Interview: Theodore Zeldin

The man who insists that it's good to talk.

By Anthea Gerrie, December 16, 2011
Zeldin: Men and women converse in completely different ways, he says

Zeldin: Men and women converse in completely different ways, he says

Theodore Zeldin believes conversation has the power to change the world. Not a chance remark, and certainly not small talk, but the kind of meaningful exchange of ideas we tend deliberately to avoid in social situations.

Now the celebrated philosopher and historian is travelling the world holding talk-fests where people begin to discuss a topic with a complete stranger,

"We think of speaking as something we do naturally, without any effort," says the 78-year-old Zeldin, who was born in pre-Israel Palestine and studied at Oxford . "But like playing music, it requires attention and knowledge and practice."

Zeldin's aim is to get people to really understand one another by encouraging them to talk one-on-one for at least two hours about their priorities and the way they believe life should be conducted. "I'm constantly astounded by the way people talk so openly to someone they don't know. They clarify in their own minds what is important to them, discover another person has similar problems, and create trust and even a friendship," he says.

People do find it easier to confide in strangers, he admits. "But the aim is to stop us being strangers. To my mind, the great adventure of this century is to discover who inhabits the world. That means doing what has never been done before, which is taking everybody seriously."

Women, he says, have already figured out how to do this. "They are talking - and in a different way from men who want to discuss politics and sport. Women want to talk about relationships and life." Men need to be organised into approaching conversation as a structured activity, he feels. "I'm amazed at the number of young women who tell me they can't find men to talk to them."

The subject of conversation has been exercising Zeldin since he wrote about it in his 1994 book, An Intimate History of Humanity.

"I was asked by the BBC to give some lectures, which made me formulate my ideas.

"Then some people set up the Oxford Muse Foundation to develop my ideas." A Texas-based industrialist, in fact, gave Zeldin seed money to fund his "conversation dinners", which he has held in 11 countries so far. "I've done it at the World Economic Forum at Davos, for groups of colleagues and students, even for Her Majesty's Revenue, who wanted to get to know their colleagues in the Department of Work and Pensions."

While most conversations are sponsored by businesses, in France, where Zeldin is well-known and has advised President Nicolas Sarkozy on labour reforms, the local government in Besancon organised a conversation dinner party in a huge park for hundreds of the city's inhabitants.

Jews are well-placed to engage in an exchange of ideas, believes Zeldin. "Judaism is not a dogmatic religion but one which loves debate, in which scholarship has played a big part. Scholars never agree about anything. The rabbis were interested in finding solutions to contradictions, and when three Jews meet they will have three answers to every question."

Zeldin is also helping people looking for partners to create self-portraits which he call "passports". "A CV just gives your qualifications, but doesn't say what you are really like or care about, while a passport goes to your heart."

It is the sort of approach that could also be used in the business world to land major clients, he believes. "The Chinese, who are becoming so dominant, always insist on establishing a personal friendship with an acquaintance before they do business. They want to know who they are dealing with, to feel it is someone on the same wavelength."

He believes this kind of humanisation of working relationships is the future. "Our present system prevents us from seeing the world from many sides rather than just our own viewpoint."

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Last updated: 11:08am, December 16 2011