Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986.

A team of Harvard researchers led by Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert conducted two experiments to investigate the dynamics of two-way conversations. In the first, they surveyed 805 online study subjects about their most recent face-to-face conversation with a significant other, family member, or close friend. The second study brought 252 strangers together in a university psychology lab. Researchers split the strangers randomly into pairs and told to talk about whatever they liked, for anywhere from one to 45 minutes. Subjects in both groups were asked if their conversation ended when it should have. In natural conversations between friends, two-thirds felt it went on too long. In structured conversations between strangers, three-fourths said the same thing. In both experiments, only two percent agreed the conversation ended at the right time. 

The mismatch in expectations people have for conversations is a coordination problem. 

What the Mastroianni-Gilbert study concluded was that in ordinary conversation, people withhold from each other the very information needed to end the conversation. Because neither one lets the other know that they’re ready to put an end to the chat, conversations end at a time that’s not right for anybody. “Whatever you think the other person wants, you are probably wrong,” says Mastroianni, “so you might as well leave the first time it seems appropriate, because it’s better to be left wanting more than less.”

Daniel Gilbert added some thoughts of his own.

“It’s very easy to think of conversations as trivial. If they end 10 minutes before or 10 minutes after you wanted them to end, what’s the big deal?” he said. “We are interested in the bigger picture, where billions and billions of conversations are occurring every day. Billions of minutes of communication and connection are lost all over the world every day because people don’t know how to tell when their partner wants the conversation to end.”

That people fail so completely in judging when a conversation partner wishes to wrap things up “is an astounding and important finding,” says Thalia Wheatley, a social psychologist at Dartmouth College. She says “Conversations are exercises in mutual coordination, and yet they fall apart at the end because we can’t figure out when to stop.” In Scientific American, Rachel Nuwer puts the hay down where the goats can get it: “People don’t know when to shut up.”

Always take a closer look at how studies are conducted. 

To be included in the Mastroianni-Gilbert study, participants needed to have had a conversation that:

  • Was with only one other person.
  • Was face-to-face, not online or on the phone.
  • Lasted from one to 45 minutes. 
There were several huge differences between the two studies, though.
  • The online study included only pairs of intimate friends or close family members. The lab study paired strangers together.
  • The online study asked about conversations that had occurred naturally. Lab conversations were organized by researchers.
  • People in the online study came to their conversations with things they wanted to talk about. People in the lab did not (Mastroianni said so many of the lab conversations among strangers were so boring, it was hard to watch them).
Because of those fundamental dissimilarities, the results should have been different.

Which is why I was fascinated by how these two very different groups of people produced the same result: the overwhelming majority of all participants agreed their conversations went on too long.

If so many wanted to get out of their conversation sooner, why didn’t they do anything about it?

The Atlantic published Joe Pinsker’s article How to End a Conversation Without Making Up an Excuse. In it he says it’s difficult to simultaneously do three things: end an interaction, be honest, and be considered polite. Be warned, though, that if you value being polite over wasting your time in a conversation you don’t want to be in, you will be stuck more often than not. Sophia Benoit at GQ.com says “Conversations, like hammocks, are much easier to get into than out of.”

But not if you really want out.

There are many ways to signal that you are ready to exit a conversation. Next time you’re stuck with a boring yakker, physically show you’re not interested by breaking off eye contact, turning away from them, yawning, checking the time, and looking at things on your phone. At the same time, show them verbally that you’re not interested by giving only one-syllable replies and telling them you have other things you need to get to. Each of these strategies is better than none at all, but real talkers are not interested in what you want. Research shows the best way to shut down conversations with anyone is to stop talking altogether.

The ones that wish the conversation kept going are usually the ones doing most of the talking.

Carsta Simon (Oslo and Akerhus University) and William Baum (UC Davis) analyzed exchanges between conversation partners. They found that listeners reinforce the speaker’s tendency to keep talking, both deliberatively and accidentally.

Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Susan Krauss Whitbourne asks two questions:

  1. Do people monopolize conversations because we allow them to?
  2. Can we change our behavior so they’ll decide on their own to stop talking?
The answer to both those questions is yes. 

People who nod when someone else is talking are “saying” they’re interested, only one of many ways listeners unknowingly encourage speakers to keep talking. Whitbourne says agreeing just to be done with it or breaking eye contact may help some, but what matters more is how much (or little) time you spend speaking. The Simon-Baum study showed just that: people in two-way conversations will stop talking sooner when they realize the other has stopped talking.

What about that 10% who wanted their conversations to last longer?

We already know that most of them were talkers. I wonder what sorts of things they were talking about. I also wonder what the split was between:

  • Gasbags, pontificators, and moralizers.
  • Incoherent ramblers and infinite digressors who never get to the end.
  • People who are naturally entertaining, amusing, or enlightening.
Let’s say you have the good fortune to be entertained, amused, or enlightened by a conversation partner.

You can keep them talking by applying the principles of good interviewing:

  • Demonstrate you are fully engaged in what they have to say by turning toward them and maintaining unwavering eye contact.
  • Ask broad questions gently and step aside.
  • Ask open-ended questions that encourage longer answers.
  • Ask for specific examples.
  • Ask follow-up questions.
  • When the conversation lags, say “Tell me more.” 
  • Constantly remind them you are actively listening by nodding, going mm-hm, and waiting patiently through brief silences.

Top-notch interviewers keep conversations going because they are sincerely interested in what others have to say and because they are seeking to learn from the interview. Contrast this with marketers, who are interested in hijacking the conversation so they can sell the listener something. 

People I like hearing talk really know their subject matter and tell colorful stories full of interesting details.

Shelby Foote, Richard Feynman, and Studs Terkel are the first ones I think of. Feynman was a physics professor who worked on the first atom bomb. Foote was a historian who appeared on Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War, and Terkel was an oral historian who in books and on radio told stories of regular people living regular lives. Studs didn’t merely conduct interviews – he engaged in conversations.

Click here to hear what Joe Jones had to say about conversations.

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