Why You Hate Small Talk So Much

December 13th 2015

Laura Donovan

The holiday season brings with it many scary things: financial stress, ugly sweaters, small talk. Small talk may be the worst of these: You endure it at office holiday parties, family gatherings, everywhere.

Small talk may seem like a harmless necessity of socializing, but research shows it can actually be more than just annoying: It can have a negative effect on your well-being.

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The problem with small talk

People who have in-depth, meaningful conversations reported higher happiness levels than those who engaged in more small talk, according to a 2010 study from the University of Arizona. Researchers who studied thousands of conversations found that the happiest people had roughly double the number of substantive conversations and around one-third as much small talk as the least happy participants.

"A happy daily life seems to be social rather than solitary and has meaningful conversations," University of Arizona psychologist and study researcher Matthias Mehl told the Arizona Republic in 2010.

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It may seem obvious that shallow small talk is associated with lower levels of happiness. But Mehl told the New York Times in a separate interview that his research "could have gone the other way," because deep conversations can also be dark and depressing. Other research has shown time and time again that ignorance is bliss. Nevertheless, it appears people are interested in more than surface chatter.

"[I]t could have been, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’: As long as you surf on the shallow level of life, you’re happy, and if you go into the existential depths, you’ll be unhappy,” Mehl said.

But people like significant conversations more than small talk because humans are social animals and are always searching for a deeper meaning in life, Mehl said.

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"By engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world,” Mehl said. “And interpersonally, as you find this meaning, you bond with your interactive partner, and we know that interpersonal connection and integration is a core fundamental foundation of happiness.”

Turning small talk into something more meaningful.

How can you turn small talk into a substantive conversation? By expanding what you tell people when they ask simple questions.

"Instead of responding to a simple question like, 'How's it going?' with 'Good, you?' expand your reply with a details about your day," LifeHacker's Thorin Klosowski wrote in 2012. "For instance, you might say, 'Good! I spent the morning kayaking, and I'm feeling great!' When you share that little piece of your story, you'll get one of two responses: a question about how it was or a disinterested, 'Oh, cool.'"

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychological and brain sciences professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, recommended listening well to the other person rather than simply waiting to talk. "Too often, when we're meeting someone new, we try to fill the dead moments with chatter about ourselves," Whitbourne wrote in Psychology Today. "Far better for you to listen first, talk second. Of course, someone has to start the conversation. But if you and your companion actually listen to each other and not worry about what to say next, things will flow more naturally."

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