London tries next revolution in connectivity: talking, not Tweeting

Theodore Zeldin's 'Oxford Muse' program encourages deep, in-person, one-on-one conversations that promote understanding. Some participants call it 'liberating.'

By , Staff Writer

Twenty-first century humanity has mapped oceans and mountains, visited the moon, and surveyed the planets. But for all the progress, people still don't know one another very well.

That's the premise of Theodore Zeldin's "feast of conversations" – events where individuals pair with persons they don't know for three hours of guided talk designed to get past "Where are you from?"

Mr. Zeldin, an Oxford University dean emeritus who veered into the history of relationships, heads Oxford Muse, a 10-year-old foundation based on the idea that what people need is not more information, but more inspiration and encouragement.

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Earlier this month at the View Tube cafe on the site of the London 2012 Olympics, Zeldin oversaw 200 Londoners who "organically" paired up and spoke tête-à-tête. An actual dinner was served. But the real meat was on a "menu of conversation" with topics like, "How have your priorities changed over the years?" Or, "What have you rebelled against in the past?" And "what are the limits of your compassion?"

Humanity, the final frontier

Ten years ago, Zeldin decided that were he living in the 16th century, he'd want to explore America. If he were in the 20th century, it would be the solar system. Today, the frontier is man.

The "feast" works off his "Intimate History of Humanity," which looks not at politics or events, but at how people have felt about work, relations among the sexes, hopes and fears, enemies and authority, the shape of their lives. That makes the feast concept kind of "anti-Twitter," though not in a hostile way. It's the opposite of speed dating, too, though it's not matchmaking. Feasts have been held in Europe, Asia, and on corporate retreats.

As conversants gathered, Zeldin, who with a great puff of white hair could be a character from "Lord of the Rings," opened with a homily: that despite instant communications in a globalized era, issues of the human heart remain. Many people are lonely, or in routines that discourage knowing the depths of one another. "We are trapped in superficial conventions, and the whole point now is to think, which is sometimes painful," he says. "But thinking interaction is what separates us from the other species, except maybe dogs … who do have generations of human interactions.

"We ... aren't interrogating but talking with each other," he says.

Talking, not tweeting

Londoners heard about the free event, which was hosted by Create 10, a British group doing cultural outreach for the 2012 Olympics, on morning shows; the 200 places were snapped up quickly. The main rules: Don't pair with someone you know or ask questions you would not answer. The only awkward moment came when the multiethnic crowd of young adults to seniors, in sun hats and tank tops, ties and dresses, looked to see whom they would be "intimate" with for hours. But 15 minutes later, everyone was seated and talking, continuing full force until organizers intervened 180 minutes later.

"It is encouraging to see the world is not just a place of oppression and distance from each other," Zeldin summed up. "What we did is not ordinary, but it can't be madder than the world already is."

Some said they felt "liberated" to talk on sensitive topics. Thirty-something Peter, from East London, enthused that "it might take weeks or months to get to the level of interaction we suddenly opened up."

Zeldin, an adviser to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, told the Monitor that "specialization" has kept people "scared of getting out and discovering things that are different, people that are different."

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