Having deep conversations is fun, engaging and, research has shown, even good for your long-term health. Deep conversations – in which we disclose something personal and intimate about ourselves – are wonderful: they strengthen our social relationships, speed up the development of our friendships and even make us look more attractive in the eyes of others. All of this raises the question: if deep conversations are so good, what keeps people from having them ALL THE TIME? And why, on earth, do we get into small talk?
The answer may be that we, Kardas Kumar and Eply write in a recent paper, ‘systematically underestimate how much others care about [our] intimate disclosures in conversations’. We (wrongly) suspect that others cannot care less about the intimate details of our personal life. Consequently, to avoid the embarrassment of boring others with our inner drama, we resort to the safe but unadventurous option of small talk. Kardas and friends came to this conclusion through more than 10 experiments. Here we look at 3 of their most important findings.
In one set of experiments, they first gave each participant a TARGET topic that could be superficial (e.g., How did you celebrate the last Halloween?) or deep (e.g., Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?) and asked them to estimate how awkward it would be to discuss this topic with a stranger. Then each participant was paired with a partner and they actually discussed that topic for a few minutes. At the end, the participant was asked how awkward did they actually feel during the conversation. The results (see figure below) showed that people overestimated awkwardness both for shallow and deep questions. Less awkwardness was experienced (white bars) that it was expected (black bars). However, and here is the key result, the difference between expectation and experience was much bigger for the deep topic (see red arrows). People had unnecessarily dreaded the deep conversation which turned out to be a lot less awful than expected.
Another experiment showed that when people engaged in a superficial or deep conversation, afterwards, they felt that they had connected more positively and strongly with the partner with whom they had had the deep conversation. They also expressed more willingness to talk to the same person again. Deep conversations (like beer) made people perceive their partner as more attractive.
Finally, we look at another experiment where each participant was paired with an actor who (secretly instructed by the experimenter) pretended to be unusually caring or indifferent towards the participant. Then the participant was given some conversation topics to choose from to discuss with their partner. Participants who were paired with the caring actor chose the deep conversation much more often than those who were paired with the indifferent actor. When people were led to believe that others were not interested in them, they resorted to small talk.