear God, this is Divine,” I would have been seen as a woman capable of culinary orgasms.

Conversation is like a dance.  Sometimes, you must let others take the lead but always keep up, unless of course, you don’t like the dance.

So, here’s my challenge for you.  Begin to weed out all those things you’ve been taught you should know and begin to indulge yourself in what truly inspires you.  To break it down even further, here are some specific tips that I’ve used to cultivate my mind:

Film: Venture out from Hollywood and explore foreign and independent films.  I make a point to watch at least one per month.

Reading:  It’s common for a French person to ask you what you’re reading before they ask you where you live.  So, read often and indulge in a diversity of genres from fiction to nonfiction.  Yes, you may love your 50 Shades of Grey and that might create an interesting conversation, but it will behoove you to have some other tools in your reading belt.  I read one book per week.  Right now, I’m reading The Greater Journey:  Americans in Paris by David McCullough.

Current Affairs:  Choose one or two newspapers that are your go-to source for what’s happening in the world.  While you can always get your news online, there’s something said for the printed paper that you hold in your hands.  Plus, it’s so easy to get sidetracked in the virtual world.  Before you know it, you’re on TMZ.com.

Language:  Keep up skills in your own native tongue by learning new words.  I subscribe to a word of the day.  Today’s word was mellifluous, meaning “like honey, sweet and smooth.”  Also, if you’re interested in a culture, there’s no better way to dive deeply into it than by learning its language.  Plus, being bilingual offers you an intellectual advantage.

Magazines:  Beyond People and US Weekly is a slew of magazines that will expand your world.  Some of my favorites are The New Yorker, Vogue, Town and Country, Rolling Stone, Food and Wine, Entrepreneur and O Mag (yes, I’m an Oprah darling!).  Reading magazines such as these will expand your cultural perspective and usually offer you a hot topic to discuss at your next dinner party.

Arts:  Go to museums.  Attend concerts.  Attend local exhibitions.  Listen to an array of music.  Read about your favorite artist.  Get involved in a cause that supports the art of your choice.  Creativity is your outlet to expressing who you are in the world, so don’t neglect your artistic mind.

TV: Our family does not have cable.  In fact, the only thing we watch on the television are movies.  This has afforded us time to listen to music, read books and spend time with each other in conversation.  Of course, I have my favorite shows (one of them being Sex in the City).  However, when I get the chance to watch TV, it’s now a luxury, not an everyday addiction of mindless entertainment.

Get Back to the Classroom:  I am a school junkie. I love attending lectures, taking classes, watching TED talks.  When it comes to knowledge, I am a hedonist.  I want to learn any and everything.  Curiosity is our childlike nature.  Talk to your inner child and see what she is dying to learn more about.  Then, go do it!

Indulge your mind, and you’ll master the art of intellectual foreplay.

Add your favorite lipstick, and, who knows what will happen?

One last suggestion:  have a general toast that will charm for that awkward moment when you’re called upon unexpectedly.  (Yes, I speak from experience on this one!)

Now, it’s your turn to practice.  In the comments below, share your passion.  Talk about what you do with the sole purpose of entertaining us, discuss something that is of interest to you right now, share your toast, tell us about the magazines that you love or your favorite foreign film, and don’t be afraid to express your opinion (with a dose of charm, bien sur.)


Do you want to practice the art of intellectual foreplay in the country that birthed modern philosophy and is home to some of the world’s most famous intellectuals (Voltaire, Descartes, Rousseau, Sartre and, our lady, Simone de Beauvoir)?

If so, Le Voyage Paris: The Art of Being a Woman Immersion is for you! Our evening salons will be devoted to beautiful, thought-provoking and inspiring conversation and their will be plenty of opportunities to indulge yourself intellectually.

Click here to get all the details and apply.

And, don’t forget to pack your passions, passport and lipstick!

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Be a Bon Vivant & spread the Joie de Vivre!
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39 Responses to Learn the Art of Intellectual Foreplay

  1. You seem quite young, but you are on the right track.
    I would add in your magazines: Scientific American, Smithsonian,
    National Geographic, Salon, Architectural Digest, French Vogue,
    and more. Don’t neglect these areas of your education in how to become a noted conversationalist! You will wow them with knowledge from these publications and similar. Being able to use quotes relevant to the conversation is another lovely way to retain your femininity, and yet contribute intellectually .

    • Celine,

      Thanks for your input. Love those magazines as well, especially French Vogue.

      And, thanks for the “young” compliment. I am the mother of a fourteen year old, so I always love being told how young people think I am. But, as I told Ayenis, youth is a state of mind:)

      Come back to see me:)



  2. My passion, where can I start? Well, I have been pretty boring most of my life, but there is a fire within my that has been ignited in the last couple of months. Who would of thought that an illness could do so much for us. I got sick a few months ago and in the process of getting better I found that I wasn’t living at all. Now I try to seek God passionately and all the beautiful things he created for me to enjoy and share. Health and wellness has captured my heart, not just for me, but for others. I am usually the one that talks a lot but says nothing and people are bored with me. So yes I am starting to french kiss life. I don’t have a lot of money, but there are plenty adventures I can be part of if I look close enough. I recently found your site through Jena la flamme and love both your websites, comments amazing. But yours today is exactly what I am trying to embark in. I will be 30 in less than two months, and a part of me feels like I have less than two months to live ” youth.” But I realize that even though a part of my youth is forever gone a more amazing spectacular adventure is just around the corner for me. I will try my best not to pity myself but enjoy a new me that is wiser, more intelligent hungry for life, that is starting to lose her fear of everything little by little. I have always been too shy to enjoy life, it’s time to be crazy. I don’t know how but I know I will get there. Yesterday I had my first massage in years. I will be going back to school this month after years as well. I will be studying health/nutrition/wellness and later on, seek to enjoy a beautiful career in holistic medicine. This is my new passion along with the love for Christ which is my first and most important passion of all. Dios te bengiga mucho

    • Ayenis,

      Thank you for stopping by, and judging by your post, you are not boring but a woman who is starting to explore what turns her on!

      And, remember this: There is NO hurry. Youth is a state of mind:)



  3. Congratulations, Tonya! I am so impressed with how you’ve polished our American “get to the point” cultural paradigm to include intellectual variety, beauty, allure and realism. I speak Spanish fluently and French and German pretty well and have always felt like an odd ball about it while living in my native land, the U.S. of A. I would say that Americans have an advantage over the French in looking for the upside of things; many Europeans I’ve met are stuck in the “let’s see who can out-criticize whom” mode. Maybe you can teach an e-Course in French that teaches optimism. Thanks for the inspiration! Laura

    • Laura,

      I believe learning can happen across cultures. I love being an American, but I also love my inner French girl!

      Working on creating the best of both worlds, which is sounds like you are doing very well:)



  4. Tonya – this post is amazing! I am just in awe of what a unique and exciting busines you have created, and how you write with such elegance and flaire! I am passionate about understanding why people behave the way they do, and applying psychology to career management and job searching. (I’ll have to work on making that more interesting and sexy sounding). I already do some things on your list, but I will definitely start watching less reality TV and try picking up a foreign film. It can be tough sometimes to find people my age who like to have deep, intense, philisophical life questions – so when I find one who does, I hold on to the friendship and nuture it as best as I can! Please keep doing what you do, it’s simply incredible.

    • Hi Rose,

      You are in such a beautiful position to inspire people to dig deeper into what they desire for their life, and using their careers to support THAT!

      Thanks for stopping by and your kind words.



  5. Magnificent, Tonya! Truly exquisite! It’s sooooooooo unfortunate that American early education can be so dull and has been dumbed down by people who do not know how to TEACH children and an educational system that is devoid of passion and intelligence itself. I have seen 5 year olds perform works of Shakespeare. Our capacity for intellectual intelligence is GREAT! It is the potential we as human beings are born with. Thankfully I grew up with a family of ferocious intellectuals and have pursued it in myself and others and in my work with children my whole life! So glad you took yours into your own hands & mind and are now serving others to do the same.

    Magnificent inspiring piece!

    • Hi Kathleen,

      As a mom, our educational system concerns me immensely. I’ve had to take my daughter’s education into my own hands, but find that I am constantly up against pop culture, which my daughter is mesmerized by. I’ve learned to let that go and let her follow her own path, while also exposing her to as much as I possibly can. Sure, I get the eye rolls when I break out the poetry book at dinner, but deep down, I know that those moments and words will be with her always.


      • oh yessssssss they will! Wise to allow for her contemporary pop culture! for if you didn’t, she WOULD rebel and remember the poetry negatively. There is some exceptionally good SLAM poetry happening. In fact I would say intellectualism is alive in the subcultures of the youth as I have experienced through my sons and their community.

        Tonya, have you seen Dangerous Beauty? if not, you must! You and your work remind me of the heroine. True story!

  6. This was a well written, beautifully articulated article. I must say your subject did arouse my interest, and I was very please to engage my mind on your feature. I must say at one time I used to work on mastering the art of good conversation, but this piece has just simply inspired me, beyond words, to restart doing so again. Recently I sent my friend a message, and to add some intrigue and awesomness to it, I told her ” I heard the voice of the man that I would like to spend the rest of my life with”. Anyway, that was just me playing, I’m also pursuing a degree in Communications, which I am not really enjoying, but as summer school has ended, I started to take free French lessons online, and you would believe it when I tell you that it has boosted my confidence. I agree with Melissa, this is my favourite post from you. I would take your advice and also invest in some meaningful reading.
    Je vous remerice.

  7. Yes! Yes! Yes! Friends have often remarked that the conversations around our family’s dinner table were so different. My father is Belgian, my mother German, and I spent most of my life growing up throughout Europe where it was normal to have intellectual conversations over dinner. I only recently realized how much I’ve missed it.

    The opportunity to explore new concepts and ideas, familiar ones in a new light, and to see nuances you wouldn’t have otherwise, without anyone getting angry that you disagree (maybe frustrated… ;). It’s beautiful and wonderful. Thank you so much for the reminder.

    I also love to learn about anything and everything. I’m a scientist at heart and love to apply that part of myself to the world around me. I particularly love to do it with topics not normally looked at through a scientific lens, whether it be our minds, thought processes, mental outlook, relationships, societal structures, conversation, or gratitude. I love to look at the research and bring it back to others in a way that allows them to apply it in their lives. It’s a driving force in my life.

    Exploring food and play is another passion of mine. I can’t remember the last time I followed a recipe… I would much rather play with the ingredients and the flavors.

    I’ll admit, I don’t attempt to stay abreast of current events, but I do stay up to date with the news in the areas that interest me most. The only time my TV gets switched on is to watch a movie (speaking of which, I love that you watch a different foreign or independent film each month). I’ve moved away from magazines, though there are definitely a few I’ll consider buying again after this post.

    Thank you, Tonya.

    • Claudia,

      I can just picture you and your family sitting around the table throwing around ideas, debating viewpoints and discussing interesting topics.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing. Let me know which magazines you’re going to try:)



  8. Another great read from you Tonya. What particularly struck a chord was when you were asked by the young man what you do. I find we so often define who we are by our work. It’s made me rethink of how I would answer that question. Instead of saying I’m an author and clutter coach, I’m going to delve into what truly makes me tick and makes me interesting.
    Keep up the great work Tonya.

  9. Finally! Someone taking a break from the relentless blah-blah-blah about how to be physically more beautiful. As if that is all a woman of worth has to offer. At the end of the day, I’d rather be “interesting”. As such I adore thoughtful, engaging, quick-witted conversation. But, too often it is woefully hard to come by.

  10. Well, this is a welcome change! My problem has been too much emphasis on my intellectual development and not enough on being in my body and senses! This makes me want to move to France immediately! You mean I can be as intense as I want and talk about what really excites me without scaring people away?? People really READ there?? I’ve been a “reader-head” as my daughter says for most of my life (the first thing I look at when visiting someone’s house for the first time is the bookcases), and I love exploring the “world behind the world” of the metaphysical and occult sciences. Plus psychology, spirituality, & anything about healing- whether it be mental, emotional or physical… but I love beauty too (I can talk about hair and makeup for hours), and I really enjoy a good literary detective novel and other types of fiction…and magazines! I’m a magazine junkie, I’m finally getting rid of piles of magazines I’ve kept for years because they were so full of great information, but are now cluttering up my living room too much… I’ve had to learn to tone it down and engage more in small talk (it does have it’s charm too). I’ve felt that I’ve had to wait to speak of my passions for when I was with others who share them too… No wonder meals last two hours or more in France, they’re having a great time talking, as well as eating fabulous food!
    I would love it if you told us every week what book you were reading…
    Also, do you have a recommendation on the best way to learn the French language (besides actually going there–I want to know at least enough to get around if I got lost before I went there)? I’ve been reading about a “immersion” method taught with language learning software, but don’t want to invest the $$$ if there is a better way to learn it… I took it in college years ago, but didn’t finish, but I still remember the French word for books!
    Thanks so much for this post, it is truly inspiring, exciting and validating! YOU are so inspiring; I told my husband last night that my new goal is to make 10k a month so I can easily pay for one of your Paris excursions and “immersions into the feminine” whenever I want to 🙂

  11. I stumbled back to your blog again and I feel inspired from what my eyes were fortunate enough to dance upon tonight. 🙂 I have never been a small-talker, usually preferring to observe others or just experience life, not so much discuss it with others (ie, I prefer doing something such as hiking or biking or boating or ziplining together rather than “visiting.”). I do like talking about real things with people, though (topics that move beyond what’s on TV or petty gossip). That usually means a smaller group and a chance for intimacy.

    My passions are many — right now I am working on volunteering with an organization that introduces children of all types who live in the city to the great outdoors. As a former child care provider, it really bugged me to see how disconnected these “city kids” were to nature. They have grown up with adult supervision at all times in neatly manicured lawns. They have neither time nor freedom to explore outside and there are no “woods” in a city to explore anyway.

    If a child is not allowed to play in nature, that child will never appreciate nature and will not advocate or protect nature. So, it’s really up to us to give children time and space to play in the woods. 🙂

    Next time you pass a daycare center check out their play yard and ask yourself seriously if that is where you would like to spend most of your time each week. They remind me of prison yards. I don’t say this to make parents feel guilty for sending kids to daycare, but to maybe help wake people up and demand more for their children. There is a chain-link fence, soft grounding so no one gets hurt, and some big mongo play structure. “Playing outside” is no different than “walking the yard” in prison-talk in a setting such as that.

    I really want to make natural playgrounds the norm. Rocks, dirts, trees, grass, hills, valleys, bugs, sticks, space, herbs, grasses, sand, streams, etc. I had one at my daycare the kids loved it. Imagination looms in nature. They were “free to explore” even though I was supervising.

    Don’t get me started on nature for people with disabilities…..I envision centers (greenhouses to control climate for those who could use this in the winter as well) that are wheel-chair friendly, quiet (for those sensitive to noise), with a pet therapy room (cats, kittens, dogs, puppies, etc..), gardens, water fountains, walking paths, swings, etc……………

    these passions feel stuck in my head, though…… hard to bring them to fruition.

    • Janelle,

      Thanks SO much for stopping by and sharing your passion. I love your visions. As to how to bring them to fruition, I’m a big believer of talking about your desires, sharing them with as many as possible. Eventually, doors begin to open.



  12. adored this post. so sweet and yet cheeky.

    I am a seeker. Always curious. specifically with matters of the deeper realms of life, for instance the subconscious mind, healing, spirituality as it connects to us as humans and living better and healthier lives. As in love as I am with that depth. I love psychology and philosophy and any mystical poetry like Rumi and Khalil Gibran it is like a soul orgasm. Right now I am in the midst of a transition, mostly focusing to be honest on myself. Discovering what my truth is, what gets me turned on. what pleasures me. I love spirituality as much as I love sex as much as I like cursing and healing. I feel like I am a crazy contraction on my bad days and like a perfect combination of all my favorite archetypes of the goddess on my good days.

    I spend my time reading poetry, writing (will be releasing my first book next year!), and living out my soul project in this world I guess we can call it my business cosmiclife.com and just trying my best.

    Your post and your style tickles this sultry and flirty side of me I like it 🙂

  13. I totally agree with this post! There is a book called Intellectual Devotional made for those of us who have forgotten all the things we learned in school. A good primer for further pursuit of the intellect. I highly recommend this book.

  14. I’ve reread this post a couple of times. Love it. On a different note: What is the painting displayed for the post. I would love to find a print.


  15. What a great post. I grew up in a family that had no depth in conversation and even when people do bring things up, things tend to get angry and nobody is really heard (i.e.. over politics). I’ve always felt like a black sheep and sometimes feeling bottled up in expression comes out in defensive ways. Sometimes even isolating. It is really too bad that there is not always fun and ease in conversation today. I LOVE this post. I’m working at living a life with more ease and fun and expression. I love to learn and if I could be a student and get paid, that would be my dream job. I plan to start learning Italian. Which, by the way, do you have any recommendations on the best way to approach learning an new language as an adult? I hope to create an online business much like yours too, and am in the process of gaining clarity of what that would look like. Anyways, love your message!!!! xo

  16. This post is like a splash of cold water thrown on my face – I needed it! I’m 69 and retired, but that’s no excuse for not continuing to learn and cultivate charm and grace. I moved from CO to VA 2 years ago for my husband’s health, and have been in a slump ever since, with no friends, and no outside interests. Well, that’s going to change. I’m about to take charge of my life again, and follow my passions. I have a National Geographic course on learning French, but haven’t really used it yet. That’s going to change. I’m also going to watch less mundane TV, read more, and get back to visiting museums, etc. I do have some favorite foreign movies. Amelie, and Pane and Tulipa to name a couple. I just signed up for a writing group and will attend my first meeting on Wednesday. Life – here I come! Thanks Tonya for awakening the passionate woman in me I used to be.

  17. I really needed this post today after my husband revealed that he didn’t know WHAT I was interested in. I toast to “wide horizons” and need to make sure I am looking to those horizons myself. As always, thank you Tonya, you’ve nailed the topic succinctly and eloquently.

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