Talk Is Cheap. Let’s Have a Conversation

What the new economy needs now is a good chat, says Oxford University professor Theodore Zeldin, who wants us to have conversations about the emotional, intellectual, and cultural dimensions of work.

If you want to create change in the workplace, start a conversation. So says Theodore Zeldin, Oxford University historian, philosopher, author, management consultant, and BBC radio personality. The soft-spoken sexagenarian might seem an unlikely expert on talk. But for the past three years, Zeldin has been conducting what he calls “human audits” of British workers across a spectrum of occupations and professions. This work is part of a research project funded by the European Commission (the administrative arm of the European Union) to create a new vision of work for the new millennium.


What has the good professor learned so far? The new economy doesn’t need more talk — it needs a whole new conversation. Zeldin believes that most of us are working in jobs that make use of only 20% to 25% of our potential. So companies, he argues, need to be reinvented to allow us to do work that we will find enjoyable, and that will make us better people. In an interview with Fast Company at St Antony’s College, Oxford, Zeldin got the new conversation rolling.

What conversations should we be having about work?

The jobs that currently exist don’t correspond to the kind of human beings we’ve become. Our interests and our needs have become more diverse, and yet our education systems make us specialists. My question is not How do we fit people to a career that will satisfy them?, but How can we change the work they do so that it suits them?

Take the hotel sector, which is stuck in a century-old model. Yes, hotels are places to sleep, but they are also places where foreigners meet. And since many people who work at hotels speak different languages too, why can’t hotels become cultural centers or language schools?

Why do you call it a “new conversation”?

Conversation creates a new kind of network within organizations. Current networks are used for competitive advantage, but conversation is focused on encouraging people to realize their potential. We are already seeing the creation of a new kind of network based on friendships: Startups, which are often founded by friends, are the beginning of something that could reshape social relations.


How do you audit happiness through conversation?

My method is quite simple: I talk at great length about every aspect of a person’s life and aspirations. I’m not interested in measurables. You cannot measure the minute nuance that makes the difference between being happy and unhappy at work. For example, I talked at length with a senior executive at one of the UK’s biggest retailers. Only after three hours did he reveal that he had always wanted to be an actor. He had been seduced by the salary, bonuses, and company car, and he had become a prisoner. But why should he be denied the opportunity to act? After all, what is a shop if not a piece of theater?

Aren’t we supposed to be enjoying our work more now?

We should abolish “work.” By that I mean abolishing the distinction between work and leisure, one of the greatest mistakes of the last century, one that enables employers to keep workers in lousy jobs by granting them some leisure time. We should strive to be employed in such a way that we don’t realize that what we’re doing is work.

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Sidebar: Talk This Way

It’s good to talk, says Oxford professor Theodore Zeldin, the author of Conversation (HiddenSpring Books, 2000). But engaging in world-changing dialogue involves more than sending and receiving information. The “new conversation” demands that you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person. Results cannot be predicted, but adventure is guaranteed. Here are a few of Zeldin’s tips on talking.


Get out more. “Asking the same old question, ‘Who am I?’, cannot get you very far. However fascinating you may think you are, there is a limit to what you can know about yourself. Other people are infinitely more interesting and have infinitely more to say.”

Think ahead. “Talk without thought is empty. Change the way you think, and you are already halfway to changing the world.”

Be bold. “We need to start using conversation to create courage in the face of failure. I’m talking about a balanced kind of courage that can resist disappointment and that can at last make us immune to the cynicism that has so long been our scourge.”

Talk with purpose. “The main purpose of engaging in conversation can no longer be personal advancement or respectability. Instead, I’d like for us to use conversations to create equality, to open ourselves to strangers, and, most practically, to remake our working world.”