Conversations go on too long because people are too polite to end them

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two people talking

People mask how they feel about an ongoing conversation and leave others unsure of whether to stop talking, suggests a study in the US

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Conversations often end later than people would like – and sometimes too early – because people mask how they really feel about the ongoing dialogue, according to a study in the US. This leaves all partners in a conversation unsure of whether to stop talking.

“People feel like it’s a social rupture to say: ‘I’m ready to go’, or to say: ‘I want to keep going although I feel like you don’t want to keep going’,” says Adam M. Mastroianni at Harvard University. “Because of that, we’re pretty skilled at not broadcasting that information.”

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Mastroianni remembers attending a black-tie event and wondering how many people at the party were engaged in conversations that they really wanted to end. So, he and his colleagues later surveyed more than 800 people – 367 women and 439 men, three-quarters of whom were white – randomly recruited from a crowdsourcing marketplace website. Participants responded to questions about recent conversations they had had with a friend or family member, including how they felt about the conversation’s length and how it ended.

The researchers also recruited more than 250 students and non-students pooled from volunteers available for studies in the Harvard University psychology department. The group, slightly under half of whom were white, included 157 women, 92 men, and three people of unspecified gender. These people participated in one-on-one conversations with another participant, who they didn’t already know, in the laboratory.

Mastroianni’s team recorded each conversation and asked the two participants to talk about anything they liked for at least a minute. When the conversation had ended, both study participants could leave the room, where they were each – separately – quizzed about the conversation. If the conversation lasted 45 minutes, someone stepped into the room to end it.

The conversations rarely ended when people wanted them to – whether it was one participant or both participants who wanted to stop, says Mastroianni. In fact, on average, the length of the conversations were off by about 50 per cent compared with how long people would have liked them to last.

Mastroianni also found that that some people – 10 per cent of the participants – were actually ending the conversations even though both people wanted to continue.

“They could have kept going; they had time left,” Mastroianni says. “But for some reason they stopped, maybe thinking they were doing a nice thing by letting the other person go.”

Essentially, people in conversations not only want different endpoints, but they also know “precious little” about what their conversational partners really want, he says.

That doesn’t mean the people don’t enjoy their conversations. On the contrary: when asked, his study participants said they found the conversation more entertaining than they expected it to be.

“But what we didn’t realise as scientists – and what they didn’t realise as people – was that beneath that good time that people generally have is this whole coordination failure,” says Mastroianni.

The study only covered people from the US and conversations might play out differently in other languages and cultures.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2011809118

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