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Joy

Studies find we're better off ditching the small talk when we meet strangers

Amit Kumar, Michael Kardas, Nicholas Epley, conversations, strangers

People tend to overestimate how awkward meaningful conversations will be.

For many people, meeting someone new is an uncomfortable proposition. Even if we want to make new friends, getting to know people from scratch can be hard. It feels like there are all kinds of unwritten social "rules" that make meeting people awkward. Are there certain things you shouldn't share or ask about when you first meet someone? When do you move from small talk to something more meaningful? Will people think you're weird if you tell them how you're really feeling instead of the standard "fine"?

The die-hard social butterflies among us may wonder what all the fuss is about, but many of us share the sentiment my fellow writer Jacalyn Wetzel described so eloquently: "Meeting people makes my armpits spicy."

If meeting people makes your armpits spicy, here's some behavioral science research that might help.


In a series of a dozen experiments, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago analyzed people's feelings about chatting with strangers, and what they found was eye-opening.

Most of us, apparently, underestimate how much we're going to enjoy talking to strangers. How about that? And we especially underestimate how much we're going to enjoy having more meaningful, substantive conversations with people we've just met. We tend to be overly pessimistic about how those conversations are going to go.

"Because of these mistaken beliefs," the authors, Amit Kumar, Michael Kardas and Nicholas Epley, wrote on The Conversation, "it seems as though people reach out and connect with others less often and in less meaningful ways than they probably should."

The experiments the researchers conducted were designed to test the hypothesis that conversations with strangers can be surprisingly satisfying. The researchers asked people to write down topics they'd normally talk with new people about, such as the weather, and then to write down questions that were of a deeper, more intimate nature. They also asked people to anticipate how they were going to feel after discussing decidedly non-small-talky topics such as “What are you most grateful for in your life?” and “When is the last time you cried in front of another person?” versus typical small talk.

Participants were particularly off base about how uncomfortable the more meaningful conversations were going to be and underestimated how much they were going to like having those conversations with strangers.

"These mistaken beliefs matter because they can create a barrier to human connection," the authors wrote. "If you mistakenly think a substantive conversation will feel uncomfortable, you’re going to probably avoid it. And then you might never realize that your expectations are off the mark."

The researchers said their findings were "strikingly consistent," even across different demographic groups, both in person and over Zoom. "Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, a man or a woman, you’re likely to underestimate how good you’ll feel after having a deep conversation with a stranger," they wrote.

Participants told the researchers they wish they could have deeper conversations more often in their everyday lives, but the experiments also showed that people underestimate how much strangers are actually interested in them. As it turns out, we're quite curious about one another and actually do care about one another's feelings and thoughts. Again, what we think a conversation is going to be like isn't what they generally are in reality.

So here we are, wanting to have more meaningful conversations, yet overestimating how uncomfortable and underestimating how interesting and enjoyable they're going to be. Our fears are holding us back from connecting with one another, which is kind of a bummer.

Perhaps we can use this research to try some experimenting of our own, reaching out to people around us to talk about more than the weather. Ditch the small talk, ask people substantive questions about their lives, keep it real and see what happens. We may find ourselves becoming more social as we get to know people on another level—and maybe, hopefully, experience a little less spiciness in our armpits. ​


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