BEHAVIOR
July 6, 2018

Is Small Talk Underappreciated?

High quality conversations that are meaningful to us make us happy. Small talk can pave the way.

We all make idle small talk — at parties, standing in line at the grocery store or as we watch sports events — and it doesn’t get the credit it deserves, a University of Arizona study has found. It has long been thought that too much small talk was a sign of unhappiness, but the new study finds this is not necessarily so.

People who have more substantive conversations tend to be happier, and this study also found that quality conversations were linked to greater happiness. But small talk does not seem to affect happiness one way or the other.

Small talk is like the inactive ingredients in medications. It makes delivery of more substantial ingredients possible.

“We define small talk as a conversation where the two conversation partners walk away still knowing equally as much — or little — about each other and nothing else,” said researcher, Matthias Mehl, in a statement. “In substantive conversation, there is real, meaningful information exchanged. …It could be about any topic — politics, relationships, the weather — it just needs to be at a more than trivial level of depth,”

The study was a follow-up on one Mehl, a professor of psychology, published in 2010. It found that more small talk was linked to less happiness. The current research used a larger and more diverse sample of nearly 500 people that included college students, breast cancer survivors and their partners, recently divorced adults and people being trained in meditation. In four separate experiments, researchers collected snippets of audio from their daily interactions using an EAR, or Electronically Activated Recording device, which participants wore from the moment they woke up until bedtime. Then they coded the conversations recorded by the EAR to reflect how substantive they were.

People in the study also completed surveys designed to measure their life satisfaction, as well as assess their personalities. Those who engaged in a greater number of substantive conversations were happier, but the amount of small talk a person engaged in didn't affect the quality of a person's interactions. Neither did being an extrovert or introvert.

“We expected that personality might make a difference, for example that extroverts might benefit more from social interactions than introverts or that substantive conversations might be more closely linked to well-being for introverts than for extroverts, and were very surprised that this does not seem to be the case,” said lead author Anne Milek.

Even though small talk didn't appear to have any effect on participants' well-being, it might lay the groundwork for more substantive conversations, according to Mehl, who likened small talk to the inactive ingredients in medications. “We all understand that small talk is a necessary component to our social lives. You cannot usually walk up to a stranger and jump right into a deep, existential conversation because of social norms.”

It's not yet clear whether having more substantive conversations actually makes people happier, or if happier people have more substantive conversations, that will be explored in further research. But it seems that social contact plays a role; in fact, loneliness is often characterized by a lack of quality conversation. “I would like to experimentally 'prescribe' people a few more substantive conversations,” Mehl said, “and see whether that does something to their happiness.”

The study appears in the Psychological Science.

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