“I hate small talk.” It seems to be a popular sentiment. But if no one likes recanting the responsibilities of their day job or pontificating about the weather to a stranger, then why do we keep doing it?
For years, research has indicated that substantive, intimate conversations strengthen social bonds between people and, in turn, make them happier. Yet, other research has observed that less than half of conversations are meaningful exchanges.
So, what’s stopping us from talking about what really matters? DiscoverMagazine.com spoke with research psychologist Amit Kumar about the psychological barriers that stop us from having intimate conversations and how to overcome them.
Kumar is an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and a primary author on the recent study, Overly Shallow?: Miscalibrated Expectations Create a Barrier to Deeper Conversation.
Q: In your recent paper you use the terms “small talk” and “deep talk.” What is deep talk and what makes it deep?
A: Deep conversations are essentially those that include self-disclosure — revealing personally intimate information about what someone's thinking, what they're feeling, what they're experiencing or what their beliefs are. In our experiments, we sometimes gave people deep conversation topics. They were questions like: What are you most grateful for in your life? Or, when was the last time you cried in front of another person?
Q: Why is it that we stick to surface-level topics when we don’t know someone well?
A: Our main finding here is that people really seem to underestimate the positivity of these deeper, more meaningful, more intimate conversations. We had participants report how they expected to feel after these conversations and compared the expectations with how they actually felt. It seems like fears of awkwardness are a big part of the barrier, but deeper conversations actually tend to feel less awkward. They also lead to stronger bonds, more liking and greater happiness than people anticipate. These miscalibrated expectations of awkwardness and discomfort seemed to stand in the way of digging a little bit deeper.
Your question was really about why. And it turns out that part of what's going on here is that we also tend to underestimate how much other people will care about what we have to say. You and I might assume that we care more about the intimate details of someone else’s life than that same person would care about those revelations from us. But it turns out that people are more interested than we expect.
The expectations that we have to affect our decisions to engage in deeper interactions. Our choice to dive a little deeper is guided by how we think a conversation is going to go, and how much we think that our partner will care about the meaningful details of our life. It just turns out that we're sort of systematically miscalibrated, and we don't recognize this sociality in others.
Q: What happens when we throw caution to the wind and have intimate conversations with strangers?
A: It just ends up being more enjoyable than we expect and less awkward. We like the other person more and we enjoy the conversation way more. This is the way that we build connections with other people. How does a stranger eventually become your friend, or your partner or your spouse? How do you develop deep relationships in the first place? You need to have these interactions in order for a stranger to become someone that you're close with.
Q: How do we overcome our “miscalibrated expectations?”
A: If we think a conversation is going to be kind of awkward, that's going to lead us to decide not to have it, even though we might be happier if we did. I think if we tried going out of our comfort zone a little bit more often, we might have more realistic expectations. Part of what we're hoping to do is document that these kinds of discussions don't always unfold in the ways that we think they will. Maybe that'll encourage people to dig a little bit deeper.
In one of the specific experiments we ran, we actually had participants engage in both shallow and deep conversations rather than just one. That gave people the opportunity to learn. They reported feeling more connected to their conversation partners if they had a deep conversation with them. But the interesting part was that beforehand, participants expected that they might prefer the shallow conversation to the deep conversation. In other words, without that experience, they thought, maybe I'll stick to small talk. But after the interactions had occurred for real, they reported preferring the deeper conversation. It suggests that people can actually learn from their experiences and update their expectations.
In another experiment, we informed participants of some of our findings — that people tend to underestimate how interested others are in what they share. When we gave people that information, they tended to be more interested in having deeper conversations. So, if we know that other people will care, we choose to engage in those deeper interactions. This is part of why we have deeper, more meaningful conversations with people that we are already close to.
Many people are averse to entering into a dialogue with a stranger at all, be it “small talk” or “deep talk.” Should they engage in small talk rather than avoid those conversations altogether?
A: That's a great question. One of the interesting things that our data shows is that people underestimate how connected they'll feel to others, both when engaging in small talk, and when engaging in deeper conversations. So, both types of interactions actually tend to go better than we expect. The reason that we focused on deep talk as opposed to small talk, is that this gap between our expectations and our experiences is much larger for these more meaningful conversations.
Human beings are a social species. Lots of research has suggested that we have a fundamental need to belong, we want to feel connected to others and our social relationships are really critical for our happiness, health and wellbeing. Certainly, I think the data suggests that choosing to interact more is going to be beneficial
Q: If intimate conversations were the norm, would the world be a better place?
A: That’s probably going beyond the data a little bit. I don’t know that it’s going to solve all of the critical problems that face our society, but I do think our society would benefit from more positive interpersonal contact.
Q: Have you had any colleagues come up to you and ask probing, intimate questions since you published this paper?
A: Because of the pandemic, I haven’t been going into the office as often. We’re all missing out on some of these opportunities to interact, and who knows what's going to happen with all of these variants. But, as we return to some of those experiences of bumping into people and having more spontaneous conversations, one of my hopes for this kind of research is that we don't just return to our old social habits. Maybe we can be a little bit more social than we have been in the past.
Q: During COVID, we have increasingly turned to communication media like phone calls, texting, Zoom and chat apps to socialize and connect with other people. From your research, what are some of the biggest mistakes that people make when deciding what types of media to use?
A: What we find is that voice-based interactions produce a stronger sense of connection than text-based media. And yet, people often choose text-based media, even in cases when they're trying to connect with an old friend. In part, this is due to the same miscalibrated expectations about how these interactions will go that drive small talk.
You might think maybe I'd feel more connected over the phone, but it's going to be way more awkward to call somebody than to just type to somebody. Turns out that, even though people sometimes have that mistaken belief, it's actually not any more awkward to talk using your voice than it is to type using your fingers.
Q: What is the takeaway here?
A: One thing that I think is interesting is that people actually wish that they had more meaningful conversations. They will explicitly say that they're interested in learning these things about other people. We don't want to have small talk all the time, and we wish that we were talking about deeper things. We're reluctant to go deeper, not because we don’t want to, but rather because of the psychological barriers standing in our way.
Editor’s Note: This Q&A was edited for clarity and length