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IT'S NOT THEM, IT'S YOU

The secret to having more meaningful conversations  

Two men eat outside a coffee shop in Naples. One smiles at the camera.
Reuters/Ciro de Luca
Listening. Interested. Warm.
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At some point in 2020, a kind of pandemic-era small talk started to emerge. “How about this weather?” turned into “Crazy times, huh?” The rather American “What do you do?” morphed into “Do you work from home?”

Superficial chitchat—a custom as ancient as human social life itself—is a hard habit to break. It may be all most of us can handle after two years of pandemic life. Still, if we could take our conversations with relative strangers a little deeper, we would feel more connected, and our overall well-being would improve, according to a recent study (pdf) led by Nicolas Epley, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Epley, whose research years ago found that talking to a stranger during your commute can brighten your day, has lately been studying why people tend to avoid meaty, enriching conversations with people outside of their inner circles. Why do most people keep things dull and dry with those we see only occasionally at work, or neighbors, or fellow train passengers, when most people also agree on the merits of deep conversations with friends and family?

The answer has to do with some common misunderstandings, which Epley’s new research exposed through a series of 12 experiments with more than 1,800 participants. People greatly overestimate how awkward it will be to hold a “deep” conversation with someone they don’t know well, and routinely underestimate how much other people care about us and what’s on our minds, Epley and his co-authors discovered. Surveys given before and after orchestrated conversations also showed that most study subjects didn’t expect to feel  bonded to a randomly assigned conversation partner once their interaction ended, but they did, particularly when their conversation was weightier than typical small talk.

In everyday life, false assumptions lead people to keep conversations superficial or avoid talking to people altogether, which is not optimal, write Epley and his co-authors, Michael Kardas, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business.

The timing for their message is apt.  Although we’ve been having heart-to-hearts with family and close work friends through the worst of the pandemic, what’s been lost are conversations with people in our more distant networks and “meaningful conversations with new folks who weren’t part of your life,” Epley says. The data suggest “the periphery of our social network can be more enriching than we think, if we use conversation wisely.”

Twenty prompts for better conversations

During the study, which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants were given conversation prompts ranked according to how intimate they were perceived to be. At the shallow end of the pool was “What do you think about the weather today?” At the more probing end of the spectrum, strangers asked each other questions like, “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?”

Here’s the complete list of prompts:

“Shallow” questions, listed in order of ascending intimacy
What do you think about the weather today?
How often do you come here?
How did you celebrate last Halloween?
How often do you get your hair cut? Where do you go? Have you ever had a really bad haircut experience?
What is the best TV show you’ve seen in the last month?
When was the last time you walked for more than an hour? Describe where you went and what you saw.
Do you like to get up early or stay up late?
Do you have anything planned for later today? When are you going to do it?
Can you describe a conversation you had with another person earlier today?
What’s your daily routine like?
“Deep” questions, listed in order of ascending intimacy
What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
Where is somewhere you’ve visited that you felt really had an impact on who you are today?
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.
If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
Is there something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
What is one of the more embarrassing moments in your life?
What is one of your most meaningful memories? Why is it meaningful for you?
Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?
If you could undo one mistake you have made in your life, what would it be and why would you undo it?

People reported that they enjoyed small talk that was trivial more than they thought they would, but the gap between what they anticipated and what they experienced was greatest when partners had to dig in and get real with each other. (Unrelated previous research that used recording devices to analyze real-life conversations came to the same conclusions.)

“Conversations have almost this magnetic sort of quality that can pull folks together,” Epley says, even when those doing the talking fundamentally disagree about the subject at hand, as his current (unpublished) research suggests. Somehow, we continue going through life without learning this lesson, shyly keeping our affections for—or at least interest in— other people hidden.

“Who the hell are these colleagues who don’t want to have friends or a meaningful conversation? The truth is they’re fictitious people.”

That mismatch in perception is almost always due to the same thought process: People say they’re concerned and curious about others, but “they think the other person doesn’t want to talk,” says Epley. People say “They’ll think less of me if I share personal stories at work or do something that doesn’t seem quite so professional. That is, we treat other people as someone who was less than human.”

“Who the hell are these colleagues who don’t want to have friends or a meaningful conversation?” he asks. “Who doesn’t want to learn about this nice trip I was on or have somebody to confide to about the challenges that happen at home? The truth is they’re fictitious people.”

How and when to hold more meaningful conversations

One simple way to liberate yourself from perceived expectations of social niceties is to cross the first imaginary line yourself and share something revealing. That will almost always elicit an equally open and sincere response, says Epley. He admits he doesn’t have precise data to back this up, but it’s a go-to tip based on how often he hears the same refrain from research subjects.

You might consider setting an intention, as Quartz’s Cassie Werber did during her own mission to “not hold boring conversations.” Just be mindful of your own stereotypes, she warned. “It’s easy to have a preconception about the kind of conversation you might have with a particular person because of what they look like, how they dress, or what their job title says. Those preconceptions can often be completely wrong.”

During the pandemic, you may be forced to try all of this over a video call, particularly if you’re working from home. Do it, says Epley. Join those happy hours when colleagues are regularly paired with random peers through apps like Donut. It may feel contrived, but you can make it way less uncomfortable by avoiding boring small talk. Video and phone calls with annoying delays and headset or mute-button glitches don’t have the same ease as in-person talks, but connection is still available. Any live conversation using your voice will trump text-based exchanges.

There are a few caveats. “Our data don’t suggest that you should be revealing your most intimate secrets all the time,” Epley cautions. He is not challenging people to throw away all norms, overshare, or become chatty and unproductive at work. Instead, push yourself during the right openings, like in “the dead spots” in your day, when you’re waiting for a bus or between assignments at work. Instead of checking your email, use the three minutes when you’re making coffee to introduce yourself and get to know—in an authentic way—that new employee standing nearby. And keep practicing.

A good rule of thumb is to choose “deep” talk when you’re on the fence, Epley adds. Imagine you see someone at work looking sad or tearing up and you feel compelled to say something, but you’re nervous, wondering if you’ll say the wrong thing, so you convince yourself that the person would rather be alone. “Those are the places where miscalibrated expectations are most likely to push you towards avoidance,” Epley says, “and likely to lead you astray.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of researcher Amit Kumar’s name. It is Kumar, not Kuma. 

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