News

People overestimate the awkwardness of meaningful conversations with strangers and underestimate the benefits

Meaningful conversations with strangers help improve mood by building connections, and are not as awkward as expected, according to new research.

Exchanges between strangers often consist of small talk, but longer and deeper discussions have been found to improve well-being.

Dr Nicholas Epley, co-author of the study and professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said: “Connecting with others in meaningful ways tends to make people happier, and yet people also seem reluctant to engage in deeper and more meaningful conversation.

“This struck us as an interesting social paradox: If connecting with others in deep and meaningful ways increases well-being, then why aren’t people doing it more often in daily life?”

The study included 12 experiments and over 1,800 partakers.

Two participants who were strangers would either engage in a discussion surrounding a predetermined “deep” or “shallow” question with another participant or create their own topic of conversation.

They were asked to guess how awkward the conversation would be, how enjoyable they would find it, and how connected they would feel to the other participant. After the exchange, they assessed how it actually was.

Researchers discovered that all conversations had not been as awkward, and were more enjoyable, than expected. However, these outcomes and connections felt were greater for those engaging in deeper conversations.

The study also revealed that participants preferred their meaningful conversations. Participants underestimated how interested their conversation partner would be in their feelings and opinions.

Dr Epley concluded: “People seemed to imagine that revealing something meaningful or important about themselves in conversation would be met with blank stares and silence, only to find this wasn’t true in the actual conversation.

“Human beings are deeply social and tend to reciprocate in conversation. If you share something meaningful and important, you are likely to get something meaningful and important exchanged in return, leading to a considerably better conversation.”

The final experiment asked participants to enter the discussions with a predetermined expectation of how interested their partner would be. When expecting to converse with a more interested partner, people would discuss more in-depth topics.
Being made aware of the fact that people underestimate how interested their partner is, also led participants to discuss more in-depth and meaningful subject matters.

“Our participants’ expectations about deeper conversations were not woefully misguided, but they were reliably miscalibrated in a way that could keep people from engaging a little more deeply with others in their daily lives,” said Epley.

“As the pandemic wanes and we all get back to talking with each other again, being aware that others also like meaningful conversation might lead you to spend less time in small talk and have more pleasant interactions as a result.”

To Top