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Strangers less awkward, more interested in deep conversation than people think

Strangers less awkward, more interested in deep conversation than people think
People overestimate awkwardness and underestimate interest in conversations with strangers, a new study found, and researchers suggest this knowledge could help people have more meaningful interactions on a daily basis. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 30 (UPI) -- It's good to talk about more than just the weather.

Conversations with strangers or acquaintances rarely evolve beyond small talk, but psychology researchers suggests it doesn't have to -- and perhaps, shouldn't -- be that way.

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According to a new study, published Thursday in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people overestimate the awkwardness of deeper conversations and underestimate their enjoyment.

Moving past these misperceptions, researchers suggest, could help people forge more meaningful connections.

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"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," study co-author Nicholas Epley said in a press 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?" said Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

To better understand the impediments to meaningful conversations, researchers recruited some 1,800 volunteers to participate in a series of experiments. During initial experiments, pairs, mostly strangers, were asked to discuss a variety of topics, some deep and some shallow.

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Shallow subjects included TV shows and the weather, while participants encouraged to engage in deep conservation were prompted to talk about the last time they cried or what they would want a crystal ball to reveal about themselves.

Before each conversation, participants were asked to anticipate how awkward each conversation would be.

They were also asked to predict how connected they thought they would feel to their conservation partner, as well as forecast the level enjoyment they would get out of the discussion -- and they were asked to make similar evaluations post-conversation.

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The results of the experiments showed, for both shallow and deep conversations, people tend to overrate the awkwardness of talking to a stranger and underrated their connection with said stranger.

People also underrated the level of enjoyment they would get out of a chat with a stranger.

The difference between pre- and post-conversation expectations and evaluations was most pronounced for deeper conservations.

Researchers hypothesized that some people might be apprehensive to engage in deep conversation because they doubt their conversation partner, a stranger, will be interested.

So, during a second set of conversational experiments, researchers quizzed participants about how interested they thought their partner would be. Afterwards, researchers asked people to gauge their level of interest in the conversation that had taken place.

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The experiments revealed another discrepancy between perception and reality: On average, people underestimated the level of interest from their conversation partners.

"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," Epley said.

"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."

Finally, researchers set up experiments to test whether correcting the misconceptions revealed by the earlier experiments would boost people's interest in having deeper conversations.

In one experiment, researchers told participants to imagine they were going to be talking to a caring and interested persons. Researchers told other participants to imagine they were going to talk with someone who was unfeeling and bored.

Participants told they were going to speak with an empathetic and engaging person were more likely to broach deeper topics.

The researchers found they could also encourage deeper conversation simply be telling participants about the results of the previous studies.

"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," Epley said.

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"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," Epley said.

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