Most Conversations Don’t End When We Want Them To

Too long? Or too short?

Posted Mar 08, 2021 |

  • Humans have yet to master the delicate art of chitchat.
  • Conversations seem to often run longer or shorter than people would like. 
  • People rarely want the exact same things from their conversations.
  • Incompatible desires may contribute to conversations ending at the wrong time.

If you left your last conversation with a nagging suspicion that your talk had dragged on for too long or that it was cut short prematurely, you are not alone. A recent study explored the intricacies of one of our favorite pastimes and came to a startling conclusion: most conversations don’t end at the right time. By the looks of it, while we humans are able to explore life on other planets and prevail over pandemics, we have yet to master the delicate art of chitchat. 

A team of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Virginia studied 932 conversations between intimates and strangers. They asked the conversants to report:

  1. Whether there was a point during the conversation when they were ready for it to end (or how much longer they wished the conversation had continued)
  2. Their guess at how their conversation partners felt about the duration of the conversation.

The researchers compared these reports with the actual duration of the conversations and examined whether people were on the same page about when to end their conversations and whether they were able to end their conversations when they wanted to. 

What the Conversation Studies Show

In Study 1, 806 participants were asked to recall a recent conversation they had with someone close to them, such as a family member, a romantic partner, or a friend. Among them, 66.5 percent of the participants felt like there was a point during the conversation when they were ready for it to end. Around 53 percent felt like there was a point when their partners were ready for the conversation to end. On average, participants wished that their conversation had lasted about two minutes longer than it did. They also believed that their partners wished that the conversation was almost six minutes longer than it was. In sum, participants were convinced that they wanted different things from the conversation; compared to their partners, they thought they wanted the conversation to end earlier. Thus, in conversations with intimates, participants usually did not get what they wanted, and neither did their partners. 

In Study 2, the researchers invited 252 strangers to their lab, divided them into pairs, and asked them to talk about a topic of their choice, for at least one minute and up to 45 minutes. Results showed that almost 69 percent of the participants felt like there was a point during the conversation when they were ready for it to end, while 80 percent believed that there was a point where their partners had wanted the conversation to end. On average, participants wished their conversations were 0.6 minutes longer and believed that their partners had wanted the conversation to be around 1.3 minutes shorter. Importantly, the participants grossly miscalculated the discrepancy between their and their partners’ desired duration of the conversation.  

In short, only less than 2 percent of the conversations (1.6 percent) ended at the time when both people wanted it to end. Moreover, only under 30 percent of the conversations (29.4 percent) ended when one person wanted it to end. In 46.8 percent of the conversations, both partners wanted it to end earlier, and in 9.5 percent of conversations, both wanted it to end later than it did. Thus, most conversations didn’t end when people wanted them to end, and the difference between what the participants wanted and what they got was “on average about half the length of the conversation itself,” as Mastroianni et al. (2021) write.

We Don’t Want the Same Things

How could we be so off when it comes to coordinating a task we undertake so often and so routinely? According to the authors, two reasons might explain why our conversations appear to be either too long or too short. First, people rarely want the exact same things from their conversations. You might approach your conversation partner with the intention of a light banter, while they may veer it towards a heated discussion. You might need to unload your deepest worries, they may be eager to move on with their day. These “incompatible desires” contribute to conversations ending at the wrong time for at least one of the conversants.

We Don’t Know What Others Want

The other impediment is our lack of understanding of our partners’ wishes. Since people generally want to accommodate the people they are talking to, having accurate knowledge about each other’s desires would make it easier to end our conversations at the right time. Or, in case of incompatible desires, meet each other midway. For example, as the authors point out, deciding where to eat lunch with a friend, even when both friends express different preferences, is not complicated. When it comes to our conversations, however, laying out our intentions and desires before we start talking is a rare occurrence. (“I just want to compliment you on your haircut, and you feel like telling me everything I did wrong yesterday. Compromise?”). Interestingly, the studies showed that people were as unlikely to let their partners know of their true wishes when they had conversations with their family and friends, as when they spoke to strangers in a lab setting. 

Conversations Can Be a Social Dance

We spend our days engaging in various conversations, not only to exchange information but also to maintain our social ties. The faux pas of letting conversations run too long or too short can lead to “social rupture.” Since most people find it a breach of etiquette to inform others mid-conversation that they’ve said and heard what they needed and are ready to move on, we are left to solve this “coordination problem” by relying on our intuitions about the wishes of our conversation partners and our abilities to “read the air.” As the present research demonstrates, our conjectures about others might not always be reliable. 

neonbrand/Unsplash
Source: neonbrand/Unsplash

The significance of our everyday conversations cannot be overstated. As the foundations of our social interactions, they are a key contributor to our well-being. A conversation is a “bundle of complex tasks,” write Mastroianni et al. (2021). We get to decipher a continuous flow of words and gestures in real-time, we infer our partners’ intentions, we articulate our own thoughts in a meaningful manner for the benefit of our interlocutors. It is, indeed, a social dance that we’ll keep performing until the end of our lives. A dance where two dancers, eager to remain loyal to unspoken cultural conventions, take turns leading and following. Sometimes, they move at the same time, discordant and cumbersome. Other times, they stand face to face, the silence between them doing the talking. And then sometimes, in moments of alchemy, the choreography of their dance is so seamless and graceful, that its memory persists long after the music has stopped. Those are the conversations, however imperfect and however unexpected, that change our lives.

References

Mastroianni, A. M., Gilbert, D. T., Cooney, G., & Wilson, T. D. (2021). Do conversations end when people want them to? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(10).