Conversation is common, but not easy. That’s why computers can pilot an airplane around the world but still can’t master small talk.
Turns out, neither can most humans, according to researcher Adam Mastroianni.
A social psychology researcher at Harvard University in Boston, Mass., Mastroianni did a study recently that illuminates just how difficult it is for us to have satisfying conversations.
The study, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, found that conversations very rarely end when people want them to — in fact, only about two per cent of the time. In other words, 98 per cent of the time, people feel conversations are either too long or not long enough.
Mastroianni says he is the first to publish lab studies on how real-life conversations end. He was inspired by his own struggle with small talk.
“I was getting ready for a party one night and thought to myself that inevitably at this party I’m going to be talking to somebody and I’m going to feel ready to not be talking to this person, and there’s not going to be any polite way out of the situation,” he said.
“And I don’t even want to go [to the party] and put myself in that situation. And then I realized, why do I think I’m special? The other person just thinks the same thing and we’re both stuck talking to each other because we mistakenly think that the other person wants to keep going.”
Mastroianni decided to explore this problem by tapping into other people’s discussions. Through a combination of online surveys and in-person meetings, he researched 932 conversations held by Americans between 2017 and 2019.
In the first study, he asked 806 people to recall their most recent conversation, its duration and to report at what point (if any) they had felt ready for it to end — or to estimate how much longer they might have wished it to continue.
They were also asked to estimate how their conversation partner would answer those questions.
But Mastroianni wanted more than a guess about a partner’s state of mind, so he also brought 252 strangers into his lab to observe them in real time. The two studies had very similar results.
“On average, what people wanted and what they got differed by about half of the length of the conversation,” Mastroianni said. “It wasn’t that people consistently wanted more or less — it was that they wanted different.”
It’s not that the pairs compromised and ended conversations somewhere in the middle between their wants. Instead, conversations often went way over or under what both of them desired, he said.
Mastroianni gives two reasons for this mismatch. The first is that people almost never want to leave a conversation at the same time, so if we want different things, we can’t both get what we want.
But the second problem is that we don’t have the information we need to solve this co-ordination problem.
“When people guessed when the other person wanted to leave, they were off by about 60 per cent of the length of the conversation,” Mastroianni said.
It wasn’t that they consistently over- or underestimated, they just misestimated by a lot, he said.
‘Better to be left wanting’
Mastroianni said the people who enjoyed their respective conversation the least were those who felt stuck in it. Meanwhile, the people who said it ended before they wanted it to enjoyed it just as much as those who said it was the ideal length.
“It’s better to be left wanting more that it is wanting less,” he said.
People often struggle ending conversations, he said, because they worry they’ll give the impression that they thought the discussion was boring or that they don’t like the other person, rather than that they simply need to move on to other things.
“One way to address this is to say, ‘I’ve had a lovely time talking to you. I’m looking forward to talking to you again,'” said Mastroianni.
If we struggle this much with one other person, what happens when we converse in a group? It’s a lot messier, Mastroianni found in another study. That’s because we typically disrupt the mechanics that bring order to conversation — turn-taking, equal airtime and listener feedback.
Turn-taking is “the building block of every conversation” and an “incredibly strong norm” that we follow even when fighting with someone one-on-one, Mastrionni says. But when you add in another person, no one knows whose turn it is anymore.
Giving feedback to the speaker is key to providing emotional support and keeping conversation flowing. But in a group, “there’s a diffusion of responsibility, so no one really feels it’s their responsibility to be nodding and smiling and looking intrepid,” said Mastroianni.
“As a result, the speaker doesn’t get that same feedback … of how [their words are] being received.”
The problem with being ‘chill’
He said group conversations are the least satisfying “when they are crying out for someone to moderate and no one’s doing it. Which makes sense — you meet up with your friends and nobody wants to be the person who’s going to decide how to allocate airtime.”
Expert group facilitator Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, argues that while we’re socialized to be “chill,” a group actually needs a moderator to step up and use “generous authority” to direct traffic and ensure we share the space and connect in meaningful ways.
Erica Boothby, a social psychologist and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, found another complicating factor: people systematically underestimate how much their conversation partner likes them, an illusion she and her team calls the “liking gap.”
Mastroianni’s research found this to be true as well. When he studied 159 people having conversations in groups in his lab, each of the participants thought that they were the least-liked person in the group.
After studying 140 people who had been working together as a group, he found the liking gap to be strongest when people first meet and that while it persisted over time, it got smaller.
“But time doesn’t seem to be the main antidote. It’s actually getting close to people,” he said.
This is why our reliance on virtual communication during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to additional challenges, he said.
In person, people can signal to the speaker or group that they want to take the floor either explicitly or through non-verbal feedback.
“It’s so much harder on Zoom,” Mastroianni said, because other group members don’t pick up the signals as much.
“Also, most people are on mute, so it’s weird when someone’s speaking and for you to say, ‘A-ha,’ into the mic,” he said. “And you can’t have eye contact because no one can tell where anyone is looking. So it all becomes a traffic jam.”
To get around this, Mastrioanni suggests explicitly encouraging participation, especially in virtual groups, such as having everyone give thumbs up or down to provide feedback.
Despite all these challenges, behaviour scientists Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago and Juliana Schroeder at the University of California, Berkeley, found that we enjoy conversations more than we think we do.
In a 2014 study, they instructed one group of participants to have a conversation with a stranger on their commute and the other group to not engage with fellow travellers. Those who had conversations had a much more positive experience, despite expecting the opposite outcome.
The researchers set up the same experiment in their laboratory waiting room, and found that those who were spoken to by a stranger reported equally positive experiences to those who had been instructed to talk.
“The pleasure of connection seems contagious,” they concluded.