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November 16, 2021
by Patricia Tomasi

What Makes People Engage In Small Talk Rather Than Deep Conversation?

November 16, 2021 08:00 by Patricia Tomasi  [About the Author]

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at miscalibrated expectations and how they create a barrier to deeper conversation.

“In this research, we wanted to understand why people often engage in small talk in everyday life rather than initiate deeper and more intimate conversations that might strengthen their social relationships,” study author Michael Kardas told us. “We reasoned that people's decisions about what topics to discuss in conversation are guided by their expectations about the likely outcomes of the conversation.”

In particular, noted Kardas, people might expect others to be relatively uncaring or uninterested in the content of a deeper conversation, leading them to anticipate that deep conversations will be somewhat negative or awkward. These negative expectations might lead people to remain guarded in conversation, leading them to engage in small talk and to shy away from deeper conversation topics. 

“We hypothesized that people's negative expectations about deep conversations may be miscalibrated, in that others tend to be more caring and interested during conversation than people expect,” Kardas told us. “Deep conversations may therefore feel systematically less awkward and more enjoyable than people anticipate. People's excessively negative expectations may create a barrier to deeper conversations.”

People's health and happiness are determined largely by the quality of their social relationships. Having deeper conversations with others is one way to build stronger relationships and thus enhance one's happiness and well-being. Researchers were interested in understanding why people seem to avoid the deeper conversations that might enhance their own and others' well-being.

“We tested our hypotheses in a series of experiments in which pairs of participants were assigned either a series of relatively shallow questions (e.g., "What do you think about the weather today?") or deep questions (e.g., "Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?”),” Kardas told us. “They first imagined discussing the questions with another participant and reported their expectations about how the conversation would go: how caring and interested the other person would be, how awkward the conversation would feel, how connected they would feel to the other person after the conversation, and how happy they would feel about the conversation.”

Then participants actually answered and discussed the questions with another participant. After finishing the discussion, participants reported their experiences on the same measures of care, awkwardness, connectedness, and happiness on which they previously had reported their expectations. Measuring people's expectations before the conversation and their experiences after the conversation allowed the researchers to test the degree to which people's expectations about shallow and deep conversations are accurately calibrated.

“Before their conversations, participants expected deep conversations to feel considerably more awkward than shallow conversations,” Kardas told us. “Yet after the conversations, participants reported that their deep conversations were significantly less awkward than they expected them to be.” 

Participants also reported that their conversation partner was more caring and interested than expected, and that they felt more connected to their partner and happier than they had anticipated.

“People want to have deeper conversations with others but often avoid them because they expect others to be relatively indifferent to the details of the conversation,” Kardas told us. “Our experiments suggest that others tend to be more caring and interested during conversation than people anticipate. People's typical conversations may be shallower than would be optimal for their own and others' well-being.”

About the Author

Patricia Tomasi

Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog:

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