Why it's good to talk

The art of conversation is lost and men are to blame, says Theodore Zeldin, the Oxford don who gives good chat.
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The Independent Culture
On Sunday, Theodore Zeldin will be at home, hoping for a conversation. So anxious is he to chat that he has posted notices around Oxford inviting complete strangers, disappointed by small talk, to drop by. It sounds like Monty Python's "Five Minute Argument", in which a man walks into an office and pays for a verbal dust-up. Indeed, sipping tea with this gentle Oxford don, I imagine him adopting that sketch's opening lines: "Whaddayou want? You snotty-faced heap of parrot-droppings?" It would certainly break the ice.

But that is not quite what Dr Zeldin has in mind. He is a very serious person, a fellow of St Antony's College who was once described as an "historian of people's hearts". But he is best known as author of An Intimate History of Humanity, a powerful manifesto arguing that we have only just started to explore the true depth and complexity of human interaction.

His new book, subtitled "How Talk Can Change Your Life", picks up where the last one left off. Conversation is, he says, the tool to explore those uncharted depths. It is the route to a Renaissance, a way in which individuals can help each other to find new freedoms and escape the tyranny of historical determinism.

To help us in the task, he has included many of his abstract paintings, with titles such as Conversation With Someone Who Ate Barbed-Wire for Breakfast. Additionally, the book comes with 36 questions at the back, such as "What is the antidote for conversations that make us feel small?" and "How old do you have to be to converse?". He wants to stimulate us into talking endlessly about conversation, a recommendation based on the principle that lovers enrich their love by ceaselessly discussing it.

So what kind of conversationalists does Zeldin want us to become? Certainly not wits or rhetoricians. He has little respect for the so-called great conversationalists of old. His book records an amusing exchange between the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Rogers, after they have listened to Coleridge for two hours without being given a chance to say a word. Emerging from the stream of rhetoric, the two men are initially fulsome in their praise for Coleridge. "What a wonderful man," says Wordsworth. Only after some time, with Wordsworth nodding, does Rogers admit: "I did not understand a syllable from one end of his monologue to the other."

For Zeldin, the great talkers of the past "too often avoided subjects which went too deep or were too personal. They cheated. Instead of saying what they thought, they repeated fashionable formulae or found epigrammatic ways of saying things they did not believe".

He argues, instead, for what he calls "New Conversation", one in which people are open, trusting, listening, relieved by verbal exchanges from their sense of isolation and the feeling that they are surrounded by conflict.

"I should like some of us to start conversations to dispel that darkness," he says, "to give ourselves courage, to open ourselves to strangers, and most practically, to remake our working world, so that we are no longer isolated by our jargon or professional boredom."

Dr Zeldin's goal is admirable and certainly in keeping with the fashion for confession. But I am surprised, having not met him before, to hear so little humour. He sits talking, listening, smiling benignly, his tea going cold, for nearly two hours, but not a single joke passes his lips. He is 65 years of age, yet his intense manner, bouffant hair and precise language reminds one of the child prodigy he once was, a precocious individual whose first school report stated: "He bestrides the school like a colossus."

So I ask Zeldin about humour, telling him about my own father, who is considered something of a conversationalist, peppering his language with anecdotes and jokes. "He sounds medieval," suggests Zeldin. "They tended to spice their conversation with proverbs. But it's a simplification of conversation, based ultimately on memory rather than thought, though it can be practised with great skill." He tells me about Baghdad "which was the centre of the world in about the year 1000. Conversation there involved a lot of quotation of classical texts. The great difference between then and now is that originality is demanded".

So should humour in conversation be admired? Zeldin equivocates, but his suspicion is clear. "There are many different types. There is compassionate humour - Dickens practised it. Then there is fantasy humour such as Lewis Carroll practised. But there is also bitter humour, whose purpose is as much to hurt as to please. Think of Voltaire, for example. And there is humour aimed at avoiding straight speech. People hide behind it."

All of which brings him to why the English really are not good at conversation. "The English reputation for humour," he says, "is a way by which people avoid revealing themselves and have superficial relationships, so that you can engage in banter without making yourself vulnerable."

Likewise, when we get onto the subject of which countries excel at conversation, I begin to realise why he thinks folk in Oxford may be feeling exasperated and so drop by his house on Sunday.

"The French," he says, "have made conversation their claim to civilisation." He points to the great salons of the 18th century as providing a history to this aspiration. But Britain is different. "The British have turned their sense of humour into a national virtue. It is odd, because through much of history, humour has been considered cheap, and laughter something for the lower orders. But British aristocrats didn't care a damn about what people thought of them, so they made humour acceptable.

"The consequence is that the British media is full of comics and banter, whereas in the French media, you have rather more respect for conversation. French radio once made a programme about me in which the conversation lasted for three hours on a Sunday afternoon. No British radio station would dream of doing that."

Zeldin is, as ever, the polymath, the internationalist, the academic gadfly, and he proceeds to dip into other cultures and their attitudes to conversation. Russia, for example, where he says conversation flourished almost as a reaction to totalitarianism. And Calcutta, which "prides itself on conversation. They have built rooms for it in the same way that aristocrats in Western Europe had chapels on their estates".

As Zeldin discusses different nationalities, his love of conversation seems to echo and reveal a love of otherness. During our chat, he has little good to say about Britain. Ironically, as has often been remarked, he seems to speak with a slight foreign accent. He denies its existence, but perhaps it is a vestige of his Russian parentage that has survived his public-school education. Admiration for otherness also emerges as we tackle the subject of men. They are repeatedly identified in his book as anachronistic and problematic. It is men, through their attachment to bawdiness, slapstick, shop-talk and academic disputation, who slowed down progress toward what he calls "New Conversation". For Zeldin, the standard-bearers of this modern form of communication are women. And the "New Conversation", based on equality, consideration and breadth of subject, is a means to secure the rightful place of women in society.

I ask whether there is any particular skill that men, rather than women, bring to conversation? For once, Dr Zeldin is silenced. And then he replies: "I don't think there is anything a man can do that a woman cannot do." It is not an adequate answer. This is a subject upon which serious scientists of relationships are making innovative observations. But I cannot help feeling that Theodore Zeldin knows more about women than men. An Intimate History of Humanity is full of sympathetic vignettes about women, and his greatest praise is always reserved for his wife, Deirdre Wilson, a fellow distinguished academic whose life's work has been a new theory of communication.

Leaving Theodore Zeldin after an enjoyable conversation, I am left with an image of that very bright child, not quite comfortable in the male, English establishment world into which he was placed, and so in search of otherness. It is what seems to give him such passions for other cultures, and what has turned him into the bearer of a refreshing, subversive message in the often arid intellectual world of Oxford.

`Conversation - How Talk Can Change Your Life', by Theodore Zeldin, is published by The Harvill Press, price pounds 6.99