Can excessive small talk really make us miserable?

GettyImages-693777214.jpgBy Emma Young

If you want to feel happier, avoid small talk and aim instead for profound conversations. That was the message the mainstream media took from a well-publicised paper published in Psychological Science in 2010 (e.g. Talk Deeply, Be Happy? asked the New York Times). But now an extension of that study, in press at the same journal (available as a pre-print), and involving two of the psychologists behind the original work, has found no evidence that how much – or little – time  you spend chatting about the weather or what you’re having for dinner will affect your life satisfaction. “The failure to replicate the original small talk effect is important as it has garnered considerable scientific and lay interest,” note the authors.

The original work, led by Matthias Mehl at the University of Arizona, involved just 79 US college students, and given that students are surrounded by a host of potential new friends, not exactly representative of the general population in terms of daily social interactions. So Mehl, Simine Vazire at UC-Davis, and other researchers assessed the conversations of three new groups of people – 50 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and their partners; 184 medically healthy adults; and 122 adults who had recently separated from their partners. These participants also completed life satisfaction and personality questionnaires.

As in the original paper, the participants wore Electronically Activated Recorders (EARs) that regularly sampled ambient sounds – including conversations – for between 30- to 50-seconds every 9 or 12.5 minutes, depending on the specific group taking part. All participants wore the EARs between a Friday night and Monday morning, and they were allowed to review the recordings and delete any that they preferred to remain private.

Coders listened back to the recordings and assessed both the frequency and type of conversations each participant engaged in. Small talk was defined as uninvolved, banal conversation in which only trivial information was exchanged (e.g. “I stepped on something”, “What are you up to?”); “Substantive” conversations involved the exchange of “meaningful” information (e.g. “There are a lot of high-stress A-type personalities out there” and “They have already raised ten million dollars for Haiti.”) Other types of conversations – involving gossip, say, or practical information – were also noted.

Across the different groups, participants who were happier tended to have more conversations, with the two measures having a modest correlation. There was also a moderately positive association between engaging specifically in more substantive conversations and life satisfaction (but this was a less strong result than in the original study). Crucially, however, there was no association at all between engaging in more small talk and expressing less life satisfaction – the finding that grabbed the headlines previously. Also, contrary to one of the team’s initial predictions, how extraverted or introverted a person was also made no real difference to associations between conversation type and life satisfaction.

Further contradicting the original small talk findings, other recent research has actually found that small talk can make people feel happier. In 2016, for example, Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago led work finding that no matter what their positions on the extraversion spectrum, people felt more positive after engaging strangers in conversation.

In relation to the new paper, it’s worth noting that as two of the four groups consisted of people going through major life events, these results may not be generalisable to the general population. And, as the authors themselves note in relation to the main positive finding, the data is correlational: “Whether it is the satisfied person who attracts more substantive conversations or whether having substantive conversations makes people more satisfied with their lives is still to be clarified in future (experimental) research.”

Eavesdropping on Happiness” Revisited: A Pooled, Multi-Sample Replication of the Asso- ciation between Life Satisfaction and Observed Daily Conversation Quantity and Quality [this is a pre-print of a paper that’s in press: the final published version may be different]

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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