Oxford Collage: A conversation with Theodore Zeldin

Charlotte Tosti speaks to philosopher, historian and Fellow at St. Anthony’s College, Theodore Zeldin, about the evolution of conversation

In an age where most younger generations are sourcing information from the social media, and are using these same platforms to communicate, the shape of our conversations are changing considerably. One in four people socialise more online than in person, and this figure is expected to rise. Yet the effect of this is broader than simply the decline of vocal, face to face conversation. The social media allows us to increase the amount of ‘friends’ we are exposed to, yet we are usually selecting these individuals. And mostly, where we may select, we tend to opt to communicate with people who are like-minded, who share our interests and who are largely the same age, and who are from a similar economic background. The result is that whilst we believe that we are communicating with others on an unprecedented level, the fact is that we are communicating with a narrow strand of individuals – people like ourselves.

It is a situation that almost reminds me of a Peter Serafinowicz sketch called ‘The Clone House’. ‘The Clone House’ is a parody of the Big Brother show, in which all of the housemates are effectively clones, and are all named ‘Stevie’. The housemates are virtually indistinguishable from each other, both in terms of their appearance and behaviour, yet the ‘Stevies’ themselves seem convinced that they are not.

Indeed, the ‘Stevie model’ of communication is appealing. Those who share similar views to ourselves are probably going to give us self-validation when we converse with them. The more people we speak to that are like ourselves, the more our views are authenticated, the more we assume everyone holds a similar opinion.  However, the ‘Stevie model’, when placed in a real world context, has dangerous consequences. The most evident were political. ‘Unanticipated’ events in the last year, such as the vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as US President, to name a few, had shaken the liberal elite. Yet their surprise was arguably a symptom of an underlying ignorance towards what people unlike ourselves are really thinking. We are thus cocooned in conversation with different animations of ourselves.

Theodore Zeldin is a renowned academic with fellowships at the British Academy, the Royal Society of Literature, and the European Academy. Later in his life, he developed an interest in conversation. He has written a book on the history of conversation, and founded an associated organisation, The Oxford Muse, that seeks to bring individuals from different backgrounds together to initiate conversation between them. I speak to him about the lack of interaction between individuals with different views, and how we can improve conversation in our everyday lives.

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I begin by asking what he thinks is the importance of conversation. He doesn’t really answer my question, implying I should know conversation is important, and instead proceeds to explain why the importance of conversation is being ignored. “I know all you undergraduates spend a lot of time fiddling with Facebook, which is something that really distorts conversation.” He explains that the rise of social media as a form of communication has led our conversations to become less interesting and valuable. They leave us increasingly bored, and ultimately isolated. “Some say isolation is more dangerous than tobacco. We are isolated because we are losing sight of real conversation.”

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I ask what ‘real conversation’ is. “Conversation is not about saying who am I, but who are you?. Where we simply seek to uphold our own views in conversation, either by interacting only with the like minded or not listening to those expressing different views, we are not having a conversation we are “not learning anything. We get bored.”

I discuss how a lack of interaction with those who are unlike ourselves not only makes us isolated as individuals, but could also make our views isolated as a group of like minded people. Zeldin affirms that the trend towards specialisation in our education has strongly limited our ability to communicate beyond validating our own views. He describes UK universities as “training colleges”, admitting that those who teach us are very competent individuals in “their field”, yet they alone cannot make our lives enriching. We leave university with a very dense, yet narrow education. An Oxford alumnus himself, he complains how when you meet people at this institution in particular, which values selection and specialisation, “you look in a mirror.”

Zeldin adds that not only does this make ourselves, and our views more isolated, the substance of our conversations becomes unimaginative. If we are often discussing the same topics, we will often arrive at the same, stale conclusions. An interaction with a wide range of different subjects, as well as people, makes conversation worthwhile. He asks me when was the last time I engaged in a conversation about something I didn’t know much about. I recalled witnessing a conversation about darts, which I am not remotely interested in. He asks me what I did. I explained that I listened to the conversation for a few minutes, did not participate in it and politely excused myself. “You should have stayed – asked questions! It is equally worth participating in conversations about things we know little about more as those where we have a lot to say. These conversations are where you can learn something enriching, even if that might be about darts…”

I ask about his understanding of conversation as an historian. Were people always reluctant to engage with people unlike themselves? “In the past people had difficulty speaking. They were scared of being called ignorant.” Zeldin describes how the class system on trains was established not only because bourgeois travellers did not wish to sit amongst livestock, but also because both the working and middle classes were uneasy about speaking to each other for fear of making a bad impression. Similarly, he highlights that some customs asked that men did not look women in the eye when speaking to them, unless they were a woman of kin or their wife. Yet whilst we have broken many communication barriers, Zeldin believes that “we are now more ignorant than they, even when hierarchies are being dismantled and etiquette is less important in conversation than ever before.”

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What is necessary, then, if we wish to shed our ignorance and engage in more enriching conversations? Zeldin speaks of a “fear of disagreement”. We are so frightened of interacting with individuals who may criticise us that we are becoming enslaved to our own ignorance. He suggests that we abandon this fear and be prepared to face criticism and even conflict in conversation. “Conversation is a means by which you expand your imagination. And the more you face friction, the more you enrich your imagination and the more you refine your ideas.”. He speaks to me about one of his memories when he was an undergraduate reading History at Oxford in the 1950s.

“There was a time when more or less every week, I would go to my tutorial and the tutor would ask me the same question. This was why ‘this or that’ had lost their power. Every week I would fumble about for a cursory answer, as most of us do in tutorials. Then when I finally plucked up the courage to challenge this tutor, I asked him why the loss of power was so important. Why are we always concentrating on power? Isn’t the failure to be an inspiration more of a loss than a lack of power?”

I ask him whether what he was trying to say with this anecdote was that the value of conversation is not a measurement of the extent to which we hold power in a conversation, or seek to undermine the power of the person with whom we are speaking. The value in a conversation is measured by our capacity to be inspired by the person we are speaking to.

“Yes, precisely that.”

As we close the interview, Zeldin asks me to come along to the Oxford Muse with some friends and learn how to have more worthwhile conversations.

I admire Zeldin for his efforts in uniting people through conversation with his organisation. Yet to me, it is almost sad that we must engage with an academic society to be taught how to have a proper conversation.

Instead, I think that this could be achievable in our everyday lives. Perhaps we can begin by moving away from the college bars, and going to a pub. Cutting down on the dull buzz of taking another Buzzfeed quiz about yourself and find out about someone else. Instead striking people other than our peers down with the same empty gusto of flicking down faces in a game of Guess Who, we could take a gamble. That way, we might be less bored when we return to our ‘clone houses’.

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