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There's a Strange Paradox in The Way We Want to Connect With Strangers

5 OCTOBER 2021

Many of us come away from conversations with strangers feeling that the interaction has been awkward and unwanted on both sides. But what if we're wrong? A new study suggests that wanting to chat in depth with new people is actually a common feeling.

 

In other words, the next time you're talking to someone you don't know, you shouldn't assume you necessarily have to stick to the small talk. There's a good chance that the person you're talking to is happy to share some of the more personal parts of their life with you, as you might be with them.

Researchers carried out 12 different experiments involving more than 1,800 individuals to look at our attitude to conversations and contacts, with participants including students, business executives, and volunteers recruited online.

"Connecting with others in meaningful ways tends to make people happier, and yet people also seem reluctant to engage in deeper and more meaningful conversation," says behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

"This struck us as an interesting social paradox: if connecting with others in deep and meaningful ways increases well-being, then why aren't people doing it more often in daily life?"

The short answer is 'miscalibrated expectations' according to Epley and his colleagues. The research showed that both deep and shallow conversations with strangers ended up leading to greater feelings of connectedness and enjoyment than initially expected.

 

Those who took part in the study were either asked to come up with their own conversation topics, or given questions to discuss. The prompts covered a wide variety of both subjects, from the profound to the banal – everything from "Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?" to "What do you think about the weather today?".

Across all the experiments, conversations with strangers were less awkward and more fulfilling than expected by the participants. This was particularly the case for deep conversations, which resulted in greater feelings of connectedness compared with chats about less weighty topics.

In general, conversation partners cared more about personal disclosures than the other person expected them to. The study also looked at chats with family and friends, showing that here expectations of care and interest are more accurate.

"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," says Epley.

"Human beings are deeply social and tend to reciprocate in conversation. 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."

What this all means for you, the next time you're sitting next to a stranger on the bus, is that a deep conversation might be more rewarding than you think – and the other person could well be more interested in what you have to say than you're expecting them to be.

Of course this is a generalization, based on experiments with less than 2,000 people, so you might still get the cold shoulder from someone on the bus. But broadly speaking, as human beings we do seem to be more fearful about meaningful and profound chats than we need to be.

There's evidence that deeper conversations lead to greater happiness and wellbeing, and a more optimistic approach to them could benefit both you and the person you're talking to – they might be just as eager to open up as you are.

"As the pandemic wanes and we all get back to talking with each other again, being aware that others also like meaningful conversation might lead you to spend less time in small talk and have more pleasant interactions as a result," says Epley.

The research has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.