Small talk prevails because of the need to find a socially acceptable topic. But when it’s removed, it changes the game.
What is your relationship with God? What is something you fear in life? These may be great topics for conversations, but we rarely tackle such meaty topics at social gatherings. Instead, our discussions usually centre around summer travel plans, the latest home repair horror story and, of course, the weather.
This is a shame, because research has confirmed what most people know but don’t practise: surface level small talk does not build relationships and it is not great for our happiness levels. The obvious question: if it’s not that good for us, why does it prevail?
The sad answer is that we actively seek the lowest common denominator. When left to our own devices, we have the freedom to discuss what we want, but we also feel the pressure to pick a topic that will be socially acceptable and easy for anyone to participate in – the uninteresting hallmarks of small talk.
To better understand this problem of social co-ordination and what we can do about it, we arranged a dinner party. Usually dinner parties involve two social co-ordination problems. The first is arrival times: if everyone arrives at different times, the party always seems to be in flux – “getting going” or “dying down”. The second is one of conversation topics: no single person will take the social risk of talking about complex personal issues with mere acquaintances. The alternative is surface chat that makes no lasting impression on anyone.
According to a 2010 study by social anthropologist Kate Fox, in Britain, more than nine in ten people admit to having talked about the weather in the last six hours. Around 38 per cent say they’ve talked about it in the past hour. (And when was the last time you heard someone say, “I wish we had another 45 minutes to get into the weather in more depth”?)
To help combat the problem of co-ordination, we added one simple variable to this dinner party – rules. 1) Show up between 7:30-8pm. If you can’t make 8pm, don’t come. 2) Absolutely no small talk. Only meaningful conversation is allowed.
These rules eliminated some individual freedoms in favour of better outcomes for everyone. Ninety per cent of invitees RSVPed within the day, many asking for clarification on the rules: “What exactly is small talk? Sports? Travel? My job?”
Not only were they curious about the rules, they liked having them – and nobody wanted to break them.
At 7:30pm, the night of the dinner party, we were sitting and waiting for the guests to arrive. At 7:45pm, we were nervous. No one had arrived. Guests had only 15 more minutes.
At 7:46pm, the doorbell rang. It did not stop until 7:54pm. 25 guests had arrived. The last two guests arrived at 8:05pm and, after some internal debate, we allowed them in. The benefit of having the whole group together from the start amplified the experience for everyone.
Next, the second rule was triggered. To help co-ordinate the conversation, we provided big index cards with examples of meaningful conversation starters. The 27 gender-mixed guests discussed if and how to hold public officials accountable for their actions. We found out who (besides our significant other) would give up a kidney if we needed one. We debated the theory of suicide prevention. We talked about the art of the dominatrix.
Midway, something interesting happened. We hear: “Hey! Is that small talk?” The guests not only abided by the rules, but they also enforced them. Instead of decreasing freedom, people appeared freer to talk about the things they really wanted to talk about.
By establishing a common rule for behaviour we created an environment with a new set of social norms that redefined peoples’ best interests. And everyone was happier. As added proof, two dates came out of the evening. Perhaps meaningful conversation also makes us more attractive?
The basic idea is that if every individual is free to act as they please, the combination of these individual behaviours might be sub-optimal for the group. This problem is clear in social gatherings, but it has other applications, such as for email.
Email is turned on 24-7. If we want to email a question on Saturday morning from the coffee shop, we have the freedom to hit send.
Even though our ability to get our question answered quickly benefits us in the short term, it is easy to see how this snowballs into a culture of compulsively checking email. Outside of personal sacrifices made to stay on top of the continuous stream of email, this behaviour is detrimental – it distracts workers from their top priorities and could make the entire workplace move slower, not faster.
So what should we do? We could add co-ordination and create a new set of social norms. What if companies told people that email will only be delivered during just three pre-specified times? This would set the expectations of the senders, and reduce the need of the recipient to continuously monitor their email.
In situations where individuals normally have freedom, social co-ordination in some areas is likely to have surprising benefits. So at your next dinner party, remember the wine, the music and the rules.
Dan Ariely is James B Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University and Kristen Berman founded Irrational Labs, a non-profit behavioural consulting company, with Ariely.
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By Kristen Berman and Dan Ariely for wired.