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Let the Conversations Begin . . .

September 24, 2000|THEODORE ZELDIN | Theodore Zeldin, a senior fellow at Oxford University, is the author of "Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives," due this fall from HiddenSpring

If you have broken off relationships because they did not give you satisfying conversation, there is hope for you. You are not alone. A new hunger is sweeping through the world, a hunger for conversation. But reviving what people call the lost art of conversation is not the answer. We have to invent a new kind of conversational adventure.

For most of history, people have been frightened of saying too much, in case they offended the powerful, or of saying the wrong thing, revealing their ignorance or ineptness. They admired those who could win arguments and forced others to shut up. They tried to gain respectability by repeating the formulas of politeness. Conversation was like a ballroom dance with fixed steps, a way of passing the time or a battle.

Many people complain that family conversation is not what it used to be. In fact, in most civilizations, meals were eaten in silence, and women and children were expected to keep quiet. The revenge of the young, who now often dominate meals, is not a solution. We have to reinvent the art of talking at meal times and to find an alternative for our lost traditions of hospitality--free board and lodging for strangers--destroyed by the anonymity of huge cities where everything has a monetary price.

Our conversations at work have suffered because most of us have become experts, trained to use an incomprehensible jargon and frightened to speak outside our own specialty. We will not learn to converse better with our colleagues until we change the way we work.

Over the past century, many Americans have tried to reform conversation, rebelling against European etiquette and snobbery. Science has encouraged clarity of speech. Democracy has demanded plain talk and the purge of sexist and racist language. But this is only a beginning.

Now women are expanding our ambitions, exploring the meaning of intimacy and changing the language of love. Men no longer can impress by showing off their strength or wealth, at least not for long. Romantic talk is inadequate when people are not content to idealize their partners or to treat attraction as a thunderbolt from heaven, which can go as easily as it comes. Humor, though an indispensable lubricant, by itself does not create the respect that we all yearn for.

A new kind of conversation has become necessary. As opposed to mere talk or communication, conversation needs to be a process of self-transformation, an experiment that can stimulate us to say what we have never said before. Though it might be initiated by trivialities, it only becomes conversation when general questions that really matter to us and to others are extracted from them. In combining the experience of another person with our own, we must be willing to emerge a slightly different person. In such a conversation, we become equals, and there is no better way of establishing equality.

So everybody becomes capable of changing the world by a minute amount, because a successful conversation increases the sum total of respect. It is not just a detail of private life, but the necessary basis for all change in the public sphere.

How do we begin? Lovers discover what love is by endlessly discussing its mysteries. To converse better, we need to do the same with conversation. Experiments show that giving people the right kind of provocative questions or pictures to discuss can get them talking in ways that expand their potential. Even the tongue-tied and shy can surprise themselves by conversing passionately about conversation with complete strangers. We need conversation clubs just as we need sports clubs: not so that we can become champions, but so that we can better discover how interesting other people can be and how they can stimulate us to be more creative ourselves.

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