By Ray Williams
October 11, 2021
Meaningful conversations are incredibly powerful. They ease our loneliness, spur thinking, and according to research, boost happiness. In business they are a wellspring of creativity and decision-making wisdom.
But while great conversation is incredibly valuable, it’s also elusive. Sometimes a group just seems to kindle and thoughtful discussion flares. Sometimes you trudge through an evening scrambling from one topic of small talk to another.
Some of this is down to the personal chemistry (and conversational skill) of participants, but as scientists are beginning to learn, a little social engineering can help you increase your chances of having a really great conversation. The first place to start is with the size of your guest list.
When it comes to great conversation, less is more
You’ve probably noticed this phenomenon as a guest: sometimes you attend a dinner party or meeting packed with lots of smart, interesting people only to find the conversation never gets off the ground. The problem, according to new research out of Arizona State University and Oxford, may not be that there are too few clever brains in the room. But instead that there are too many.
The research kicked off with an observation. When the researchers involved were walking around campus looking at knots of students deep in conversation, they rarely numbered more than four. Was there some magic number of participants for deep, nourishing conversations, they wondered?
To try to probe that question, the researchers turned to an unexpected source — the plays of William Shakespeare. The great playwright may be far away from us in time, style, and subject matter (unless any of you out there spent much time plotting to kill the king), but apparently the conversational “rule of four” still held in the 16th century. Throughout the ten plays the team analyzed every meaningful conversation had four or fewer participants.
Why this hard limit of four? The researchers theorize that if might have to do with our ability to imagine what other people are feeling and thinking, what psychologists call “theory of mind.” Doing this effectively, as you’ve probably noticed in your own life, takes a lot of mental bandwidth. The scientists suspect we simply don’t have the capacity to track more than four people’s interior states and what they think about a discussion topic at a time.
Remember this next time you host a dinner party or meeting.
While this is still a theory, it’s an interesting one for anyone who is hoping to host a gathering that will feature thoughtful discussion. While bigger groups can break off into smaller subgroups for deeper conversation, it’s probably impossible for, say, five or six people around a table to really lose themselves in meaningful exchange. Remember that next time you’re hosting a party — or planning a meeting where you want to dig deeply into a complex issue.
Paying attention to the setting may also help, suggests psychologist Frank McAndrew in his take on these new findings for Psychology Today.“Other situational factors, such as the arrangement of furniture, can influence the ease of conversations. For example, although side-by-side seating connotes intimacy, it does not seem to be the preferred arrangement for talking,” he writes. When people are left to choose their positioning for themselves, they tend to sit face to face around five feet from each other.
“In other words, if it is good conversation that you are after at a party, stay away from the couches,” he concludes.
Science Says Extremely Happy People Share This Conversation Style
It doesn’t take a carefully designed scientific study to prove that bland, repetitive conversations about the weather or your local sports team can bore you silly. But does this sort of standard small talk have any more significant impacts on your happiness? The verdict from intriguing new research is in and the results couldn’t be clearer — too much small talk puts a serious dent in your well-being. And the inverse is also true. Having more substantive conversations will almost certainly make you happier.
To figure this out psychologist Matthias Mehl came up with a clever way to track the impact of our conversations on our mood: his team wired up participants with a small recording device that captured snippets of their conversations every 12.5 minutes over four days. The researchers then carefully coded these recordings, marking which were vacuous small talk, which were discussions of significant topics like current events, and which were functional conversations about things like who would take out the trash.
At the same time the researchers also kept careful track of the participants’ happiness levels. What did they find?
“Mehl and his team found that the happiest person in the study had twice as many substantive conversations, and only one-third the amount of small talk, as the unhappiest person,” reports author Jenn Granneman on Psychology Today.
Why does swapping mindless pleasantries for thornier subjects seem to have such a large effect on people’s mood? “By engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world, and interpersonally, as you find this meaning, you bond with your interactive partner, and we know that interpersonal connection and integration is a core fundamental foundation of happiness,” Mehl told the New York Times.
But you can’t banish small talk entirely
The takeaway from this study couldn’t be clearer, according to Granneman — whenever possible swap real discussions for just shooting the breeze. She even provides alternatives to standard conversation starters that can help you do just that. Swap “What’s your story?” for “How are you?” for instance. Or opt for “What was your favorite part of your weekend?” instead of “How was your weekend?” (Lots of other experts have offered questions to upgrade your small talk gametoo.)
But it’s worth noting that it’s neither possible nor desirable to banish small talkentirely. Not only does it grease the wheels or social life and establish trust, but other science shows that, if the other option is ignoring your fellow humans (such as on a packed train where a deep conversation just isn’t possible), then chit chat will make you happier than awkward silence.
The bottom line is this: more, deeper connection always makes humans happier. In practice there’s only so much you can expect based on the context, however.
If you’re chatting with people you already know in passing like work acquaintances, trying to delve deeper is likely to make you happier. If you’re standing in line with a stranger and that level of interaction is just going to be weird, then small talk beats no talk at all.
Recent studies conducted by Jamie Krems and Steve Neuberg of Arizona State University and Robin Dunbar of Oxford University suggest that this may in fact be the case.
In their first study, they approached groups of two or more students engaged in conversations in public areas of a university campus. They asked the conversationalists to report what they had been talking about just before the researcher interrupted them. They found that there were rarely more than four people involved in a conversation at any one time, but this was perhaps even more interesting: They also found that if people were gossiping about another person who was not present, the size of the group averaged about one fewer person in size than if the group was discussing some other sort of topic.
In a second study, they analyzed the conversations in 10 different plays by William Shakespeare. Scholars have long been aware that conversational patterns in Shakespearean plays accurately reflect the dynamics of real-life social interactions — which is one reason their appeal has endured over time. If this is the case, it would be interesting to find out if Shakespeare applied the “maximum size of a conversation” rule to the characters in his plays. Krems and her colleagues discovered that no conversation in any play they analyzed ever involved more than five characters, and they replicated the effect that scenes in which characters were discussing absent others had on average one fewer individual involved.
So, what is so special about the number four (plus or minus one) when it comes to conversations?
Krems, Dunbar, and Neuberg propose that the size of our conversations is restricted by our “mentalizing constraints,” or the limits on the cognitivedemands that we can handle in our interactions with others.
This is all related to what psychologists call our “Theory of Mind,” or the ability to understand that other people do not necessarily know or intend the same things that we ourselves do. Having a functioning theory of mind is essential for successfully managing one’s social life. If two people are engaged in conversation, each must understand what his or her partner intends and what each person understands about the other’s state of mind.
This gets more complicated as you add people to a conversation. If you have three people (or stooges) in a conversation, Moe must understand not only what Larry understands about Moe and what Curly understands about Moe, but also what Larry and Curly understand about each other. Add a fourth or fifth person to the mix, and you have increased the complexity enormously. Thus, it appears that when you move beyond four or five people, a conversation simply gets too mentally taxing for most people to sustain a prolonged conversation.
And there is a reason why talking about an absent person makes things even more difficult. In this type of talk, you must also be able to reflect on the understanding, intentions, and feelings of the absent person, which cuts back on the number of people we can manage in real time during the conversation. The data analyses in the two studies I have described indicated that this explanation was more plausible than other possible explanations for this phenomenon.
Certainly, other situational factors, such as the arrangement of furniture, can influence the ease of conversations. For example, although side-by-side seating connotes intimacy, it does not seem to be the preferred arrangement for talking. Studies have shown that side-by-side seating on a couch inhibits conversation in otherwise sociable people, and individuals only choose a side-by-side position for conversation when it was not possible to arrange a face-to-face conversation at a distance of less than five-and-a-half feet. In other words, if it is good conversation that you are after at a party, stay away from the couches.
The fascinating finding that our mentalizing capacity limits the size of our conversations has many implications: If individuals differ from each other in mentalizing capacity, it is possible that having the ability to juggle larger conversation sizes is one component of having good social skills — something with an obvious payoff. Krems and her colleagues also suggest that reading fiction may help us to expand our mentalizing capacity by exercising the ability to follow conversations in literature.
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