Conversations with strangers remain enjoyable for much longer than we expect

By Emma Young

For such a social species, we are surprisingly bad at judging conversations. Now a new misapprehension can be added to the list: even after striking up a conversation with a stranger, we underestimate how much we’ll continue to enjoy it. There are potentially important implications, point out Michael Kardas at Northwestern University and colleagues: if we mistakenly avoid longer conversations, we could miss out not just on the chance to connect with someone, but even to gain a new friend.

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, the team reports on five studies involving a total of more than 1,000 participants and almost 1,000 spoken conversations, conducted face-to-face or via private video conferencing. In one study, the team asked pairs of strangers to chat face-to-face for a few minutes and rate their enjoyment of the conversation so far — and predict how much they’d enjoy further conversations with their partner. The researchers found that even though the participants enjoyed the initial conversation, they consistently underestimated how much they’d enjoy continuing to chat, with their actual enjoyment often remaining high in subsequent conversations. Their responses to a questionnaire suggested that this was because they didn’t appreciate how much they’d actually have to talk about. Or, as the researchers put it, “Conversation remained replete with material for longer than participants imagined.” Another study also found that people expected to become tired of conversing more quickly than they actually did.

The team did find an intervention that helped, however. Participants who were asked, after five minutes of chat, to think about and note down some topics for further conversations were less likely to underestimate their actual enjoyment of those sessions.

In the final study, the team found that when people got to choose the conversation duration that they thought they’d enjoy most, they were often wrong. Those who didn’t get to follow their preferred duration, but were instructed to keep talking to their partner for a full 25 minutes, reported greater enjoyment than those who’d been allowed to go for their own chosen shorter durations. The participants had been told that if they opted for a shorter chat, they’d have to then sit in silence, without other distractions, for the rest of the 25 minutes — something that other studies have found that many people really dislike. Those who chose short conversations apparently didn’t appreciate that further conversation would actually be better for their wellbeing.

Sometimes, we do have to make a choice in the real world between talking to a stranger and keeping to ourselves. Public transport is an obvious setting for this. Rarely do we have no alternative source of entertainment, however. Perhaps if those who’d said they preferred a short conversation had been given access to their phone after chatting, they would have enjoyed the 25 minutes more overall than those who had to keep talking.

It’s also worth noting that if the team did gather personality data, it wasn’t reported in this paper. Perhaps extraverts are better at judging their likely enjoyment of a longer conversation with a stranger. Perhaps introverts enjoy longer conversations less. However, some of the earlier work on conversation has found that talking to strangers makes not only extraverts but also introverts feel better, so perhaps this isn’t the case. Only further research will tell.

For now, though, “The current findings mark one of the first attempts to unpack the time course of enjoyment in conversation,” the team writes. And while we tend to think that conversations with strangers will quickly grow dull, if, as these studies suggest, this isn’t the case, there are immediate practical lessons.

Still, not all the participants who expected to enjoy a conversation less and less were wrong. And earlier work has found that conversations rarely end when we’d like them to. So if you’re thinking that you might take these new findings to heart, and throw yourself into longer conversations with strangers, but are worried about how to get out of them, if necessary, you might also bear in mind tips on how to cut a conversation short.

Keep talking: (Mis)understanding the hedonic trajectory of conversation.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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