Forget about the Small Talk

Studies don’t get much cuter than this. A new study in Psychological Science indicates that well-being is related to less small talk and more substantive interactions with others (link).

The first thing that I thought was interesting about this study was that it was a naturalistic study, not experimental. In my experience, there aren’t too many naturalistic studies published in such a high impact factor journal. As the title of the article implies, the researchers basically eavesdropped on participants, albeit with informed consent. Participants wore recording devices that captured their interactions with others periodically.

Any research methods text will describe the pitfalls of naturalistic studies. Namely they require people to rate whatever is being observed which is an inherently difficult process. One way to address this issue is to compute an inter-rater reliability. In this case, raters categorized the content of conversations as either small-talk or substantive. The inter-rater reliability is not mentioned in this paper, which is a definite mark against the study (unless it was omitted for the purposes of limited space).

Participants also completed a life satisfaction and a personality measure to correlate the content of the conversations with their overall well-being. They found that,

higher well-being was associated with having less small talk, r = –.33, and having more substantive conversations, r = .28.

Given the correlational nature of the study, the scientists were cautious not to argue having deep conversations caused happiness, but rather pointed out that future research would do well to explore this experimentally. My question is Why didn’t they?

Mehl, M. R., Vazire, S., Holleran S. E., & Clark C. S. (2010). Eavesdropping on happiness: Well-being is related to having less small talk and more substantive conversations. Psychological Science, doi:10.1177/0956797610362675.

Special thanks to Adam Schenck for pointing out this article.

-Posted by Tyler

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  1. Small Talk Gets a Bum Rap

    While I agree with the University of Arizona researchers who performed the study that “the happy life is social and conversationally deep rather than solitary and superficial,” I disagree with the conclusions that small talk leaves people unhappy. Rather, it is the inability to connect with others that leaves people unhappy and socially isolated.

    Based on nearly 30 years of teaching and writing on the subject of small talk and conversation, I maintain that small talk is an important communication skill to bridge the gap between strangers and is a prerequisite for more substantive conversations. In addition, small talk serves at least three critical roles to create meaningful conversations and relationships:

    1. It shows we are willing to communicate and demonstrates our conversation styles.
    2. It allows for an informal exchange of basic information that includes experiences, values, attitudes and common interests.
    3. It encourages rapport and trust, two prerequisites for deeper conversations.

    Don Gabor is a communications trainer and author of How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends. He can be reached for further comments on this subject at 718-768-0824, via email at don@dongabor.com or visit his website, http://www.dongabor.com.

  2. Thanks for your comment Don. I agree that it would be difficult and probably awkward if one were to approach a stranger and immediately go attempt a deep or substantive conversation. Small talk probably, as you said, bridges the gap. But what if all people are doing is small talk? Particularly with non-strangers?

    Related to your second point, to me this description refers to substantive conversations. Certainly values and attitudes are not light fare.

    And to your third point, I agree, small talk is a bridge, but what if it’s never crossed?

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