According to this BBC news item, Theodore Zeldin intends to celebrate his birthday by holding a party for strangers. Counter-intuitive as this may be, it sounds quite an interesting idea and I don’t doubt that Theodore is the man to carry it off.
There were several things that interested me in the report but I will refer just to two. The first is the assertion that people today have lost the art of conversation. According to Theodore,
I’m amazed by the number of women in their 20s and 30s who come to me and say ‘I just can’t find men who are able to talk’. They do not talk about matters that are deep and emotional.
This is indeed a cause for concern. Since we gave up picking nits and fleas from one another’s hair, conversation has served to bind us together as friends, lovers and communities. It is not only a valuable entertainment but an important way of resolving conflicts and worries. The “strong, silent man of action” may go down well in adventure stories but as a social being he is a disaster.
I have always been impressed by the fact that when I meet French people, be they strangers or long-term acquaintances, they are never stuck for something to say and before long we are deep in amenable conversation. In Britain, on the other hand, people do quite often seem stuck for something to say and will mask this by rushing you off to the pub and asking you several times what you want to drink or launching into a halting disquisition on the weather. Should the art of conversation be taught in school? Or does the fault lie with parents who should be encouraged to talk to their children rather than banishing them to their rooms so as to be able to watch telly in peace?
The second thing is raised by the assertion that
We can now spend our lives on mobile phones and computers feeling as though we are in contact but we are lost to those around us.
I find this far more controversial. To judge from the people I hear on buses and trains, in the streets and pubs and in the supermarkets, quacking away on their mobiles, people do use this instrument for deep and meaningful conversation. Not once but twice, I have come across people breaking up their relationships by mobile in the supermarket! It surely doesn’t get more meaningful and emotional than this…
As for “computers”, by which, I take it, the online world of email, conferences and chat are meant, I would again be less pessimistic than birthday-boy Theodore. I have had meaningful conversations with people by these means and have subsequently met some of them in the flesh. This means that I now have friends that I would not otherwise have had. Is this to be dismissed as “not meaningful”?
At the back of the minds of many people I speak to about my online activities is the image of the shy, socially incompetent misfit who cannot manage relationships with “real” people and thus engages in a kind of social masturbation via the Internet. I think this is largely a myth created by the sensationalist media. To be frank, I don’t think the socially incompetent can hack it online any better than they can in the pub.
What I do think the online world does is turn people into blank sheets when you first meet them. You cannot dismiss them because of their colour, because they are disabled or because they have red hair, simply because you do not know this until you are told, by which time, all being well, you will have come to respect them for the inner person, not the outer shell. The online world is in that sense a great leveller: everyone starts off on an equal footing.
I don’t doubt that Theodore is a talented and interesting man and I would like to meet him for myself. I am sure that in his conversations and in his books (which I have not yet read) he speaks a lot of sense. Perhaps we should pay more attention to our relationships and make sure we set aside time to talk to one another rather than sitting in separate corners doing sudoku or watching East Enders. I think that there is also a danger that the online world can distract us from attending to relationships nearer home and that this is obviously a bad thing. But I do not think that online relationships are necessarily of an inferior kind. I see them as a marvellous opportunity to communicate with more, people I would not otherwise have met.
Optimist, moi? Well, maybe…