Having deep conversations with strangers can improve your well-being

WASHINGTON — Engaging in deep conversation with strangers instead of sticking to small talk improves our well-being, according to a new study. Whether avoiding eye contact on the subway or resorting to awkward chit-chat about the weather when talking to people we don’t know, it’s common for people to think a stranger will have no interest in hearing what we have to say. However, new research suggests that most people will actually benefit from having a deep and meaningful chat with someone they don’t know.

“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 study co-author Professor Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in a media release. “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?”

Talking with strangers more enjoyable than people think

To answer the question, Prof. Epley and his colleagues designed a series of twelve experiments with more than 1,800 participants. The researchers asked pairs of strangers to discuss either deep or shallow topics by asking questions. The shallow questions included typical and cliché small-talk topics like, “What is the best TV show you’ve seen in the last month?” or “What do you think about the weather today?” While the deep questions were led by emotions and encouraged the pairs to share more personal and intimate information, such as, “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?” or “If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, your future or anything else, what would you want to know?”

To keep the chatting flowing naturally, researchers let the pairs think of their own conversation topics. Before each conversation, the participants predicted how awkward they thought the chat would be, how connected they thought they would feel to their partner, and how much they would enjoy the conversation. After finishing their conversation, they then rated how awkward the conversations actually were, how connected they actually felt, and how much they enjoyed themselves.

By the end of the study, the researchers found that both interesting and dry conversations felt less awkward and led to greater feelings of connectedness and enjoyment than the participants had expected. That particular effect tended to more significant after deeper conversations and although most participants overestimated how awkward the meaningful chats would be, they found them more enjoyable and felt a stronger connection to their partner afterward.

Do strangers really like hearing your deep thoughts?

In another controlled experiment, the participants who had a deep conversation with one partner and a boring one with another partner initially expected to prefer the shallow conversation but actually preferred the deep conversation. If having a deep conversation is genuinely better for your health, it is a mystery why more people are not having them. The researchers suspected it might be because people underestimate how interested strangers are in learning about their deeper thoughts and feelings.

“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,” Prof. Epley continues. “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.”

Moving past the small talk

In the final experiments, the researchers examined whether having more accurate expectations about a conversation partner increased people’s interest in having a deeper conversation. In one experiment, the research team told the participants to imagine that they would be speaking to a particularly caring and interested person, or to a particularly uncaring and uninterested one. Participants who expected they would be speaking to the caring person chose to discuss deeper questions than participants who expected to speak to an uncaring partner.

“Our participants’ expectations about deeper conversations were not woefully misguided, but they were reliably miscalibrated in a way that could keep people from engaging a little more deeply with others in their daily lives,” the study author concludes.

“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.”

The study’s findings appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

South West News Service writer Georgia Lambert contributed to this report.