Build Relationships Through Conversation, Not Small Talk

Research reveals the power of bonding through substance.

Posted Mar 24, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Key Points:

  • Small talk is a common element of workplace environments, but some welcome it more than others, research shows, and some avoid it altogether.
  • Other research has found that while the presence of substantive conversation in one's life appears to boost life satisfaction, small talk provides no such benefit.
  • People whose reported life satisfaction was higher than their personality traits would predict also reported a higher rate of substantive conversations in their lives.

We all know that person who comes into the office in the morning, and instead of heading to her desk, makes the rounds. “Chatty Cathy” asks about your weekend, what book you are reading, your plans for the day, and perhaps even solicits your predictions on the weather or the big game coming up. You might not mind this diversion, happy to ease into your workday through light conversation. Maybe that is why she comes to visit you, and not the workaholic recluse in the office next door.

But if you are not a morning person, or have a desk full of work to tackle, you might not want to take the morning quiz. But how would you feel if instead of chit-chat, you and Cathy always had rich, meaningful, stimulating conversations that left you hungry for more? The answer will likely define the quality of your relationship with your colleague—and where it is headed. 

Which people in our social sphere, either personally or professionally, make us feel good? Research indicates it might be those people with whom we have quality conversations. Because when it comes to improving well-being through talking, substance matters. 

Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay
Source: Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

Not All Conversations Are Created Equal 

As innately social creatures, people like to talk. Indeed, we get to know each other through sharing information and bonding over shared experiences. But as most people know, not all conversation is enjoyable; it depends on the content. Research corroborates this observation.  

Anne Milek et al. (2018) investigated the link between life satisfaction and conversation quantity and quality.[i] Testing and building upon prior research, they examined the association between daily conversations from heterogeneous adult samples and subjective life satisfaction. Among other findings, they found moderate associations between life satisfaction and time spent in conversation and substantive conversations, but no reliable association with small talk.  

They found that personality did not moderate the discovered associations. So what was the explanation?  

Conversation Quality Control

Apparently, life satisfaction depends on conversation quality and quantity. Specifically, more is not necessarily better. Milek et al. found that when it comes to conversation quality, substantive conversation was moderately associated with life satisfaction, not chit-chat.

Their analyses indicated that people who reported a higher degree of life satisfaction than we might expect, considering their personality, had not only more but more substantive conversations than people with similar personalities who were less satisfied. In contrast, Milek et al. found that small talk was not reliably linked with life satisfaction. They note that this was true in terms of overall frequency as well as the ratio of small talk to conversation.

They note that their findings are consistent with prior research showing that both the quantity as well as the quality of social interactions impact well-being. Yet they add the observation that one of the “active ingredients” in a conversation is its level of meaningfulness. This is important because as has been recognized through prior research, our need to belong is not satisfied merely through social contact. It is possible to feel alone in a crowd; we are wired to desire more. Accordingly, Milek et al. note that key ingredients of a satisfying life include having close relationships, as well as meaningful, substantive conversations.

Talking Your Way Into Quality Relationships

Building upon the link between what Milek et al. refer to as “conversational properties of social interactions” and life satisfaction, it is apparent that bonding through talking involves both time and topics. We are more likely to build healthy, happy relationships through meaningful, deeper discussion than by wading in the shallow end of the pool. Although it is always good advice to be wary of sharing too much too soon, relationships build trust and respect through emphasizing substance over the superficial.


[i] Milek, Anne, Emily A. Butler, Allison M. Tackman, Deanna M. Kaplan, Charles L. Raison, David A. Sbarra, Simine Vazire, and Matthias R. Mehl. 2018. “‘Eavesdropping on Happiness’ Revisited: A Pooled, Multisample Replication of the Association between Life Satisfaction and Observed Daily Conversation Quantity and Quality.” Psychological Science 29 (9): 1451–62. doi:10.1177/0956797618774252.

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