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The Art of Conversation

When was the last time you had a real conversation?

One not over WhatsApp or Hinge, or a brief catch-up / small talk exchange with your favorite barista? But a two-way exchange about something meaningful?

A new paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that people are too quick to pull the plug on a good conversation — thinking, mistakenly, that conversations that last for more than a few minutes are perceived as boring by their conversation companion.

A journalist recently spoke with Dr. Michael Kardas, a researcher at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and lead author of the paper, to discuss these findings in more detail. Here is a summary of the conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of conversational dynamics and what did you find?

Having a good conversation is one of daily life’s most rewarding experiences, and yet people are often hesitant to set aside significant amounts of time for conversation because they’re concerned that they’ll run out of things to talk about and that their conversation will grow dull or awkward as a result. We wanted to test whether people have accurate intuitions about how much they will have to talk about and how much they will enjoy themselves as a conversation progresses. So we recruited pairs of strangers to have spoken conversations with each other, and we paused their conversations every few minutes to have them privately tell us how those conversations were going.

After the first few minutes of conversation, people tended to indicate that they were enjoying themselves but they also indicated that they thought they would run out of things to talk about as the conversation continued and that the conversation would become less enjoyable as well. But then we prompted them to continue their conversations and we again paused their conversations every few minutes to see how the conversations were going. And it turned out that people found more material to talk about as the conversations continued than they had expected, and they enjoyed themselves more than they anticipated.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone looking to have more meaningful conversations?

What these findings suggest to us is that people could allocate more time for conversations than they normally do, because they’re not likely to run out of things to say or to grow bored with the conversation as quickly as they might think. Of course, the longer that a conversation lasts, the better people get to know each other and the more meaningful these conversations tend to become. And so this mistaken assumption that people will run out of material to discuss in conversation might keep people from having longer and more meaningful conversations that might also lead them to form stronger relationships.

How does your research connect with, and inform, other research on conversational dynamics?

A lot of existing research looks at the overall quality of a conversation, whether that means how happy people feel after talking or how connected they feel to one another or how much they like each other. Yet relatively less research looks at the trajectory of a conversation as it progresses. Our studies suggest that even once people are having an enjoyable conversation, they might be hesitant to continue the conversation if they think that continuing the conversation is risky, or that they or the other person might run out of things to say.

But just as it’s hard to forecast exactly what another person will say when you say hello to them, it’s also hard to forecast exactly what topics will come up as a conversation continues, and this uncertainty seems to keep people from recognizing that conversations naturally flow from one topic to another and that there are usually many more topics to discuss than any two people could exhaust in a single conversation.

Are there personality traits, such as introversion, that might influence your general findings?

We didn’t measure introversion, but in one of our studies, we did measure how tired people thought they would feel and how tired they actually felt as a conversation progressed, which is something that many introverts may be concerned about in social interaction.

We found that people expected to grow tired significantly faster during a conversation than they actually did. Continual social interaction might eventually become tiring, but people seem to reach this point less quickly than they imagine ahead of time.

We also found that our results didn’t differ between people who spoke with someone of the same gender or the opposite gender, or between people who spoke with someone of the same ethnicity or a different ethnicity. In general, once people begin talking, they tend to find things that they share in common and these commonalities propel the conversation for quite some time.

What does this research say about a culture that is seemingly obsessed with bite-sized entertainment?

I think one possible implication of this research is that people may prefer shallower sources of entertainment through media and social media because they expect novelty to be the surest route to an enjoyable experience. And it’s true that novel experiences tend to be enjoyable, but what our research suggests is that familiar experiences, that is, interacting with the same person who you’ve already met, is also a more enjoyable experience than people expect it to be.

Setting aside more time for conversation with a friend you’ve recently made or for meeting new people might be a more positive experience than you think, and is very likely more enjoyable than most experiences you might otherwise be having, if those experiences don’t involve social interaction.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where do you hope to see the research go from here?

Whereas the current research studied people’s beliefs about the trajectory of a conversation, we’d also like to understand how accurately people can anticipate the trajectory of a relationship across repeated interactions over time. For example, people might assume after a few conversations that they’ve gotten to know another person well enough that future conversations will feel somewhat repetitive, or that they have little left to learn about another person. And this might keep people from pursuing deeper friendships.

Yet people are among the most complex objects that we come into contact with in everyday life. And so just as conversations remained rich with new material to discuss for longer than people expected in the current research, relationships might likewise remain rich with new experiences and new discoveries for longer than people assume as people get to know each other. This might be especially true when people are getting to know each other personally rather than on social media. We think that this more macro version of the question we studied could be a worthwhile direction for future research.

Original Article available here.

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