Have deeper conversations with strangers than small talk (study)

When talking to strangers, a study found that emotional well-being increases when you talk about the weather and other things in a meaningful way. This is contrary to the common belief that if you don’t know each other, you won’t be interested in hearing the other person’s thoughts.

A study from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business suggests that most people can actually benefit from having deep, meaningful conversations with someone they don’t know. “Connecting with others in meaningful ways tends to make people happier,” said co-author Professor Nicholas Epley. But people seem reluctant to engage in deeper and more meaningful conversations,” he said. “This is an interesting social paradox.”

Conversation with strangers is more enjoyable than you think

If connecting meaningfully with others helps promote well-being, why don’t we do it more often in our daily lives? To answer this question, the team conducted 12 experiments with more than 1800 participants. Ask strangers to pair up and discuss heavy or light topics.

The casual theme is ‘What’s the best TV show you’ve seen in the past month?’ ‘What do you think about today’s weather?’ Typical and banal topics of gossip were included. On the other hand, deep questions encouraged sharing of more personal and intimate information as emotions led. For example, ‘Can you tell me about a time you cried in front of other people?” The conversation revolves around questions like, “If you could know the truth about yourself, your life, your future, or anything else, what would you like to know?’

For a natural progression, the research team had two people think of a topic for conversation. Before the conversation, participants were asked to predict how awkward the conversation would be, how connected they would be to the other person, and how much they would enjoy the conversation. And after the conversation, they were asked to rate how awkward the conversation was, how deeply they had contact with the other person, and how enjoyable it was.

As a result, participants found less awkwardness in actual conversations, leading to greater bonding and pleasure than the participants themselves had expected. This effect was more pronounced after in-depth conversations. Most of the participants overestimated the awkwardness of meaningful conversations in advance, but after the conversation, they considered the awkwardness to be a pleasure and felt a strong bond with the other person.

People like meaningful conversations

In another experiment, participants had a deep conversation with one partner and a boring conversation with another. At first I expected shallow conversations to be preferred, but in reality, people preferred deep conversations.

If deep conversations are better for your mental health, why aren’t more people having these conversations? The research team speculates that it may be because others underestimate my deep thoughts and feelings as not being interested in them.

Professor Epley explained, “Humans are deeply social and tend to reciprocate through dialogue.” This means that if you share something meaningful and important with a stranger, you can get something meaningful and important to the other person in return, so you can have a much better conversation. So, if the pandemic is over and you can have conversations with strangers without hesitation, having serious conversations rather than gossip might be a more enjoyable way to interact.

The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The original title is ‘Overly shallow?: Miscalibrated expectations create a barrier to deeper conversation.’

Reporter Lee Bo-hyun [email protected]

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