More often than not, on airplanes and buses, at work conferences or jury duty, people choose to sit in silence, read, or look at their phones rather than talk with someone nearby.

One reason for this is an expectation that they’ll run out of things to say and end up stuck in a boring conversation, find Northwestern postdoctoral scholar Michael Kardas (a recent graduate of Booth’s PhD Program), University of California at Berkeley’s Juliana Schroeder, and Chicago Booth’s Ed O’Brien. But their research suggests that this expectation is wrong: we have more to say to each other than we think.

“People hold incorrect assumptions about how social interaction changes over time and, consequently, may avoid longer-lasting conversations that would forge closer connections,” the researchers write.

They conducted five experiments in which participants consistently predicted that they’d enjoy a conversation with a stranger less and less as time went on because they’d run out of topics to talk about. But in reality, participants found plenty to talk about. Their conversations remained highly enjoyable as they kept chatting, and sometimes even grew better.

Keep on talking

Participants in a study expected that their conversations would become less enjoyable as they went on, but their actual experiences proved otherwise.

Most of the experiments followed a similar design: the researchers recruited participants from a pool of university-aged volunteers to come to their laboratory on campus, then paired them up. They gave these pairs a simple task: get to know each other by chatting about whatever you wish.

The researchers varied the length of these conversations, requiring some pairs to converse for as much as 30 minutes. After their first few minutes of chatting, participants were alerted to break to a computer to privately rate how it was going and predict how they thought it would keep going. They then paired back up to continue their conversation, reporting back at regular intervals about how the experience was actually progressing, until the study period ended.

Participants enjoyed their first few minutes of chatting, but indicated that they anticipated things would quickly grow stale. But their prediction was wrong. The dreaded dip in things to talk about did not materialize, even for 30-minute conversations. In some experiments, participants wrongly thought that switching between many new conversation partners would be better than having one long conversation with the same person. They even chose to end a long conversation early, yet the ones who were made to continue chatting ended up happier, according to their reports, than those who stopped.

The researchers conclude that we can talk and connect for more than a few minutes—even with people we don’t know. After all, as they write, “All close friendships begin with a simple conversation between strangers.”

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