Deep Talk or Small Talk?

Substantive conversations are more likely to foster new social bonds and strengthen existing relationships than mere small talk. This is the conclusion reached by the behavioral researchers Michael Kardas from Northwestern University in Illinois, Amit Kumar from the University of Texas at Austin and Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago in a study on the question of whether serious conversations with strangers really cost people as much effort as many might think, and whether they necessarily have to be more awkward than trivial small talk. The study, "Overly Shallow? Miscalibrated Expectations Create a Barrier to Deeper Conversations" was published Sept. 30, 2021, in the American Psychology Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 


If the benefits so clearly outweigh the negatives: then why don't we allow ourselves to engage more often in "Deep Talk" with strangers? The study makes it clear that conversations with strangers are less uncomfortable, lead to a deeper connection, and generate more feelings of happiness than we think. 


Of course, we all year for deep relationships. But we rarely dare to engage in serious conversations with others that could foster just that kind of relationship. 


Our expectations regarding conversations with strangers create a psychological threshold that prevents us from talking to them about serious topics. Yet there is no rule that says we shall necessarily only talk about the weather. On the contrary: we underestimate how interested strangers are in our actual feelings and thoughts. Most of the time, we assume that they don't want to know about our feelings anyway. 


As part of the study, twelve experiments were conducted with 1800 subjects. The subjects asked both banal and profound questions in their conversations. The questions ranged from, "What's the best TV show you've seen in the last month?" to "What do you think of today's weather?" to "Can you describe a moment when you cried in front of a stranger?" And, "If you could use a crystal ball to find out the truth about yourself, your life, your future, or anything else, what would you like to know?"

Afterwards, the subjects each formulated their own set of questions, both profound and superficial.  Beforehand, they were asked to assess how uncomfortable these conversations would be, how much they would enjoy the conversations, and how connected they would feel to their counterpart. The result: conversations are often more balanced than we think: when we share something very private with someone, we often get an honest response from them in return. 

In addition, the participants in the study felt significantly more comfortable with interlocutors they rated as more profound than with those who merely remained on the surface during the conversation. Perhaps "deep talk" can be a way to experience even more worthwhile encounters with our fellow human beings.