Interaction Between People as the Crucial Motor of Change

Theodore Zeldin on interactions with people

Acclaimed philosopher and historian Theodore Zeldin has engaged in a lifetime of philosophical study in search of what a full and flourishing life could be. He says that our relationships with others is both the greatest problem and the greatest opportunity of the twenty-first century, “interactions between people are the crucial motor of change.”

Our society is full of untapped potential for richer, more creative human interactions. By relating to others we can learn to emerge from established patterns of thought and behavior and experience a fuller life. We do that two at a time—answering the question of who was the most influential person for you can give us a hint of the power of this intimate conversation with another.

He says:

For me, it is not individuals (or the masses) who change the world, but twosomes. It is couples who create the next generation. It is in private meetings between two individuals that we learn how to exchange encouragement and to feel what another person feels.

Big changes are superficial unless they are the sum of a lot of little changes in the way we understand and treat one another. Our life stories are dominated by the encounters we have had with particular individuals, and by our constant search for new encounters. The underprivileged are those who meet only other underprivileged people and can create no spark between them. They need intermediaries to bring about other sorts of encounter.

That is what work does, or should do. Work is a relationship. Now that many people are not content with relationships based on obedience, and regard work as an assertion of independence or temperament, they must be given a chance to design their own jobs, and choose their own colleagues, even their customers, within the limits of practicality and profitability.

Work as a relationship is evolving into networks of interaction, but it always starts with one person. When asked, most people who leave their jobs do so because they were dissatisfied in their relationship with their manager. The integration of values into work has not happened yet.

But there is one problem with that. Before we can become more fully invested in interacting with each other, we need to discover who we are. Zeldin says, “my ambition for this Century is to discover who inhabits the world. We don't know who we are.” We need to understand who we are talking with, who is in front of us to be able to relate.

Our memories are also very important. What went on in the past, their mistakes, failures, and learning from them. If the question is what makes a fuller life, or maybe the opposite, what is a waste of life, then we need to look at what other people have considered a full life, or a wasteful one.

We're many and well-educated, but mostly isolated from one another. Zeldin organizes conversations with people who don't know each othersomething I've done a lot of over the years (and will resume doing)and he's amazed at how hungry people are for getting to know others.

Rather than “know yourself,” then the purpose of life should be “know other people.” A simple way to start is by listening more. In some countries, everyone can say what they want, but if nobody is listening, what good is it? What we all want is to be understood and appreciated, yes even from our manager at work.

Zeldin spent some time at IKEA to help organize conversations that would help colleagues get to know each other, and customers to see who made the furniture. There was a sales associate who was passionate about horticulture, something nobody knew before they started talking.

Learning about one another helps us understand the person in front of us. His questions were, “why do our commercial activities be so isolated?” that we don't know each other, “why does art have to be separated from work?” that we don't know who the artist is. In business it's typical to think that we have to conceal as much  or more than we reveal.

Every day we're dying a little, it's what our cells do as they decay and cease to function. When we don't use our intellect, that is when decay sets in. Our lives end up being the sum total of how we spend our days. There's much more we can do with our lives than race to the end. We can make our own lives into a work of art. Interaction with others can and does expand our imagination.

It's useful to become more aware of what we do, how we spend our time in practice, then we can start by finding and spending time with the people who most stimulate our lives. What is unique about humans is our ability to think… we want to enjoy that and develop our thinking.

Zeldin is the author of An Intimate History of Humanity, a book for anyone interested in understanding how we relate to each other, and most recently The Hidden Pleasures of Life, devoted to addressing the dissatisfaction with modern life.