Photo by Richard Baker/In Pictures/Getty
Be brave enough to share, kind enough to listen, and you can escape the shallows of small talk to dive deep with another
by Lucy Foulkes
Photo by Richard Baker/In Pictures/Getty
is a psychologist and honorary lecturer at University College London. A former associate editor at Aeon+Psyche, she is the author of Losing Our Minds (2021). She lives in London.
Edited by Christian Jarrett
Have you ever had a decent conversation in a lift? If not, join the club – being in a lift with a stranger is a universally awkward experience. One reason is the typical duration of a lift journey – long enough to feel the social pressure to say something, anything, but never long enough to say something worthwhile. The world over, lifts are a microcosm of that most pained aspect of social interaction – small talk.
The psychologist Matthias Mehl at the University of Arizona studies conversations, and he defines small talk on the basis of how much information is exchanged. ‘If afterwards I know nothing more about you than I knew before,’ he tells me, ‘then that will be small talk.’
The vacuousness of small talk helps to explain why it’s often so boring, but it can be worse than that. Thanks to more lift journeys than I care to remember, I can vouch that some small talk is, unfortunately, both boring and awkward. And it’s not just in lifts: whether we’re at the hairdresser’s, in a taxi, or even with our best friend, sometimes it can be painful to figure out what to say, how exactly to hit upon a topic to fill the silent, stale air between us. Many of us are crying out for help with small talk, and the internet has answered with countless articles suggesting solutions and offering advice.
Much of this guidance aims to elevate bad small talk to enjoyable small talk, for example by commenting on a shared experience or asking open-ended questions. In fact, when it goes well, small talk can be not only pleasurable, but beneficial. There’s a body of research that focuses on how relatively fleeting social interactions with people – even strangers – can boost our mood and even our beliefs about humankind. For example, for a recent, not-yet-published study during the pandemic, Gillian Sandstrom, a social psychologist at the University of Essex, paired up strangers to have chats together on Zoom about whatever they liked. Compared with how they felt before, she says that, after the call, her participants ‘reported feeling a greater sense of trust in other people and feeling like people in general are benevolent – that they’re good and kind and fair’.
But while it’s important to recognise the value of small talk and that it needn’t be painful, it still falls well short of what many of us are really craving: meaningful conversation. By this, I mean conversation where we leave behind the shallows of small talk – however pleasant they might be – and dive deeper. For Mehl, who refers to these kinds of conversations as ‘substantive’, the key feature of deeper conversations is that you learn something. ‘If people start discussing information,’ he says, ‘then it becomes substantive … the most important point is that you get absorbed in the conversation, there’s information, there’s learning.’
Of course, you can learn something from a conversation with an electrician who comes to your house, or during a doctor’s appointment. To count as truly meaningful, the nature of what you learn matters. When a conversation allows you to better understand something important about yourself, the other person or the world – then it really becomes meaningful.
We derive meaning from understanding ourselves because of the deep human need for self-expression. The social psychologist Kirsty Gardiner at the University of East London studies social interactions, and she identifies self-expression – ‘sharing key aspects of who you are as a person’ – as the first of three components that can make conversations really valuable. Most of us are hungry for an opportunity to share what we’re thinking, to clarify and explore things that matter to us. So having the chance to formulate these abstract thoughts into words, and to share them with an interested listener who validates those thoughts, helps us feel understood.
In meaningful exchanges, the role of the listener is vital (which is why a meaningful conversation can be so much more rewarding than simply writing down our thoughts, or talking to ourselves when we’re home alone). An effective listener enables us to get feedback about who we are through their eyes. And this, according to Gardiner, is the second critical part of a meaningful conversation – it enables us to better understand ourselves. ‘We often do that by having ourselves reflected back from other people,’ she says. This process of speaking, being heard, and better understanding ourselves helps to facilitate a sense of connection, which Gardiner identifies as the final step in meaningful conversations. Ultimately, such conversations make us feel connected to other people, thus satisfying a well-established, fundamental human motivation.
Of course, in a two-way conversation, we take turns at being the speaker and the listener. The other party will also speak about themselves and share what they know and think, and this provides us with an opportunity for learning something important and valuable about them. Meaningful conversations, in short, allow us to learn something important about ourselves, about the other person, or about the world – and, when this happens, we come away feeling better understood and connected with those around us.
This sense of understanding and connection feels good and is important to our wellbeing. In one study, Mehl and his colleagues asked volunteers to complete some questionnaires and then wear a recording device for several days, which allowed them to analyse the quality of their conversations. The researchers found that the more substantive their volunteers’ conversations, the higher their sense of life satisfaction. Of course, it’s possible that the happier people simply had a tendency for more substantive conversations, rather than the conversations playing a causal role. But other evidence hints at the power of meaningful conversation – for instance, research conducted in the 1990s by the American psychologist Arthur Aron found that encouraging pairs of people to talk about deeper, more personally meaningful topics, led them to feel closer to each other.
If meaningful conversations are so rewarding and beneficial, how can we have more of them? For many of us, considering the amount of time we spend around other people, these quality conversations are frustratingly rare and elusive. But the good news is, with a little effort and a few new approaches, we can find ways to enjoy them more often.
Recognise small talk as a necessary first step
To improve your conversations, don’t dismiss small talk altogether. It’s long been recognised as a universal way to set the scene and establish rapport. As the pioneering anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski put it in an essay published in 1923, these initial conversational exchanges, while they are ‘neither the result of intellectual reflection, nor do they necessarily arouse reflection in the listener’, nonetheless ‘fulfil a social function’. Through small talk, ‘ties of union are created’, he wrote.
‘I think of small talk as an inactive ingredient in a medicine,’ Mehl tells me. ‘The inactive ingredient is necessary to hold the pill together. Small talk does exactly that … you need to use small talk in order to get hopefully to the more substantive conversations.’
In other words, it’s worth tolerating a bit of small talk because it lays the foundations for something richer. Maybe when you first meet up with someone, you’ll have to talk about your journey – the traffic levels and the motorway route you chose – but you don’t have to stay there forever, and, thankfully, there are lots of things you can do to get to the meaningful stuff faster.
Ask better questions
For obvious reasons, lots of us like to talk about the topics in which we’re personally interested. But a key way to have better conversations is to step out of your head for a moment and think more about the other person. And that means asking questions. The American journalist and author Celeste Headlee, whose 2015 TED talk on ways to have better conversations has been viewed more than 23 million times, recommends using open-ended questions in the style of a journalist, starting with who, what, when, where, why or how. ‘Try asking [the other person] things like “What was that like?” “How did that feel?”,’ she tells me. ‘Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it, and you’re going to get a much more interesting response.’
For more inspiration, you could check out the list of 36 questions compiled by Aron and his colleagues in the 1990s, and known today as the ‘Fast Friends Procedure’. The list was later popularised in the New York Times article ‘To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This’ (2015) but it was originally designed for a non-romantic context to see if any two strangers going through the questions would end up feeling close to each other after just 45 minutes. There are three sets of questions, each becoming more personal, culminating in questions such as: ‘If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?’ In the original study, Aron’s team found that two strangers felt closer to each other after going through the 36 questions than pairs who answered a list of ‘small talk’ questions such as ‘How often do you get your hair cut?’
Such lists don’t always provide a simple shortcut though. Asking the right questions involves judgment about your conversation partner and the context you’re in. ‘I don’t know what research article I could show you that says Here, here is how you ask the right questions,’ Mehl says. ‘That’s kind of a soft skill that people have.’ In 2013, Aron also advised caution, telling The Wall Street Journal: ‘You want to be slow and reciprocal.’ Whatever you ask, be encouraged that it’s likely to be appreciated: a study in 2017 by psychologists at Harvard University found that people who ask questions tend to be better liked by their conversation partners. And that’s no surprise really – when you ask questions, you’re giving the other person a chance to express themselves and share their opinion, which nearly all of us enjoy doing.
Listen to the answers
Asking questions is just the start. What comes up again and again on the topic of good conversations is the importance of really listening, and how rarely people do it. In his classic self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), Stephen Covey writes: ‘Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.’ To correct this instinct, as well as asking good questions, you need to make a concerted effort to really listen to the response.
This effort needn’t be a chore. In fact, Sandstrom believes that part of the pleasure of better-quality conversations comes from tapping into your curiosity. ‘[Conversation] probably goes better if you’re focused on the other person and trying to learn about them,’ she says.
If you struggle to find the motivation to ask questions and listen to others, it might be useful to think again about how much the other person will appreciate it. ‘[Asking follow-up questions] makes people feel like they’re being heard and listened to,’ Sandstrom says. It’s notable too that the Harvard study showing how much we like question-asking people also found that we particularly value follow-up questions. ‘Sometimes, I need to remind myself that [asking questions] is a prosocial act, like an act of kindness, so I can trick myself into working up the nerve to talk to someone,’ Sandstrom says. Remember that meaningful conversations are good for you and for your partner – it’s a win-win experience that’s worth the extra effort.
Be willing to share something about yourself
There’s a critical moment of transition in the development of all relationships – whether it’s the shift from acquaintance to love interest, from colleague to confidante, from neighbour to friend. It’s the moment when you decide to share something more personal about yourself. Psychologists call this self-disclosure, and it’s a key step in developing intimacy. The communication experts Amanda Carpenter and Kathryn Greene at Rutgers University in New Jersey liken the act of self-disclosure to the peeling of an onion. Each time an individual shares something important about themselves, a layer is peeled back, exposing something deeper and more important, until eventually they reach the core. ‘It takes time to reach another’s “core self”, the most intimate details about another person,’ they wrote in 2016. ‘The core personality includes the most private information about a person.’
Exposing a part of your inner self – even just the first layer – can help lead to better, more meaningful conversations. And it will encourage your partner to open up too, thanks to the so-called ‘norm of reciprocity’. This is a strong unspoken social rule that says that, when one person shares something personal, the other will feel compelled to do the same in return – in order to maintain a sense of equity and balance. ‘Self-disclosure is a big thing that helps people feel close to each other,’ Sandstrom says. ‘When you disclose to someone else, it encourages the other person to disclose with you, and that mutual, escalating self-disclosure is what leads to the sense of closeness.’
If this seems a little daunting, remember that you don’t have to jump to the core of the onion right away – or ever. Self-disclosure can involve sharing a fairly small part of yourself. It might also help to recognise that it’s a brave gesture. ‘I would say, dare to go to the next level in a conversation,’ Mehl says. Gardiner agrees: ‘Maybe the simplest thing to focus on, in your existing relationships, is to be brave and share something about yourself … It could be a fear, it could be a goal, it could be a value or belief. It could be something that happened to you in the past that you haven’t told them. I think that is going to facilitate something.’
Come ready to learn
If you know in advance that you’re going to be meeting a particular person or group of people, then, to raise the chances of a more meaningful encounter, it can also be useful to adopt a learning frame of mind. This is especially germane to meaningful conversations in a work or educational context, where meaning is likely to be derived not so much from an exchange of personal information, but from having a substantive, satisfying conversation about an interesting or important topic or issue. This might involve a little preparation (eg, reading up a little on someone else’s interests or their professional background, or reading up on the topic of the planned conversation) and bringing a willingness to contribute. It also requires a touch of humility and open-mindedness – being prepared to admit what you don’t know, and being ready to learn. This attitude can provide a rich and fertile setting for you to learn about something new, which can ultimately bring you meaning.
Be prepared to give and take
The heart of good conversation is reciprocity. The magic is more likely to happen when you and the other party abide by a simple rule: I will give you the space to speak, and I will properly listen to what you have to say. ‘You engage this reciprocity principle,’ Mehl says. ‘You show interest in the other person, therefore the other person shows interest in you. And then you produce a sense of belonging through reciprocal interactions.’ In this way, meaningful conversations are a dynamic and intricate dance, a giving and taking, a constant monitoring of what the other person is saying, what you’re saying and how the other person is responding. None of this is particularly easy and it might not come naturally, which is perhaps why great conversations are so rare. But if we remember the importance of give and take, and come prepared to make an effort, there’s no reason why all of us can’t find more opportunities to enjoy more meaningful conversations.
If you’re craving more meaningful conversations, you need someone to have them with. You might be thinking that you can really have them only with people you know well, but the good news is that this isn’t strictly true.
Sandstrom is interested in the power of conversation with what the American sociologist Mark Granovetter in 1973 called the ‘weak ties’ in our lives. She gives the example of ‘the person that you see in your yoga class, or the dog walker that you always see at the park, or a colleague.’ This person is, she says, ‘someone that you know, someone who knows you, but someone you don’t necessarily feel close to, and wouldn’t by default think about confiding in.’ In other words, these people aren’t quite strangers, but they’re not yet friends either.
Crucially, if you’re looking for people with whom to have more meaningful conversations, Sandstrom believes that these weak ties can play an important role. Of course, you’re unlikely to be able to jump straight into a deep conversation from the outset, but her research suggests that even fleeting encounters with our weak ties can be beneficial to our psychological wellbeing. And the more times you make the initial effort to engage, the more chance you have of the conversation developing into something more meaningful.
What often holds people back is confidence. ‘I think people worry about awkward silences,’ Sandstrom told me. ‘The word “awkward” comes up a lot for those who study conversation.’ So, again, this is partly about being brave, but it’s also about being curious about other people. And it helps to have a few tricks up your sleeve that will maximise the chances of small talk with a weak tie developing into something more.
To break the ice with a stranger or weak tie, Sandstrom suggests one option is to ‘comment on your shared situation’. This might be about why you’re both waiting for the bus, or commenting on the conference talk you’ve both just listened to, but it could also be ‘the old classics’ such as traffic or the weather. If the prospect of these initial superficial exchanges makes you cringe, remember that they can be a necessary stepping-stone to get to the good stuff. Alternatively, try giving a compliment, or use your observational skills and curiosity to ask the other person something about themselves. ‘Often I combine observation with humour,’ Sandstrom says. ‘I once commented on a young man’s “breakfast of champions” (a packet of biscuits), and I asked two Freemasons wearing matching striped trousers if they had consulted each other on their wardrobe choices that morning.’
To take things further once the conversation begins to flow, draw on your and the other person’s shared experiences and your curiosity-driven observations. Be patient, and remember that most people will like it if you ask them questions, and especially if you really listen to their answers. Of course, you won’t hit it off with everyone. Not all strangers or weak ties will want to have a deep conversation, and that’s fine. But make a habit of getting the ball rolling, and you might find that conversations with weak ties can lead to all kinds of enriching opportunities and ideas. The next time you’re at a work event, or a party, perhaps do as Sandstrom does, and try to make yourself talk to someone you wouldn’t normally talk to. As she says: ‘That’s where the magic happens, right?’
Whoever you end up speaking to, remember that – as with so much in life – conversations can be good or bad, and everything in between. But when they’re good, they can be great, because they’re stimulating and can satisfy our fundamental human need to engage and learn. Good, deep, meaningful conversations allow us to share something about ourselves, to explore and understand who we are, and to connect with and learn from others. When we get them right, conversations are a fundamental source of pleasure. We just need to try to have them more frequently.
Celeste Headlee’s TED talk ‘10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation’ (2015) offers plenty of easy, engaging advice.
The Art of Manliness website published the excellent article ‘How To Make Small Talk’ (updated in 2020). It provides detailed tips with sample dialogue scripts, including the ARE method (‘Anchor, Reveal, Encourage’) developed by the American communications expert Carol Fleming.
The full list of 36 questions from the Fast Friends paradigm is available for free online – this is the list that supposedly helps you to fall in love or, at the very least, helps you feel closer to someone.
The School of Life sells sets of cards containing thought-provoking questions to help get conversations started. For example, there’s the original 100 Questions kit and the 100 Questions: Love Edition set about love and relationships. For the more adventurous, there’s Pillow Talk: Cards for Intimate Conversations, a set of 60 cards to encourage people to explore sex ‘with intimacy, playfulness and intellectual curiosity’.
Useful books to help you have more meaningful conversations include It’s Not All About ‘Me’: The Top 10 Techniques for Building Rapport with Anyone (2011) by the retired FBI special agent Robin Dreeke, and Headlee’s book We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter (2018).