OCT 04, 2021 8:26 AM PDT

People Prefer Deeper Conversations Over Small Talk with Strangers

WRITTEN BY: Annie Lennon

Strangers may be more interested in having deeper conversations with you than you think. The corresponding research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

“Connecting with others in meaningful ways tends to make people happier, and yet people also seem reluctant to engage in deeper and more meaningful conversation,” said Nicholas Epley, Ph.D., co-author of the study.

“This struck us as an interesting social paradox: If connecting with others in deep and meaningful ways increases well-being, then why aren’t people doing it more often in daily life?” he added. 

To understand why this may be the case, Epley and colleagues conducted 12 experiments with over 1,800 people. In each experiment, participants were either instructed or told to decide whether to discuss ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’ topics with a stranger. 

‘Deep’ topics included: ‘Can you describe a time when you cried in front of another person?’, while shallow questions ‘What do you think about the weather today?’

Prior to each conversation, participants rated how awkward they thought their pending conversation would be, how connected they would feel with their conversation partner, and how much they would enjoy talking. They then rated the same metrics afterward. 

All in all, the researchers found that both types of conversation were less awkward and led to more connectedness and enjoyment than expected beforehand. And this was especially true for deeper conversations. Participants tended to overestimate the awkwardness of these conversations in particular. 

In other experiments, the researchers asked participants to predict how interested their conversation partner would be in the discussion and then afterward, how interested they actually were. People tended to underestimate their partner’s interest. 

The researchers then either told people to imagine they’d be speaking to a caring person or an uncaring person and to choose what kind of topic to speak about. Those told they would be talking to a caring person tended to choose deeper topics than those told they were talking to an uncaring one. 

In the last experiment, the researchers told participants the results of the other experiments- that most people underestimate the degree to which strangers like deeper conversations. These people tended to choose to discuss deeper topics with strangers than those not told. 

“Our participants’ expectations about deeper conversations were not woefully misguided, but they were reliably miscalibrated in a way that could keep people from engaging a little more deeply with others in their daily lives,” said Epley. 

“As the pandemic wanes and we all get back to talking with each other again, being aware that others also like meaningful conversation might lead you to spend less time in small talk and have more pleasant interactions as a result.”

 

Sources: Journal of Personality and Social PsychologyNeuroscience News

About the Author
University College London
Annie Lennon is a writer whose work also appears in Medical News Today, Psych Central, Psychology Today, and other outlets. When she's not writing, she is COO of Xeurix, an HR startup that assesses jobfit from gamified workplace simulations.
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