Theodore Zeldin and the Art of Conversation

While astronomers ponder the mysteries of distant stars and planets, Theodore Zeldin, historian and philosopher, is concerned with something that is just as unknowable, but rather closer to hand - what goes on in other people's heads. While he does not believe that we can ever know someone else's deepest thoughts, he does believe that there is a pressing issue for us all - the need for real conversation. He argues that the modern pressures we all face, of work, the decline of the family, and indeed the distancing effect that a lot of technology creates, all mean we can find we have less time for conversation.

As well as his writings about the importance of conversation, Theodore Zeldin, who lives in Oxford UK, set up in 2001 an organisation called The Muse. It is a charitable trust in the UK (and a non-profit Foundation in the USA), and the aim is to improve personal and professional relationships through conversation. This might seem a little ethereal as an ambition. So what actually happens? One of the events they organise are Conversation Dinners.

Imagine the following scenario... you have agreed to attend one of these dinners; the cost of the ticket covers the cost of your meal. You arrive at the designated restaurant. You can go with a friend or a partner if you wish, but this is not necessary, indeed if you go with a partner, you won't actually spend any time with them during the evening! You will find a group of like-minded people gathered at the restaurant, and initially, while people chat over a drink, things will not seem all that unusual. However there will be someone there who has the role of organising the evening, and once all the guests have arrived, you will be paired with one other person. Ideally someone you have never met before, or at least someone you only know very distantly. You and your 'partner for the evening' will be shown to your table. And for the whole of the evening, the only person you will talk to is the partner you have been paired with.

When you sit down at the table, you will be handed a menu. But this is not a food menu, although there may be sections entitled SOUP and FISH. But under these headings will be topics of conversation, maybe 25 in all. What sort of questions? Well, the sort of thing you might find are questions such as 'What have you rebelled against in the past and what are you rebelling against now?' 'How have your opinions and behaviour changed on the way the two sexes treat one another?' 'When have you felt isolated?''What has been your most difficult conversation?'

One of you will choose the first topic of conversation from the menu, and the two of you will discuss it as long as you wish. Theodore Zeldin's only plea is for honesty. Then the other person will choose the next item from the conversation menu, and so on. Over the course of the meal, the two of you will hopefully have an interesting and meaningful conversation. The following quote comes from The Muse website -

'We have been amazed by how quickly the conversations become animated, and how interesting and memorable the event becomes. You get to know a stranger very well, and find that you are learn a lot about yourself too, in discussing such topics as ambition, curiosity, fear, friendship, the relations of the sexes and of civilisations. One eminent participant said he would never again give a dinner party without this Muse Menu, because he hated superficial chat. Another said he had in just two hours made a friend who was closer than many he had known much longer. A third said he had never revealed so much about himself to anybody except his wife. Self-revelation is the foundation on which mutual trust is built.'

Normally the conversation will last 2 or 3 hours, although there have been occasions when two participants became so engrossed, their conversation lasted 8 hours! Someone I know attended a Conversation Dinner recently, and afterwards said it was one of the most amazing conversations he had ever had.

The Muse has organised Conversation Dinners in many coutries around the world, sometimes for groups of individuals and sometimes for organisations like BMW, McDonalds, the World Economic Forum at Davos. If you are interested in hosting an event where you live, or work, The Muse will be happy to advise you.

Painting by Theodore Zeldin