It’s high time to trade the small talk for deeper conversations. Because they also have a surprising effect on people.

When was the last time you cried in front of someone? It may be a somewhat personal question. And if you’re waiting for the bus with a few strangers, the conversation – if it arises at all – doesn’t get much further than the weather. Incorrectly, researchers now claim. “We assume that people are indifferent and so we avoid a face-to-face conversation; we think that’s inconvenient,” said study researcher Amit Kumar. “But we may be much happier if we engage in deeper conversations.”


The researchers designed a series of no fewer than twelve experiments in which more than 1800 participants took part. They then asked pairs of people—mostly strangers to each other—to discuss small things as well as deeper topics of conversation. Examples of superficial talk include ‘what do you think of the weather?’ And ‘what’s the best TV show you’ve seen in the past month?’ Underneath deeper conversations, the surveys grouped questions such as ‘when was the last time you cried in front of someone else?’ And ‘if a crystal ball can tell the truth about you, your life, your future or anything else, what would you like to know?’

Prior to the conversations, participants predicted how uncomfortable they thought the conversations would be. They were also asked to estimate how connected they would feel with their conversation partner and how much pleasure they thought they would get from the conversation. Afterward, participants took stock and rated how uncomfortable or enjoyable the conversation had actually been.

Uncomfortable… or not?

It leads to a surprising finding. Overall, the researchers found that deep conversations, in particular, felt much less uncomfortable, were more enjoyable, and led to more feelings of belonging than the participants expected. During one experiment, the participants engaged in both deep and superficial conversation. And although the participants initially preferred to talk casually, it turned out that they enjoyed the deeper conversation more.


So why do we avoid such deeper conversations with strangers? The researchers suspect that we underestimate how interested strangers are in our innermost feelings and thoughts. Wrongly. “People care about what we have to say, just as we care about what they have to say,” emphasizes Kumar. “And these effects are very robust. We recruited students from all over the world, online participants, and people who happened to be in a public park for our experiments. There were even senior executives at a financial services company who told about the last time they cried in front of someone else. And among all these different participants, we found similar results.”

Deeper Conversations

So it’s high time to trade the small talk for deeper conversations. Because that’s what we really need. For example, when participants were told they were assigned a caring interlocutor, they chose to discuss the deeper questions. And when participants heard that most people underestimate the extent to which other people are interested in their personal and deeper thoughts, they also chose – unlike the participants who were not given this information – to broach deeper topics of conversation. Apparently we also prefer talking to strangers about topics that matter. Not only do we experience more happiness and feel more positive, according to the researchers, it also leads to greater appreciation and a better bond with others.

Although we benefit from in-depth conversations, we still too often stick to a chat. All too often we are wrongly guided by fear. But maybe that this study changes that. “In social situations, most of the fear is in our heads – how we envision these conversations,” Kumar says. “But the reality suggests we might be better off opening up and digging a little deeper during a conversation than we usually do.”