I'm not good with the how's-the-weather type of small talk, not too interested in talking about traffic woes or speculating about the latest consumer trends. I can do it, sure. Small-talk is an unavoidable and necessary skill for connecting with business associates and other parents at playdates. Still, at the end of these conversations I often feel anxious and wiped out.
But, invite me to a small dinner party with good food and compelling conversation and I leave feeling rejuvenated and satisfied. So how does that work? How does a non-threatening conversation exhaust me while those that tend to me more emotionally risky and intellectually demanding inspire me?
A new study led by psychological scientists from the University of Arizona and Washington University offers a little insight.
Researchers recorded study participants for four days and then evaluated more than 20,000 snippets of those conversations to determine whether the participants were engaging in small talk or more substantive discussions. Participants also completed personality and well-being assessments.
Turns out those who spent more time with others in meaningful conversation tended to be happier than those who gravitated toward a more solitary life filled with trivial conversation.
According to the journal Psychological Science, where the study was published, "greater well-being was related to spending less time alone and more time talking to others."
But the type of talk matters. The happiest participants had twice as many substantive conversations and only one-third as much small talk when compared to the unhappiest participants.
I'm not a gregarious soul and I do appreciate my solitude. But, I do feel better when I share a meaningful conversation with good friends. Those times resonate. I learn something. I share more of myself. I think about things in a different way and feel more open and more connected, not only to those I'm talking with, but to the entire human race. I've always thought this desire for deep conversation made me overly serious, or intense. But it also leaves me feeling good. Engaged. Enlivened.
Research has long shown that social connections aid longevity, ward of depression, and contribute to our happiness and well-being. Now, we know too that how we talk to each other also contributes to our overall health.
When we take time to slow down, to really listen to each other, share what matters, we are also showing compassion and respect. It's a way of saying, ‘I trust you enough to share the thoughts and feelings that matter most to me. I care enough to hear yours.'
That feeling infuses our conversations with meaning and leaves everybody feeling better.