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Mar. 1 2010 - 2:31 pm | 835 views | 2 recommendations | 7 comments

The perils of small talk

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

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The Greek philosopher Socrates famously claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” to which the 20th-century American philosopher Daniel Dennett replied: “The overly examined life is nothing to write home about either.”

Fair enough. Deep thoughts have their place, and we all like to exercise our intellectual chops time to time. But much of life is not profound, and many of our thoughts and conversations are taken up with the rather mundane business of daily life: Nice dress. What’s for dinner? Have you seen Avatar? How about them Redskins?

But is there a proper and healthy balance? Are there consequences to being too serious all the time—or too shallow? Well, maybe—depending on your personality and your goals in life. University of Arizona psychologist Matthias Mehl recently decided to eavesdrop on people’s daily conversations—small talk and deep reflections and everything in between—to see if the overheard chatter was linked in any way to happiness.

The eavesdropping was literal. Mehl and his colleagues equipped a large group of volunteers with a new and well-named micro-technology called the EAR, an unobtrusive recorder that sampled snippets of conversation over four days. The EAR “listens” for 30 seconds every 12 ½ minutes, so for this experiment alone it gathered more than 23,000 snippets of dialogue. The scientists then had trained coders analyze every bit of chatter, labeling it as either banal small talk or substantive discussion.

The researchers also gave each of the volunteers a standard personality test and an assessment of general life satisfaction. They wanted to examine the interplay of personality, conversational style and happiness. The findings were clear and intriguing: First, happy people spend significantly more time talking to others in general; dissatisfied people spend much more time alone. That’s not so surprising in itself, but happy people also engage in much less small talk—roughly a third as much—and have about twice as many meaty conversations.

The researchers wanted to make sure that these findings didn’t simply reflect personality differences. They didn’t. When they looked at people who were happier than you would expect, given their personality type, those were the ones with weighty thoughts and discussions. For example, introverts and disagreeable types might be expected to be less happy, but some were not; those who were not were the ones with more substantive social interactions. All of these findings held true regardless of whether it was a weekday or weekend, so it’s not like conscientious workaday folks become happy-go-lucky come Friday night.

Mehl concludes (and reports on-line in the journal Psychological Science) that the happy life is social rather than solitary—and meaningful rather than superficial. But he concedes that cause-and-effect is unclear with these findings. That is, happy people might simply attract others more readily, leading to more and deeper conversations. Alternatively, maybe Socrates was right: Perhaps the “examined life” actually is actually richer and more joyful. This raises the intriguing possibility that profound conversation might actually be used to boost feelings of well-being.


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  1. collapse expand

    Personally, this quote by Dennis Miller’s makes me happy!

    “There’s nothing wrong with being shallow as long as you’re insightful about it.”

  2. collapse expand

    Is it possible that the people who have to listen to the chatty types are more depressed because of it?

    But seriously, it makes sense that more substantial human contact makes people happy. Even the most introverted usually reach out via the Internet nowadays. There are probably few true hermits who don’t interact at all.

  3. collapse expand

    Parts of this article remind me of the story about the comfortable frog, half-asleep in what he thinks is a warm jacuzzi.

    There is no balance in the US today; American thought is shallow-heavy. Here are four consequences of not paying attention to what matters: Americans elect to move their economy to China. Americans glibly support offensive, losing military adventures which compound the economic crises, and ruin their reputations. Americans think that having good relations with other countries is not even necessary. Americans promote shallow, purely self-interested people of dubious qualifications to the highest political offices at the local, state, and federal level.

    Personally, I feel lonely when I am in the company of shallow know-nothings — for example, any random grouping of Americans. I earned self-respect by aligning my life with my mouth, whatever the consequences, and this sometimes has the effect of making me profoundly happy.

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    I've been a Washington, DC-based science writer for many years, specializing in psychology and human behavior. I currently write a blog for the Association for Psychological Science called "We're Only Human," and am also a regular contributor to Newsweek.com and Scientific American Mind. Crown will be publishing my book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits, in September. I am an old-school journalist embracing the world of new media. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. I believe that every news story--whether it's about money or politics or crime or love or health-- is in large part about psychology and the quirks of the human mind. When I am not writing, I am hanging out at Westside Club, riding my bicycle, listening to music and/or cooking for family and friends.

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    For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit my “We’re Only Human” blog. Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at the website Newsweek.com.