By Yvonne Milosevic
As we leave the darkest days of the pandemic behind us, one thing has become painfully clear to many people. Namely, we’re a little rusty when it comes to chatting with strangers and acquaintances. We want to have meaningful social interactions, obvi. Yet our attempts at small talk often leave us feeling unsatisfied afterward. The solution, according to researchers, is to have more deep conversations—even with people you don’t know.
Does the thought of baring your soul to strangers at the grocery store checkout give you the heebie-jeebies? Then consider this possibility: We only imagine it will be super awkward. In reality, we’ll feel much happier after.
“We wrongly assume that other people are somewhat indifferent towards us, so we avoid more intimate conversation, thinking it would be awkward,” says Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing at the UT McCombs School of Business. “But we’d likely be happier if we dug deeper when we’re interacting with others.”
The Power of Deep Conversations
Kumar and his colleagues, post-doc fellow Michael Kardas of Northwestern and Nicholas Epley of Chicago Booth, ran 12 experiments to test their theory. The researchers asked pairs of people — mostly strangers — to discuss deep or shallow topics. In some cases, they provided the topics. For others, the participants came up with their own questions.
Small-talk prompts included: “What is the best TV show you’ve seen in the last month? Tell your partner about it,” or “What do you think about the weather today?”
Deep questions probed for more personal and intimate information. For example, “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?” and “If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, your future or anything else, what would you want to know?”
First, the researchers asked people to predict how awkward the upcoming conversation would be. They also asked how much they thought they would enjoy it. Afterward, they checked in to find out how the conversations went.
Across all experiments, people enjoyed both the shallow and deep conversations better than they predicted. But their misjudgments were way off when it came to how awkward the deep discussions would be. Although they expected a cringe-worthy convo, they came away feeling quite different.
Participants expected they would prefer having a shallow conversation. But after having both, these same people reported that they actually enjoyed the deeper one more, the researchers note.
“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,” Epley explains.
The strategy works for everyone
More than 1,800 people—MBA students, financial services executives, and even people in public parks—took part in the research project. Despite the broad cross-section of participants, the researchers found the same effects in introverts and extroverts, women and men, and on Zoom and in person.
When asked how to start deeper conversations, Kumar says in this interview that it’s as simple as offering a little self-disclosure. By sharing something personal that you’re thinking, feeling, or experiencing, you open the door for greater closeness. So, when in doubt, just dive in.
“Human beings are deeply social and tend to reciprocate in conversation,” Epley notes. “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.”
For more fascinating research from Kumar and Epley, don’t miss their thoughts on why calling a friend or family member is soo much better for our mental health than sending a text.