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Theodore Zeldin: Everybody has a story worth hearing

by - 26 November

My interview with Oxford scholar and thinker Theodore Zeldin on the art of conversation, the future of work, the important news today and why happiness is an illusion 

What is the best conversation menu to really connect with others?
For me conversation is a meeting of two individuals who exchanged their intimate thoughts and opinions and their prejudices. I cannot have a good conversation with you unless you tell me about yourself. That will cause new ideas in me. I talk to people because I want to understand the world. It is an exchange and I give as much as I take.

Have we forgot how to talk and to listen to each other?
We haven't forgot because we never knew how to do it. In the past people used to try to persuade other people to be at the same opinion. You had to be very careful what you said to people who had power because they could then cause you trouble. Therefore we did not talk too much. We were afraid to talk and we're still very afraid to talk in many places. We have to invent a new conversation and that means that we move from the public sphere to the private sphere. The private sphere is the only place where you can be less afraid that what you say will be used against you. In private life one can make interactions and relationships. And what matters most to people today is that personal relationships: their family and their friends. And that is how you reconstruct society - by small nanoparticles.

Can you describe yourself as the best listener in the world?
 I haven't met everybody so I cannot say I'm the best. But I am curious and I am interested in what others have to say, for the simple reason that in order to know what I think I need to interact with other people. Whenever one hear something he needs to express one's reaction in order to be a further reaction. They need the stimulus of other people to think beyond their existing thoughts. If you just behave in normal way your conversations are filtered by your brain.  So if you listen only to the things which you agree and you don't listen to anything else, you will remain unchanged, remain a vegetable.

How did you get fascinated by the art of conversation?
When I was young I was quite a shy student passing examinations. In fact it was because of having friendships with women. Women in fact taught me to speak. Women came to talk to me when I was an young professor. It was just they would like to talk to somebody interesting. That made me realize how it is possible for men and women to do something which they have not done before. We should treat each other as sources of enlightenment.
I remember I've put once a rich person to talk with a very poor person. It just destroyed the rich person. He had never talked to a poor person. I myself had a very good talk with a murderer.  He just come out of prison. It was very interesting. Everybody got a story. And I think one of the limitations on conversations are that people don't have the opportunity to talk to people different from themselves at all. The rich are the worst prisoners of all. This is because we choose to talk people that are like us. And that's because because we are afraid to talk to different people. I've met quite a lot of rich people and I see how they're afraid that you want to take their money away.

What's the meaning of curiosity in your life?
Curiosity is what distinguishes human beings from other living creatures. If you are not curious you're only living at twenty-five percent.  There is no limit to my curiosity but it has to be a curiosity which is fruitful. You have to say well what else is possible? Perhaps there is room for a new idea.
You have to know an individual in order to free yourself from prejudices. The passport is no longer satisfactory. It doesn't say anything about you. It says you have blue eyes but that's not important. What is important is what you have to say, what you have to contribute.

If you were a news producer what would be the most important news today?
I think we have to get our attention to work: how people work. How people spend that time is the most important thing to them. Business is about buying and selling time. You have sold your time for a certain amount of money each day. So are you using your time to the best advantage? This is the big question. So we really have to think again about how people work and whether they should spend all their time doing very stupid jobs just for the money not because they like them, not because it makes them better people. How you spend your time is my news for today.

How do you think we can reinvent the work so that people feel satisfied?
I think increasingly people who are being educated are developing new ambitions and new aspirations about how they want to spend their life. A lot of peope want a steady job to have security and I accept that. But there are people who want more adventure, want to see many countries, want to have many different experiences. Businesses should take account of the fact that they're going to have more and more difficultiles in recruiting people. So there will be eventually a movement by young people: they'll have the capacity to choose the kind of work they want and to move between different occupations. If we're going to live to 100 years, are you going to spend 100 years doing the same things?

What's your opinion about the idea of basic income? Do you think people would have more time to do the things they really want to do?
No, I don't agree with it. I think we have to do more. We have to think about technology. We have to rethink our housing, clothes and food, which is not at all intelligent at the moment. Instead of this financial solution I want an intelligent solution.

What do you mean by saying that the origin of change now is the couple?
 It means that if you and I talked not for half an hour but for a few days, a few months, a few years, we will have an influence on each other, and we will slightly alter our prejudices, and we will learn something which we won't otherwise. That will be small changes but important one.

You said that for a man to be happy he should be blind? Why is that?
 I once wrote a book about happiness in which I imagine a young woman obtaining a visa to visit to Paradise. She visited all the people in Paradise and asked: "Are you happy"? All the people she met in Paradise were real historical people. Most of the people in Paradise were too tired to be happy. They just wanted to sleep. I think most people are now too tired. So what happiness means is how to get out of the stress of life. Even if people get what they want, their lives are not complete. So you might say you're very happy - you've got two children, and a dog, and a house. And that is all you want from life but you're only half alive and you haven't been fully alive and it seems to me that happiness is a dream. You cannot be happy if you see that in most of the world there is so much misery and so much poverty. How can you be happy if you think only about yourself? Is it is not happiness, it is illusion. Because when I see all these millions of people which's homes have been destroyed and they have done nothing wrong and then an airplane comes and drops the bomb on their home it is absolutely tragedy. It's ridiculous. How can anybody in the world be happy with what is going on now?

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