Theodore Zeldin: The Art of Conversation

If you want to gain trust in your profession, conversation is the best way to achieve it.

Nowadays we do much more talking than we did in the past but we haven’t studied conversation. Talk is different from conversation. In the beginning, people were scared to talk, it was dangerous to say the wrong thing, or to say what you think. But if you look at how people did talk when they started, you find that they are influenced by their social context. So people said what they thought other people would want to hear, which of course meant that nobody actually knew what you thought. We’ve now invented different types of talk: scientific talk – a pared down, unemotional, rational talk; academic talk – essentially argumentative a battle in which one side won and the other shut up; separation of the sexes – women encouraged not to talk to eat separately. So this is not something that we’ve always done, it is something new that we’re developing. The americans revolted against etiquette talk in favour of plain talking or straight talk. Of course this became ritualised and hypcritical over time. We have also proscribed some types of talk, racist, sexist.

Now a new kind of conversation – who it is you keep company with – a social activity not just the exchange of words. Now another kind is needed what a person is like, what they think and what we think too an exploration and a self-examination – a conversation about what is important in your life. Not only do you build trust by letting people in, you also borrow from that person some of the experience that they share with you and you then emerge a different person. So the big revolution of the last century has been the arrival of women in the public sphere and they have introduced stuff that previously were considered too intimate and emotional and conversation can never be the same as a result. His proposal then is that the things you think you can talk about are not enough for you to talk about and if you wish to be treated as an interesting trustworthy person you have to learn how to talk in what was previously considered a more private way.

You’re in corporations not only to make money but to bring people together to do things that they could not do alone. The new conversation is a method of creating a network and you can therefore see that the role of experts in conversation is not just transmitting information but creating something new.

Public opinion polls show that people don’t trust business to tell the truth. This has gone on for a long time – advertising has not worked and charity has not worked. The philanthropic activities which comprise a small section of the budget of corporations will be rethought and corps will see that they need to engage with the community in a very different way. The role of business leaders is the construction of new networkd – what is missing in people’s lives is networks. Survey question – if you got into real trouble who could you rely on for help? Only 55% said their parents would help them – a sign of the disintegration of the family networks. New ones are needed to supplement what is disappearing.

The new relationship between public work and private life. People are going to increasingly complain that they are not happy to do horrible jobs, doing work that does not enhance them as humans. The young recruits are demanding that the corporation change and engage with the community in more diverse ways. People want to expand in life not just be an instrument of others. So what we say about conversation is as applicable to our private lives as it is to our public lives. Moving towards harmonizing public and private, become more like a family. Of course, families are changing too, still learning to be honest and for men and women to talk, for fathers and children to talk and be friends.

Give the same attention to conversation as you do to looking after your body (!) We’re in a process of disintegration unless we do something about it. Studies show that conversation is a very powerful way of maintaining the brain.

It is not enough to know a lot and be able to talk narrowly about your stuff, you have to be able to communicate with people from different backgrounds in different contexts. So you have to broaden the kind of training you do to cultivate conversation. This is totally different from communication – conversation is an art, so there is no guaranteed way of becoming a good conversationalist and everyone develops their own style. Until recently people had to fit into fixed categories. Now the individual is accepted and the mystery is what is going on for you.

There is now an enormous opportunity for us to change the world and facilitate conversation. Learn the lesson of trains – two solutions for building railway carriages – a boatlike democratic space or closed compartments which encouraged the middle classes to segregate and conversation became cut off.

How can you learn to converse? At dinner tonight, we’ll have a menu of conversation and be seated in pairs – 25 questions about what is important in life for you and for others – to get you into real conversation rather than smalltalk. If you give a lot, you will get a lot back.

And so we’re going to have dinner… and you’re not – I’ll tell you what it was like some other time

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11 thoughts on “Theodore Zeldin: The Art of Conversation”

  1. This is a masterful summary. The discussion is still going on and to me this was probably the best talk of all. Well done for preserving it for posterity. :-)

    And yes, we are going to have a ‘conversational’ dinner putting the methodology to test.

  2. This is brilliant! I love this guy! Anyone who advocates conversation and more conversation is alright in my book. Except…

    “The americans revolted against etiquette talk in favour of plain talking or straight talk.” Hooray! “Of course this became ritualised and hypcritical over time.” Booooo.

  3. Lucie, you are right. It could be used for that purpose and would work a lot better than speed-dating (I only saw it on TV, so not a good judge of that)).

    I think Theodore’s approach really works – as in you do get to know the other person and make connections on levels that are rarely explored in the usual social interactions.

  4. Adriana: Thanks, I love it when you call me (or at least my writing) masterful ;-)

    Lucie: I’d prefer to think of it as speed networking, I had a great conversation with my dinner partner, Dan, but I don’t think I’d have enjoyed it as much if I’d thought it was a “date”. :-S

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  6. Great notes, Lloyd, as ever. Good to see you there (and you *did* look masterful in that grey jumper ;)
    Hope it was worth the trip

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  8. Heard the radio 4 program. Sound great but where you we go if we come against advcates of lifestyles that do not accept your own.
    e.g. the traveller that finds it ‘wrong’ for his child not to be allowed to hit other children at school if s/he feels offended.

  9. Heard same programme and became inspired by the idea. It appears to advocate the best kind of best conversations I had when i was a student . Since then, most conversations are personal, domestic & trivial,

    The question for me is how do i move a conversation to something more fascinating, stimulating, challenging.?

    I will try a new approach withj communities with which I’m linked eg my local in International Club which i started after working outside the UK

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