Science Solitaire

[Science Solitaire] Do we talk too much or too little in conversations?

Maria Isabel Garcia
[Science Solitaire] Do we talk too much or too little in conversations?
When in conversation with family and friends you care about, making them end talking when you want them to is like wishing for world peace right that moment. It will not happen.

Do you remember a conversation you had with someone that did not want to end? Do you still feel that frustration when you remember that particular conversation that will not end? I am sure each of us has a personal trove of conversational stories that we will remember for both the right and the wrong reasons. But what do we humans know about how long to talk when we are in conversations?

You may be surprised that a 2021 study found that an overwhelming number of the conversations conducted by people with their family or friends or strangers never ended when both parties wanted them to. They also found that we almost never really know when the other person in our conversation wants to sign off. But there was also a significant number who were not satisfied with the conversations they had because they were too short.  

I found the study fascinating because of two things. One is its irony. Aren’t the results ironic given that conversation itself is a stream through which our intentions sail back and forth one another to arrive at some point or points of understanding and/or resonance? Why can’t we easily let it be known to the other when we want them to talk some more or to stop talking altogether?

The most obvious explanation as to why people do not end conversations when they want them to is because it is generally perceived to be disrespectful to be the one to cut the conversation off for good. It just is not done in most circles. You endure it as if guided by a virtue.

I myself, am very poor at enduring conversations that run beyond their time. I am also aware that “beyond their time” is an entirely arbitrary boundary I set for myself. Most times, I can viscerally experience the same point being recycled over and over again and for some reason, that makes me feel caged and my workmates and friends say that they can see it all over my face.  When these conversations happen professionally, time limits as well as the presence of moderators help align the conversations. But when it is with family and friends you care about, this can be tricky.

When in conversation with family and friends you care about, making them end talking when you want them to is like wishing for world peace right that moment. It will not happen. I think maybe because there is too much history between and among family and friends that there are invisible pockets of “patience” anyone can scoop from if they need any to endure those kinds of conversations.

The second thing that fascinated me in the 2021 study is because a 2022 study found the opposite – that with strangers, it is actually better to speak more in conversations. “Better” means that your conversation partner found you likeable and interesting if you spoke more than half the time. But of course this was done in lab settings and they would want to probe further if this will still hold in natural conversations.

So what do we make of seemingly conflicting findings? It just tells us that conversation is an art as well as a science. Measuring all the elements of the conversation is like pinning down the ingredients of a scrumptious dish down to its micrograms, including the lilt of the cook’s soul as she makes the dish. There is the timing, the mental and physical state of the conversationalists, the topic and how familiar they are with it; how intellectually and emotionally invested they are in the content of the conversation and I also think how much they value what you have to say is all in there too. You can measure some but you cannot measure all, not enough to have the perfect, foolproof formula for the perfect conversation which will end at about the time that both parties want it to end.

But I think it is still vital to remember that a conversation is at least 2-way. Whether you take up more than half or less of it, I think that matters less than the weight of what you have to say. I have been in many conversations where I deliberately wanted to speak less because the other ones I was talking to had gems spewing out so naturally that I wanted time to stretch. Listening is vital too so that when you speak, it also reflects what you have heard from the other and how you processed it. I find that after the strict lockdowns of almost 2 years, I am more deliberate in my conversations.  I don’t think I will ever approach any certainty as to finishing all my conversations just at the right time but I know that will always have time for conversations. –

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