There’s an Important Reason We Should Be Having More Meaningful Conversations

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If you’ve ever been trapped in an elevator with a casual acquaintance, you know just how painful small talk can be. “Such a shame that we’re stuck in the office on a beautiful day like this!” your coworker may quip. Or, “How was your weekend?” your neighbor may ask — not because he or she actually cares about the quality of your weekend, but because there is an awkward silence that begs to be filled.

There’s a reason small talk like this exists. If your coworker were to ask you about your darkest secrets or deepest wishes while the two of you descend floors in a tiny metal box, you would probably feel like this is too much, too fast. As in, too much intimacy, too earlier on in your budding relationship. Likewise, small talk can help us probe for more interesting topics to talk about. For example, if you were to answer your neighbor by saying, “My weekend was great! I bought the final component for my laser defense drone,” your neighbor would definitely have some follow-up questions.

However, as introverts, it can feel like our brains were literally not programmed for small talk. Conversationally, we desire to dive deep. And yes, we really would like to know your darkest secrets and deepest wishes.

Happy People Have More Meaningful Conversations

According to one study, there’s an important reason why we should ditch small talk in favor of more meaningful conversations. Psychologist Matthias Mehl and his team discovered a link between happiness and substantive conversation. His study, published in the journal Psychological Science, involved college students who wore an electronically activated recorder with a microphone on their shirt collar that captured 30-second snippets of conversation every 12.5 minutes for four days. Effectively, this created a conversational “diary” of their day.

Then, researchers went through the conversations and categorized them as either small talk (talk about the weather, a recent TV show, etc.) or more substantive conversation (talk about philosophy, current affairs, etc.). Researchers were careful not to automatically label certain topics a certain way; for example, if the speakers analyzed a TV show’s characters and their motivations, this conversation was considered substantive. Ultimately, the researchers found that about a third of the college students’ conversations were considered substantive, while a fifth consisted of small talk. Some conversations didn’t fit neatly into either category, such as discussions that focused on practical matters, like who would take out the trash. The researchers also studied how happy the participants were, drawing data from life satisfaction reports the college students completed themselves, as well as feedback from people in the students’ lives.

The results? The study revealed what introverts have known all along. Mehl and his team found that the happiest person in the study had twice as many substantive conversations, and only one-third of the amount of small talk, as the unhappiest person. Almost every other conversation the happiest person had — about 46 percent of the day’s conversations — were substantive. For the unhappiest person, only 22 percent of this person’s conversations were substantive. Similarly, small talk made up only 10 percent of the happiest person’s conversations, while it made up almost three times as much of the unhappiest person’s discussions.

Further research is still needed, because it’s not clear whether people make themselves happier by having substantive conversations, or whether people who are already happy choose to engage in meaningful talk. However, one thing is evident: happiness and meaningful interactions go hand-in-hand.

Mehl, in an interview with the New York Times, discussed the reasons why he thinks substantive conversations are linked to happiness. For one, humans are driven to create meaning in their lives, and substantive conversations help us do that, he says. Also, human beings — both introvert and extrovert — are social animals who have a real need to connect with others. Substantive conversation connects, whereas small talk doesn’t.

How to Have More Interesting Conversations

Want to have more meaningful, interesting conversations? Here are three ideas to help you do just that:

1. Get the other person to tell a story. Small talk can be boring because we often ask questions that can be answered in just one or two words. For example, “How are you?” (“Fine”) or “How was your day?” (“Pretty good.”) To ditch the small talk, try asking more open-ended questions like, “What was the most interesting thing that happened at work today?” Questions like these invite the other person to tell a story. Here are some more ideas:

Instead of . . .

“How are you?”

“How was your weekend?”

“Where did you grow up?”

“What do you do for a living?”

Try . . .

“What’s your story?”

“What was your favorite part of your weekend?”

“Tell me something interesting about where you grew up.”

“What drew you to your line of work?”

2. Share details about yourself and see what sticks. This can be hard for introverts, because we tend to dislike talking about ourselves. As a result, we get stuck in cycles of mind-numbing small talk in which we don’t reveal anything about ourselves, and in turn, we don’t learn anything meaningful about the other person. This prevents the relationship from growing in a satisfying way.

To avoid this, share a few details about yourself and see what sticks. If you work in an office or go to school, you probably get asked “How are you?” several times a day. Instead of giving the typical response (“I’m fine, how are you?”), expand on your answer and give a few details about your day. You might say something like, “Good, I got up early this morning to get coffee from my favorite coffee shop.” Then, notice how the other person reacts. Do they keep the conversation going by asking a follow-up question or do they give a disinterested nod? If the other person doesn’t seem interested, try revealing another detail about yourself until you hit on a topic that gets the two of you talking.

3. Dare to be honest. We often sacrifice expressing our true thoughts and feelings for the sake of politeness. But there’s something very authentic, and surprisingly charming, about being completely honest. Michaela Chung, author of The Irresistible Introvert, writes that you can quickly take conversations to a deeper level by saying things like:

  • “To be honest, I don’t go to parties very much. I feel pretty overwhelmed being here.”
  • “I’m not a big talker, but I like listening.”
  • “I don’t like camping. Like, at all.”
  • “I’m really proud of that.”
  • “This feels awkward.”
  • “That hurt my feelings.”
  • “No. I don’t want to go. I’d rather stay home and have some me time.”

Be careful to not take this to the extreme. You risk alienating your conversation partner if you overshare or insult. However, if done right, even one authentic disclosure can quickly build intimacy, because honesty draws people in.

If you’re not already, consider making an effort to have more meaningful conversations. Your happiness, in part, depends on it.

Learn more about how to work with your introversion, rather than fight against it, in my upcoming book, The Secret Lives of Introverts. You can pre-order it now on Amazon.

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