Now that's what I call chat

If discussing which topping to have on a pizza is your idea of conversation, you need to speak to Theodore Zeldin. The writer instructs Stuart Husband in a lost art
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The Independent Online

When did you last have a really good conversation? Think hard now. We're not talking trivia ("Ohmigod, did you see Big Brother last night?"); gossip ("Did you see those lips? I bet she's had them done"); networking ("So, you're big in bathrooms? Fascinating - take my card"), or banality ("I never used to have sugar in coffee but now I like two spoons"). According to conversation conservationists, such chat is killing off the art of true dialogue - an exchange of views that leaves participants shaken, stirred and enlightened in their world view rather than in the reasons behind Brad'n'Jen's split.

When did you last have a really good conversation? Think hard now. We're not talking trivia ("Ohmigod, did you see Big Brother last night?"); gossip ("Did you see those lips? I bet she's had them done"); networking ("So, you're big in bathrooms? Fascinating - take my card"), or banality ("I never used to have sugar in coffee but now I like two spoons"). According to conversation conservationists, such chat is killing off the art of true dialogue - an exchange of views that leaves participants shaken, stirred and enlightened in their world view rather than in the reasons behind Brad'n'Jen's split.

"It seems to me that we've never talked so much while saying so little," says the writer and academic Theodore Zeldin (as if to prove his point, a woman sitting near us is yakking into her mobile about the best route - including minor roads and shortcuts - from London to Eastbourne). Just as Truman Capote once described Hemingway's oeuvre as "not writing, just typing", so the words that we expel into the ether are just so much blah rather than real discourse. Zeldin wants to redress the balance. In his book, Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives, he argued that the 21st century needs a new kind of conversation - "one that you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person". His vision is a meeting of minds from different classes, age groups and workplaces, all coming together to exchange ideas - a society-wide Thinking Outside The Box.

"What's missing from the world is a sense of direction," he says. "We're overwhelmed by the problems that surround us, and our inclination is to retreat into our own hermetic universe. We can use conversation to dispel that darkness, create equality, give ourselves courage, open ourselves to strangers, and remake our working world, so we're no longer isolated by jargon." His model is the Renaissance, "a time when barriers came down and people gave themselves license to think and talk about everything in a stimulating way".

Zeldin has put his money where his mouth is. The forum for his ideas is the Oxford Muse ( www.oxfordmuse.com), a charity partly funded by the EU and based on the principles of Socrates, "the first conversationalist, who taught people not only how to talk, but how to listen and respond". The Oxford Muse holds "conversation dinners", a cross between a slow-dating session and an encounter group where volunteers - businessmen, derelicts, teachers, policemen - pair up and bravely wade out through the chitchat shallows to plunge into the infinite (possibly shark-infested) conversational deeps. Topics on the "menu" include, "What have you learnt about the different varieties of love in your life?" to, "Which of your fears have changed, and which fear do you notice most in others?".

Scholarly waiters and waitresses are on standby to throw a lifeline to the tongue-tied or floundering, but Zeldin claims that they're not usually needed. "People can break through their self-imposed blinkers and be made to see things anew," he says. "We had a businessman talking to a homeless man. The homeless man asked him what his biggest fear was, and he said failure. The homeless man made him see that failure could be just as important, if not more so, than success. It turned his thinking upside-down."

The Oxford Muse's vision is loosening tongues worldwide; there are "branches" in Houston and Paris, with further offshoots due this year in Australia and South Africa. The day after we meet, Zeldin was off to make his second visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, in an effort to persuade those who run the world that it might be good to hear the views of those who disagree with their policies, and vice versa. "Society is becoming entrenched," he argues (pertinently, as we're speaking the day after President Bush's second inauguration). "It's easy to say, 'I'm anti-capitalist', or, 'I'm anti-Western decadence', without having to be challenged about what that actually means, or how you might go about reshaping society to make it better. Conversation is the ideal tool for getting behind the façade and encouraging the broadening of curiosity and tolerance."

It sounds like a utopian dream, but Zeldin prefers to think of what he has set in train as an adventure in communication. "'Utopia' implies that I'm trying to create some kind of perfect society," he says, looking abashed. "I wouldn't dream of being so presumptuous. I have no ideal Heal The World-type scenario in mind. But I think that if we can, say, help young people to escape from the narrowness of specialist jobs, training or mindsets, or give older people more opportunities to share their experience with the young, to counter the segregation of the generations and of knowledge, we'll see big changes in the way that people relate to each other in daily life."

There's a pause that is immediately invaded by the voice of mobile-woman, who is now discussing the merits of various brands of cat food. There's a long way to go, I remark to Zeldin. "There is!" he laughs. "So much of what passes for conversation today is degraded. It's either about one-upmanship, or dreary trivia. Even the cut and thrust of wit and bons mots is a form of bedazzlement designed to stop conversations dead rather than broaden them. These are supposedly the most democratic times ever, and I'd like to see our conversations reflecting and building on that."

There are small signs that Zeldin's lead is being followed. Certain US restaurants now feature "conversation menus" modelled on those of the Oxford Muse, with questions to ask your dining partner, though alongside the full-fat likes of, "What emotion could you do without?", are lite alternatives: "Do you always order the same thing here?" Still, it's a start. I decide to apply the Muse conversational model to a supper party. It's textbook in its meeting of ages, professions and outlooks: me, a fortysomething journalist; a fiftysomething tailor; his teenage daughter; and a twentysomething researcher. I wait for the right opening. "Which of your fears have changed, and what fear do you notice most in others?" I finally ask. There's a pregnant pause. They look at me quizzically. But eventually, one of them takes the plunge, and we're off.

By the end of the meal, we're not exactly shaken and stirred, but we are inspired enough to try Zeldin's "menu" again soon. And Brad'n'Jen? Well, we couldn't help feeling that, if they'd only had more 21st-century conversations, it would never have happened.

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