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Why We Need to Have Deeper Conversations

Research shows what introverts have known all along.

Impact Photography/Shutterstock
Source: Impact Photography/Shutterstock

You and a coworker step into an elevator. As you descend in the tiny metal box, the silence between you grows awkward. Suddenly your coworker blurts out, “Such a shame that we’re stuck in the office on a beautiful day like this!” You mumble, "It sure is." As an introvert, you despise making small talk; it feels like your brain was literally not programmed for it.

Conversationally, introverts prefer to dive deep. We want to know what's really going on in your head, or to talk about something interesting we've read, heard, or watched, among other meaningful topics. And, it turns out, deep talk is actually good for us, whether you're an introvert, extrovert, or neither.

Happy People Have More Meaningful Conversations

Psychologist Matthias Mehl and his team set out to study happiness and deep talk. His study, published in the journal Psychological Science, involved college students who wore an electronically activated recorder with a microphone on their shirt collar that captured 30-second snippets of conversation every 12.5 minutes for four days. Effectively, this created a conversational “diary” of their day.

Then researchers went through the conversations and categorized them as either small talk (talk about the weather, a recent TV show, etc.) or more substantive conversation (talk about philosophy, current affairs, etc.). Researchers were careful not to automatically label certain topics a certain way—if the speakers analyzed a TV show’s characters and their motivations, this conversation was considered substantive.

The researchers found that about a third of the students’ conversations were considered substantive, while a fifth consisted of small talk. Some conversations didn’t fit neatly into either category, such as discussions that focused on practical matters like who would take out the trash.

The researchers also studied how happy the participants were, drawing data from life satisfaction reports the students completed as well as feedback from people in their lives.

The results? Mehl and his team found that the happiest person in the study had twice as many substantive conversations, and only one-third the amount of small talk, as the unhappiest person. Almost every other conversation the happiest person had—about 46 percent of the day’s conversations—were substantive.

As for the unhappiest person, only 22 percent of that individual’s conversations were substantive, while small talk made up only 10 percent of the happiest person’s conversations.

Small talk equals unhappiness? Score one for Team Introvert, because we've known this all along.

Why Is Happiness Linked with Deep Talk?

Further research is still needed, because it’s not clear whether people make themselves happier by having substantive conversations, or whether people who are already happy choose to engage in meaningful talk. However, one thing is evident: Happiness and meaningful interactions go hand-in-hand.

Mehl, in an interview with the New York Times, discussed the reasons he thinks substantive conversations are linked to happiness. For one, humans are driven to create meaning in their lives, and substantive conversations help us do that, he said. Also, human beings—both introvert and extrovert—are social animals who have a real need to connect with others. Substantive conversation connects, while small talk doesn’t.

How to Have More Meaningful Conversations

You'll never completely banish small talk, because it exists for some important reasons: For example, it helps two people warm up to each other conversationally. In the elevator scenario, if your coworker were to ask you about your darkest secrets or deepest wishes, you would probably feel like that was too much, too fast. Likewise, small talk helps us probe for more interesting topics to talk about. If you were to answer your coworker by saying, “It sure is a shame to be stuck indoors! I wish I were in my backyard working on my laser defense drone instead,” your coworker would definitely have some follow-up questions.

Still, you can minimize small talk and maximize deep talk. Here are some questions to help do just that:

Instead of . . .

  • “How are you?”
  • “How was your weekend?”
  • “Where did you grow up?”
  • “What do you do for a living?”

Try . . .

  • “What’s your story?”
  • “What was your favorite part of your weekend?”
  • “Tell me something interesting about where you grew up.”
  • “What drew you to your line of work?”

You can learn more about what it's really like to be an introvert—as well as how to live a satisfying quiet life—in my upcoming book, The Secret Lives of Introverts. I draw on interviews with hundreds of introverts and the latest research. You can pre-order the book now on Amazon.

A version of this post also appeared on Introvert, Dear, my community and publication for introverts.


Mehl, Matthias R., Simine Vazire, Shannon E. Holleran, and C. Shelby Clark. “Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations.” Psychological Science 21, no. 4 (2010): 539-541. doi:10.1177/0956797610362675.

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