Ditch the chit-chat! Deep meaningful conversations with strangers are LESS awkward and more enjoyable than small talk, study finds
Whether it’s during a long taxi journey or in the queue at the supermarket, there are often situations where we’re forced to talk to strangers.
While you might be tempted to opt for the standard topic of the weather, a new study suggests it may actually be less awkward to have a deep, meaningful conversation.
Researchers from the University of Chicago conducted a series of experiments in which volunteers engaged in both shallow and more involved conversations.
They found that people often avoid forging deeper connections because they underestimate how interesting other people will find what they have to say.
However, deep meaningful conversations were found to be less awkward, and more enjoyable than small talk.
People actually prefer to have deep, meaningful conversations (as pictured) with strangers over just making small talk — which feels more awkward — a study has found (stock image)
DEEP CONVERSATION STARTERS
If you’re bored of discussing the weather, you might try using the following questions from the study as deeper conversational prompts:
- For what in your life do you feel most grateful? Tell the other participant about it.
- If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, your future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
- If you were going to become a close friend with the other participant, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
- Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?
‘Connecting with others in meaningful ways tends to make people happier,’ said paper author and behavioural scientist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago.
‘People also seem reluctant to engage in deeper and more meaningful conversation. 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?’
To try to find an answer to this question, Professor Epley and colleagues performed a series of 12 different experiments involving a total of more than 1,800 volunteers.
In each test, participants were paired off — mostly with complete strangers — and tasked with engaging in conversation about either relatively shallow or deep topics.
Some conversations were prompted, while other tests saw the pairs come up with the their own shallow or deep topics about which to chat.
For shallow, small talk-style topics, for example, prompts included questions like ‘What do you think about the weather today?’ and ‘What is the best TV show you’ve seen in the last month?’.
The deep prompts, meanwhile, were designed to draw out more intimate and personal information.
Examples included ‘Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?’ and ‘If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, your future, or anything else, what would you want to know?’
Before the conversations, each participant offered their predictions on how awkward they thought the conversation would be be, how much they would enjoy the discussion and how connected to their partner they would feel.
And after each chat, they went on to rate how they actually felt.
‘Connecting with others in meaningful ways tends to make people happier,’ said paper author and behavioural scientist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago. Yet, he noted, ‘people also seem reluctant to engage in deeper and more meaningful conversation. This struck us as an interesting social paradox.’ Pictured: two strangers strike up a conversation (stock image)
The researchers found that conversations with strangers tended to be less awkward, more enjoyable and conducive to a greater feeling of connectedness than the participants expected — and more so for deep than shallow conversations.
In one specific experiment, for example, the volunteers engaged in a deep conversation with one partner and a shallow conversation with another. Despite expecting to prefer the shallow chat, they reported enjoying the deep one more.
Other tests had participants predict how interested their conversational partner would be in what they had to say, as compared to how interested they actually were.
The team found that participants consistently underestimated how interested other people would be in learning about their deeper feelings and thoughts — perhaps explaining why people are reluctant to start deep conversations in the first place.
‘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.’ explained University of Chicago expert Nicholas Epley
‘People seemed to imagine that revealing something meaningful or important about themselves in conversation would be met with blank stares and silence, only to find this wasn’t true in the actual conversation,’ noted Professor Epley.
‘Human beings are deeply social and tend to reciprocate in conversation.
‘If you share something meaningful and important, you are likely to get something meaningful and important exchanged in return, leading to a better conversation.’
In the final part of their experiments, the researchers set out to explore if having more accurate expectations about a conversational partner would increase their interest in having a deeper conversation with them.
In one test, for example, the volunteers were told to imagine that they were wither talking to a particularly caring and engaged individual, or an indifferent and disinterested one.
They found that people who expected to be speaking to a more caring person moved to discuss deeper questions that those subjects who thought they were talking with an uncaring partner.
In fact, just being told that people tend to underestimate how interested other individuals are in having deeper and more personal conversations was found in one test to be enough to encourage a deeper level of conversation.
‘Our participants’ expectations about deeper conversations were not woefully misguided,’ noted Professor Epley.
‘But they were reliably miscalibrated in a way that could keep people from engaging a little more deeply with others in their daily lives.
‘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.’
The full findings of the study were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
RESEARCH SUGGESTS THAT IT IS POSSIBLE TO DIE OF LONELINESS
Research suggests it is possible to ‘die of loneliness’.
A major study published March 2018 suggested social isolation can increase the chance of a stroke by 39 per cent and premature death by 50 per cent.
Loneliness may raise the risk of a heart attack by more than 40 per cent, researchers found.
The analysis was based on the health records of 480,000 Britons — making it the largest study of its kind.
Those who already had cardiovascular problems were far more likely to die early if they were isolated, suggesting the importance of family and friends in aiding recovery.
The research team, which included British academics, said lonely people had a higher rates of chronic diseases and smoking and showed more symptoms of depression.