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Why It's OK to Be Chatty

Surprisingly, research found those who talked more were liked more.

Key points

  • People tend to believe that they will seem more likable if they speak less than the other person in a conversation.
  • People are seen as more likable if they speak for more than half the time in a conversation.
  • The same general rule applies for different conversational goals.
Christina@wocintechchat/Unsplash
Source: Christina@wocintechchat/Unsplash

During their first encounter in the Broadway musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr gives the garrulous young Alexander Hamilton some free advice: “Talk less; smile more,” he says, explaining that such cautious reticence is the best way to “get ahead” in life.

And Burr is not alone in his belief that talking less leads to social success. In his influential social self-improvement guide How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie stressed the strategic importance of holding back in a conversation, since “the people you are talking to are a hundred times more interested in themselves than they are in you.”

Whether or not we buy Carnegie’s somewhat cynical observation about other people’s fundamental lack of interest in what we have to say, most of us approach a conversation with the belief that we should let the other person talk more than we do if we want to make a good impression. A study recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, however, suggests that such conversational deference may not in fact be the best way to win friends and influence people.

Reticence Bias

Beginning with the hypothesis that people typically exhibit a “reticence bias” in conversation, operating under the assumption that they will be perceived as more likable if they speak less than the person with whom they are conversing, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Virginia conducted a series of three studies to determine if talking less actually does make other people like us more. The first two studies tested the reticence bias hypothesis (i.e., the belief that people will like us more if we let them speak more than we do in a conversation).

In study 1, undergraduate participants were asked to imagine taking part in a lab experiment with another undergraduate student they had never met before. They imagined having two conversations with the other student, one in which they each took turns responding to conversation prompts and another in which they could choose the percentage of time they should talk if their goal was to be well-liked. When the results were tabulated, the average percentage of time participants said they should speak in order to be liked was significantly lower than 50 percent, indicating that they believed they should talk less to be liked more.

Study 2 was similar to study 1 with the exception that, instead of choosing the amount of time they felt they should talk in order to be liked, they were told that their conversation with the other student would be guided by a computer that would assign them to one of five time conditions, with one student speaking for 30, 40, 50, 60, or 70 percent of the total conversation and the other speaking for the remaining time. When asked which percentage of time they would prefer to speak if their goal was to be liked, the responses replicated those of study 1, with participants saying they preferred to speak less than half of the total time.

After indicating the percentage of time they would prefer to speak in order to be liked, participants were asked to imagine that the computer had randomly assigned them to one of the five time conditions (30, 40, 50, 60, or 70 percent) and then to predict how much their partner would like them in that condition. Consistent with the previous results, the majority believed they would be liked more if they talked less.

Where studies 1 and 2 tested how much people believed they should talk in a conversation in order to be liked, study 3 tested the accuracy of these assessments by putting participants in actual situations such as they had only imagined in the first two studies. Placed into pairs, participants had a seven-minute conversation in which they took turns answering four prompts. As in study 2, they were guided by a computer program that indicated how long each person should speak, randomly assigning them to 30, 40, 50, 60, or 70 percent of the conversation. Each participant was then asked how likable they found their partner. Contrary to the assessments conveyed in the first two studies, participants who spoke more tended to be more, not less, well-liked by their partners. The more the participants spoke, the study revealed, the more likable they seemed.

Halo Ignorance

To explore how the conversational goal of being liked interacted with other conversational goals, the researchers also probed the participants’ perceptions of how much they should talk if their goal was to be interesting and if their goal was to “enjoy themselves as much as possible.” Contrary to their assessment when the goal of the conversations was likability, when asked to estimate what percentage of the time they should speak to be seen as interesting, the average was significantly higher than 50 percent. When the goal of the conversation was enjoyment, the estimate was between that of the other two goals, at around 50 percent.

The variations among these assessments indicate that people tend to believe that different conversational goals require different amounts of speaking time. In other words, participants considered the three conversational goals to be independent of one another.

In study 3, however—where participants engaged in actual conversation and then reported their reactions to the different percentages of speaking time—responses to the different speaking times were “highly correlated” among the three conversational goals, with all three ratings being lower when participants spoke for 30 to 40 percent of the time than when they spoke for 50 percent or more. The researchers describe this correlation as a “halo effect,” in that speakers “formed relatively global impressions of each other” rather than responding differently in each of the three different parameters.

The results of the study suggest that people tend to operate under two general misconceptions when engaged in conversation: a “reticence bias,” which is an “incorrect belief that they will be more likable if they speak less than half the time,” and “halo ignorance,” or the “belief that their speaking time should depend on their goal.”

These common misconceptions are behind the friendly advice Aaron Burr offers Alexander Hamilton during their first meeting. While there is probably nothing at all wrong with smiling more when we are speaking with someone, Burr’s suggestion that Hamilton “talk less” to get ahead is advice that we would all do well to ignore. Whether our goal is to be liked, to be interesting, or simply to enjoy ourselves, talking more seems to be the formula for conversational success.

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References

Hirschi, Quinn, et al. “Speak up! Mistaken Beliefs about How Much to Talk in Conversations.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2022, p. 014616722211049., https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672221104927.

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