The Muse organises Conversation Meals at which you are seated in pairs with someone you have never met, or know only very vaguely. You are each given a Menu of Conversation that looks like a restaurant menu, with starters, fish, grills, dessert etc, but instead of descriptions of food dishes, each heading contains topics to talk about, 25 in all.
A Muse introduces the meal and explains how to proceed and the rules of what is more than a game. Each of you chooses a topic, and when you have finished discussing it, the other chooses a topic and so you go through the Menu. That normally takes two hours, though we have known it to last seven hours.
We have been amazed by how quickly the conversations become animated, and how interesting and memorable the event becomes. You get to know a stranger very well, and find that you are learn a lot about yourself too, in discussing such topics as ambition, curiosity, fear, friendship, the relations of the sexes and of civilisations. One eminent participant said he would never again give a dinner party without this Muse Menu, because he hated superficial chat. Another said he had in just two hours made a friend who was closer than many he had known much longer. A third said he had never revealed so much about himself to anybody except his wife. Self-revelation is the foundation on which mutual trust is built To read what a very wide variety of participants have said after a Muse Conversation, click here.
The Muse has organised Conversation Meals in many countries from Beijing and Delhi to Istanbul, Paris, London, Johannesburg and Montreal, and for a great variety of organisations, from businesses like Ikea, BMW, McDonalds and Novotel Hotel, to government departments like Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the British Council and the Arts Council, the Minatec Nanotechnology Laboratory in France, as well as the Hayward Gallery and the Blouin Gallery, the Quakers, the World Economic Forum at Davos, Oxford University, museums and schools, and also the general public, sponsored by a local community or mayor, where anyone can join in.
We would be pleased to collaborate with you in organising a Conversation Meal. The donations we receive in recognition of our help sustain our other activities. Contact email@example.com or Interesting Students for the Conversations organised by the Oxford University Students Muse Society.
22 August is Theodore Zeldin’s birthday. Three years ago, instead of inviting his friends to celebrate it, he issued an invitation through the media to everybody he did not know to join him, and have a conversation with a stranger. This proved such a success that we have made it a regular event. On the first occasion we held the party in an art gallery. The second year, we held it in the open air, in Regent’s Park London and in 2010 in Hyde Park London You are paired at random with a stranger and have a conversation using the Muse Menu which is displayed on a huge banner six metres high, kindly donated by a well-wisher.
Cities are full of strangers, and tourists hardly ever speak to the local inhabitants. The Feast of Strangers celebrates the pleasure of getting to know someone different. There are still six billion individuals for you to discover.
The Muse would be happy to help you organise a Feast of Strangers in your city on 22 August, so that this can be an international acknowledgement that we, who are all strangers to others, value the new perspectives that strangers give us.
This is for people who are starved of conversation which is not just superficial chat, or gossip, or a painless way of passing the time, or argument, or professional shop talk. Our ambition is not to revive the supposedly lost art of conversation, because so much of what passed for conversation in previous centuries was ruled by etiquette, where you said what you were expected to say, flattering the powerful and trying to show your superiority over those you despised. If you are interested in getting to know how other people see the world and in exchanging ideas about what is most important to others as well as to yourself, then you are pioneering a new phase in human relations. When two people talk with mutual respect and listen with a real interest in understanding another point of view, when they try to put themselves in the place of another, to get inside their skin, they change the world, even if it is only by a minute amount, because they are establishing equality between two human beings.
Theodore Zeldin gave six twenty-minute talks on Conversation for BBC Radio 4 which aroused so much interest and comment that the text was published in book form, under the title Conversation, and this book has been translated into many languages. For the role that women have played in improving conversation, you can also read his book An Intimate History of Humanity.
Dancing is another kind of conversation. Few realise how important a part dancing has played in the history of freedom, in throwing off old habits throughout the ages, in creating new bonds and in revealing aspects of personality normally concealed by decorum. Martin Luther said: "Dances were conceived so that the young would learn to conduct themselves towards other people." The French Revolution produced not only an explosion of speechmaking and rioting, but also of dancing, and the opening of 700 dance halls, where the waltz became the symbol of popular freedom, against the rigid formal steps of the aristocracy. Ever since, every generation has rebelled against the dancing of its predecessors. The liberals of 1830 introduced the can-can (denounced by the old as 'epileptic'); at the same time the socialists popularised the galop, which allowed a change of partners. The polka, imported from Prague, enabled dancers to flirt with Bohemianism. American freedom was brought into Europe in the 1870s with the Boston. The great break between rock and rock-and-roll coincided with the idealistic protests of the young in 1968, when couples stopped touching each other, when the man no longer took the lead, and when women no longer had to wait for men to ask them to dance. Hip-hop has expressed a new atmosphere in urban life. And so on.
However, each of these dances has created a segregation between generations and temperaments. We want the Muse to be a place where people who do not normally say much to each other can start conversing. So among the amusements of the Muse will be lessons in all the dances that have ever existed, to enable the middle aged to revive their pleasure in the dances of their youth and perhaps to try to learn some of the dances of the young, while the young have a chance to discover something of their heritage. Experiments in the University of Paris have shown that when offered such opportunities, there is an enthusiastic response among many young people, who also recognise that learning unfamiliar forgotten dance steps gives a feeling of achieving something of value. Dancing is like a carnival, freeing you from what you normally are; dancing together creates harmonies between people with different tastes. That is also what conversation seeks.
The Muse places great importance on reviving conversation between the generations. It is not just for those who call themselves adults. On the contrary, it reveals the danger of thinking that one ever is adult, which sadly means fully grown, with no room to grow any more.
We invite volunteers to help us develop our plans for dances, an as yet unrealised ambition.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO DISCUSS HOSTING A MUSE CONVERSATION DINNER IN YOUR ORGANISATION, PLEASE CONTACT US ON firstname.lastname@example.org OR CALL 01865 862470.