- A study in 2010 found that small talk was associated with lower life satisfaction.
- But a follow up study has found this actually isn’t the case.
- Small talk isn’t as important as deep, meaningful conversations – but it isn’t bad either.
- Lead researcher Matthias Mehl said it is more like an “inactive ingredient” in our social lives.
- The study also found no difference between how extroverts and introverts approached small talk.
Few people admit to liking small talk. A banal conversation about the weather or repeating tales about your weekend to your colleagues may be fine in the office kitchen, but it’s not how we’d want the majority of our conversations to go.
That’s why in 2010, when a paper was published in the journal Psychological Science that appeared to suggest that small talk was associated with feeling unhappy, it was widely covered by the media and absorbed by the public.
The research team, led by psychology professor Matthias Mehl at The University of Arizona, gave 79 undergraduate students devices that would record intermittently for a short period of time throughout the day. They wore them for four days, then gave the devices back so the team could upload the files and build an acoustic diary.
A recording every 12.5 minutes for 30 seconds gave them a total of 23,689 files, which they then had to sort through. Ambient noise was discounted, but conversations were grouped into small talk, which involved vapid, trivial interactions like talking about the weather, and then substantive talk, where more meaningful information was exchanged, such as discussing relationships.
Results showed that people were generally happier and more satisfied with life when they spent less time alone, and more time interacting with other people in social settings. On top of that, they also found there was a tendency for happy people to have more meaningful and substantive conversations, and less small talk.
“That was a nice study, and we were really proud of it, except for the fact it was based on 79 undergraduate students,” Mehl told Business Insider. “There’s nothing wrong with undergrad students, and oftentimes you can generalise to that, but it was definitely a small sample size. So over the years we continued to do research and then recently we were able to replicate, or attempt a replication, of our own research.”
The results were all replicated in a new study – almost
In a new study, which is available to view as a pre-print, the team used the same methodology, but this time they had a sample size of 486.
“We found again that people who reported being more satisfied with their life spend less time alone and more time surrounded by other people,” Mehl said of the results. “We were also happy to find out that our substantive finding holds – that people who are more satisfied with their lives also have more substantive conversation. And that’s on top of the whole quantity of interactions.”
What they didn’t replicate was the negative association between small talk and wellbeing. In other words, small talk isn’t the opposite of substantive, meaningful conversation, and it doesn’t make people unhappier.
In fact, “people’s small talk wasn’t at all related to people’s satisfaction of life,” Mehl said. “So it wasn’t that people who did more small talk were happier – we didn’t find the opposite – it just seems to be an inactive ingredient.”
There are some champions of small talk, and it is a vital part of life. For instance, you wouldn’t be likely to walk up to a stranger and immediately engage them in a conversation about the afterlife. And in a professional context, it’s important to network with people and build up a rapport. Without small talk, this would be pretty difficult.
In a blog post for Psychology Today, social psychology professor Sam Sommers discusses one of his most influential teaching moments, which was when a student praised him in an evaluation on his social attitude and making small talk with students before lectures.
“I’ll admit, though, that I had a mixed reaction upon reading it,” Sommers wrote. “On the one hand, I was encouraged that I had created a welcoming classroom climate, at least for this student. But I also found the comment sobering. And a bit sad. Because its implication was that this student did not feel the same way in every one of his or her classes.”
Too often, he added, we don’t go around smiling or talking to others. We have a lot going on around us and in our minds so we essentially have perceptual blinders to conserve our mental energy.
It might improve our focus, but it means we are less connected to the people around us, Sommers said. So using small talk to break out of our bubble can be a worthwhile idea.
Introverts hate small talk, but they still have it
Another surprise from the new study was the difference between introvert and extrovert personality types. It’s been long established in psychology that introverts hate small talk, because they prefer to have a deep conversation with one or two people rather than hop around a party introducing themselves to many – as an extrovert might.
“It would have been quite conceivable that extroverts who have a lot of small talk tend to be happier than the extroverts who don’t have a lot of small talk. Maybe for extroverts the threshold is just lower and they can be happier with most of the conversations being small talk. But for introverts, having a lot of small talk is negatively related to wellbeing,” Mehl said. “All of this would have been conceivable… but we didn’t find it.”
This could mean introverts and extroverts “run on the same conversational fuel,” Mehl said, or simply that extroverts need the same conversation depth as introverts. But none of this means they have the exact same conversations.
It’s also important to consider the fact that people tend to place themselves in their preferred social settings – extroverts in louder, more stimulating environments, and introverts in smaller, intimate groups. Ultimately, the team don’t know what accounts for the finding.
“But to me it is interesting, that the association holds for both extroverts and introverts,” Mehl said. “Introverts don’t have a higher need or a higher demand for substantive talk, and extroverts can’t just live on small talk.”
The level for substantive conversation was relatively low in the study, but it was already positively related to satisfaction with life and wellbeing, Mehl said.
Humans are inherently social and symbolic animals
When asked why he thought this was, Mehl said he thought it’s because we are social animals and we are a “symbolic species.”
“We have our worldviews, we really need to express our worldviews, and need to see our world views affirmed,” he said. “Oftentimes you feel like you have a good conversation if you share your values, and your conversation partner affirms your values. So that is the social part of the social species, but also the meaning making part of our species.”
The next steps for this research could be to answer whether meaningful conversations really do make people happier, as right now the results show correlation, not causation. Mehl said he would like to try a “clinical trial” or injecting one or two more meaningful conversations into participants’ lives, like “a pill,” to see if they are happier than a control group.
“If you want to be a cynic, our findings as of now are also very consistent with the fact that grumpy, unhappy people repel good conversations,” he said. “And that is also a no brainer, that people seem more at ease having good conversations with people who are happy… So a real sceptic or cynic would say our findings don’t tell you whether having substantive conversation makes you happier. You need to actually show that path causally exists, and I think that definitely is the next step.”