A new article published today in the journal PNAS finds that conversations almost never end when both participants want them to end.
Conversations are complex. As the researchers point out, “modern computers can fly airplanes and perform operations, but still do nothing more than parody a conversation.”
In a typical conversation, humans need to create speech and understand, in real time, what means taking turns quickly, finding out what the people you are talking to know and want to know, and remembering what has already been said (or not said).
People wished they could have talked longer
In the first study, 806 respondents (367 women and 439 men, median age 37) completed an online survey about their last conversation with a friend or family member.
On average, participants wished their conversations had been 1.9 minutes (or 24%) longer. They also said they believed their partners wished the conversation had been 5.8 minutes (62%) longer.
The second study (157 women, 92 men, median age 23) presented two strangers together to discuss something for as long as they wanted, up to 45 minutes. Again, in this study, participants reported that they wished the conversation had lasted longer than it actually did.
As the authors write, “participants and their partners not only had highly incompatible desires, but also did not realize them fairly, however incompatible their desires were.”
A coordination problem
This research suggests that knowing when to end conversations is a “coordination problem” is that is difficult to solve. This is partly because people need information that society’s conventions mean they don’t share (e.g. by saying, “Your story’s gotten boring”).
Also, is one of the main goals of a conversation establishing and maintaining social relationships, meaning that “interlocutors usually adhere to a variety of conventions aimed at protecting each other’s feelings.”
As such, ending a conversation when the other person wants to continue talking can “undermine relationships and reputations,” leading people to wait until they think their partner wants to stop talking too.
Interestingly, both studies yielded similar results. People who knew each other well were apparently not more likely to share their desires to talk than strangers. In both cases, politeness seems to cause people to withhold information about when to stop talking.
Countless hours of unrealized conversations
“How much community and connection does the world give up every day,” the researchers wonder, “simply because of hundreds of millions of people who want to keep talking don’t recognize this and end their interactions prematurely?”
Moreover, they continue, “how many people live lives of quiet desperation simply because they tend to alienate those they are talking to by never fully knowing when it’s time to say goodbye?”
Social connections, the authors point out, are critical to people’s “mental well-being, physical health, and longevity.” And conversation is the bread and butter of social interaction.
“The more we learn about conversation,” they conclude, “the better we will be able to maximize its benefits.”
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Research: “Do conversations end when people want it to?” Authors: Adam M. Mastroianni, Daniel T. Gilbert, Gus Cooney, and Timothy D. WilsonPublished in: PNAS Release date: 1. March , 2021Photo: by Cottonbro from Pexels