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Small Talk Isn’t Nearly as Useless as We Think

We tend to overestimate how awkward small talk with strangers might be, but new research has found that when forced to endure long bouts of conversation with people we don’t know, we’re actually better off for it

A critical part of city living is the experience of peering out the peephole of your apartment door and deciding you’re going to check the mail another time, actually, because you just don’t want to endure any small talk with the stranger in the hallway. 

The jury is still out on whether or not this makes you a bad neighbor, but according to new research, it’s entirely possible that you’re underestimating how much joy you’d get out of that hallway stop-and-chat. “Good conversation can be one of daily life’s most enjoyable activities, yet people may be hesitant to set aside time for conversation if they think they might quickly run out of things to talk about,” Michael Kardas, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, told PsyPost when discussing the recent study. “We wanted to understand whether people’s concerns about running out of things to talk about in conversation are justified, or whether conversations might remain rich with material to discuss, and might remain enjoyable, for longer than people expect.”

To do so, Kardas and his team ran a series of five experiments in which 1,093 people were asked to sit with a stranger and have a face-to-face conversation that lasted about five minutes. Next, these participants were privately asked how much they enjoyed the brief talk and to predict how much they would enjoy conversations that lasted longer. Then they were instructed to do the same thing with different strangers three more times, before ratcheting up to longer conversations.

For the final study, subjects were specifically asked to guess if they’d enjoy a 25-minute conversation with a stranger, or spend the time to themselves, after which they were randomly tasked with either talking for 25 minutes or having another short conversation followed by 20 minutes of alone time. Surprisingly, researchers found that people who had conversations for 25 minutes reported significantly more enjoyment compared to those who had shorter chat sessions. 

“These strangers typically enjoyed these initial minutes of the conversation, yet they also anticipated that their conversations would grow somewhat dull as they continued, because they expected to quickly run out of things to talk about with the other person,” Kardas said. “Yet when these same people were then instructed to actually continue their conversations, they reported having more topics to discuss than they anticipated, and enjoyed themselves more than they expected as well. That is, people underestimated how much they would enjoy themselves as their conversations continued.”

Likewise, Kardas and his colleagues discovered that people who mentally prepared for small talk ahead of time were less likely to overestimate awkwardness and had a better handle on how conversations with strangers might play out in reality. “We find that people have more accurate expectations about how much they will enjoy their conversations if they first think in detail about the topics that they are likely to discuss,” Kardas explained. “People might focus on how little they currently know about another person, but drawing their attention to how much they could know through conversation seems to remind them that conversation with a new acquaintance is likely to remain enjoyable for some time.”

Although 25 minutes was the ceiling for their study, Kardas isn’t necessarily suggesting cornering your neighbor for a half hour at a time after ignoring them for years. But “if you’re looking to connect with someone new or deepen an existing relationship, our research suggests you shouldn’t hesitate to set aside more time for conversation,” Kardas concluded. 

After all, in the end, asking someone how they’re doing can’t get any weirder than staring at them through a peephole.