Small talk

Small talk is a beast with many forms. There’s small talk with friends which would likely progress into more if you weren’t in a rush to get to class. There’s the confusing cross-talk small talk, when you say, “Hey, what’s up?” and they respond, “Good, how are you?” Then there’s my personal favourite, the small talk that is so inconsequential that it doesn’t even warrant stopping walking as you pass by someone with a “hey, how’s it going.”

With all these different kinds of small talk floating around, the question must be asked: “do these smatterings of small talk make us happy, or are we better off taking the time to have deeper and more substantial conversations?”

In a recent collaborative effort between the University of Arizona and Washington University in St. Louis, researchers examined the nature of our conversations and how they’re tied with our levels of happiness. Matthias Mehl, the lead researcher on the 2010 publication in Psychological Science, informed me that the motivation for their study was to get a good empirical answer to the question of whether the happy life is “a life where you try to stay at the surface of life’s depth (“don’t worry, be happy”), or where you try to derive satisfaction from meaningful social encounters.”

Using a technology he and a colleague introduced in Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, and Computers in 2001 known as the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR), they recorded 23,000 sound clips that were 30 second each; one recorded every 12.5 minutes while the subject was awake. The device, which looks like a digital recorder with a clip-on microphone, offered them a relatively unobtrusive and more reliable method of gathering data on how often the subject was alone and what kinds of conversations they engaged in than the usual self-report measures, which have been shown to be biased by gaps in memory.

One thing I was curious about was whether they were concerned that participants might change their behaviour and censor what they say because they were being recorded. However, Mehl said that previous data has indicated that the awkward feelings and behavioural adjustments only occur during the first few hours; after which they habituate and forget they’re even wearing the devices for long stretches at a time.

Recordings from the 79 participants were studied for the type of conversation — whether they were largely composed of small talk or substantive conversations — and to assess whether individuals generally spent more time alone or in the presence of others. The percentage of time spent alone or with others and the types of conversations were compared with an assessment of the well-being of participants. The inherent pitfalls in self-report measure were partially avoided through the collection of informant reports of participants’ happiness by individuals who were identified as “knowing the participant well.” These informant reports were used in conjunction with the self-report measures to provide a more accurate reading of well-being.

The results indicate that individuals who spend less time alone have higher levels of mental well-being than those who are alone more often. It also looks like participants who had comparatively more substantive conversations had a significantly higher well-being rating than those who engaged in more small talk.

As with all correlation studies, we have to be careful in concluding that the variables being compared are directly influencing each other, something researchers refer to as a causal link. It could be that happy people are naturally more prone to having more engaging conversations. On the flip side, it may be the act of opening up and connecting with other individuals that instils a sense of meaning and happiness in the individual’s life. Mehl informs me that future experiments which are already underway are testing the causal effects of small talk or substantive conversations on happiness by “prescribing” participants more of each.

Whatever the case, I think we would all be happier without people asking us how we’re doing as they whiz by not even looking back to hear our response.