Casting their sights toward the end of the pandemic, many people have vowed to live richer, more meaningful lives—and one way to do so may be to have deeper conversations, even with people you don’t know.
Skipping small talk for weightier topics will make you and your conversation partner happier, and it will likely be less awkward than you expect, according to research by Northwestern postdoctoral scholar Michael Kardas, University of Texas’s Amit Kumar, and Chicago Booth’s Nicholas Epley.
In a series of experiments that included a range of people, from graduate students to financial executives, the researchers had participants engage in either shallow or deep conversations with people they didn’t know. In some cases, the topic was assigned—shallow ones included the weather or favorite TV shows, while deeper ones asked participants to share a time they had cried in front of another person or to name something they felt most grateful for in life. Before each exchange, the researchers had participants report how awkward they expected the conversation would be, how connected they thought they would feel to their partner, and how much they would enjoy the conversation. Afterward, they rated how the conversations actually played out.
Across experiments, both shallow and deeper conversations were better than people expected; they tended to be less awkward, created a stronger sense of connection, and were more enjoyable than anticipated. But participants’ misjudgments were greater for the deep conversations, which they incorrectly anticipated would be especially awkward.
Participants also felt happier and more connected after deep versus shallow conversations, regardless of whether they generated the topics themselves or discussed assigned topics. When deep and shallow topics were pitted directly against each other, in setups in which participants were asked to have both kinds of conversations, deep conversations won out. Participants expected they would prefer having the shallow conversation, but after having both, these same people reported that they actually preferred the deeper one.
Why are deep conversations so undervalued, even when people say they want to have them more often in their own lives? The answer, according to Kardas, Kumar, and Epley, is that people underestimate how interested others are in having deeper conversations. In multiple experiments, participants expected that their conversation partner would be less interested in having deep conversations than their partner actually was. Thinking that others aren’t that interested in meaningful conversation is what keeps people stuck in idle chit chat, according to the research.
The findings, along with earlier studies, suggest that moving outside our comfort zone in social interactions may ultimately make us and those around us happier.
“Strengthening social relationships is critical for wellbeing,” the researchers write, “meaning that a reluctance to engage more deeply with others may leave people being less social than would be optimal for their own wellbeing. Being willing to dig a little deeper than one might normally go in conversation brings the opportunity to create a stronger sense of connection with others, especially with strangers.”
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