So You Need to Finish the Dialog?

With the spread of vaccination in the United States, social life has become a semblance of normality: dinner parties, restaurants, spontaneous encounters with strangers, friends and colleagues on the street or in the office. It’s exciting, but also a little nerve-wracking.

“I think there will be a time of heightened fear when we meet people face-to-face again,” said Adam Mastroianni, a fifth year PhD student. Harvard psychology student told me (on phone). “I’ve heard this from many of my friends that we’re worried: Have we forgotten how to treat other people?”

I had called Mr. Mastroianni for help rediscovering this ancient calculation. In March, he and colleagues Daniel Gilbert, Gus Cooney, and Timothy Wilson published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “End Conversations When People Want To?” – on one of the most important aspects of human interaction. Our conversation has been edited for the sake of brevity and clarity.

What was it about this topic that interested you?

Years ago I was preparing for a party thinking to myself, “I don’t want to go to this party because I know that at some point I will inevitably talk to someone and I am going to want to stop and talk to someone else, and I will not give a polite way to perform this social maneuver. Then I had to think: what makes me think that I am so special? What if the other person feels the same way and we both can’t talk to each other because we mistakenly believe that the other person wants to continue?

How do you start quantifying this?

For our work we conducted two main studies. In the first, we asked a large number of people to remember the last conversation they had and tell us about it: Was there any point in that conversation that they felt ready to end? When was it? Or if the conversation ended earlier than desired, how much longer did you want it? And we made them guess the same answers for the other person. In our second study, we took people into the lab and let them talk to someone who was new. We then asked both people the same questions, made them guess what the other person wanted, and compared their answers.

A couple of things were really consistent. One of these was that most people reported that the conversation did not end when they felt ready to end it. About two-thirds would have preferred to end earlier. In fact, only 17 percent of respondents felt that the conversation was ended when they wanted it to. And these people rarely overlapped; In just 2 percent of the conversations, both were happy when it ended.

Why was that

Two reasons. The first is that people don’t want to speak for the same time; We can’t both get what we want when we want different things. The second problem is that people didn’t know what the other person wanted.

And we can’t easily ask ourselves and find out, “Hey, I want this conversation to end now, how about you?” It’s the classic Prisoner’s Dilemmaand prison is courtesy.

If people had perfect information – which they could have if they just told each other what they want – we most likely wouldn’t have the separation between what people want and what they get.

That sounds a lot like where we wear masks these days. I am vaccinated and it is very unlikely that I will catch or spread the coronavirus. Even so, I still wear a mask, sometimes even outdoors – why? Who or what am I protecting?

If I run past someone wearing a mask, I will put on my mask out of courtesy to them. Obviously, it’s ridiculous. But the fact that they are wearing a mask suggests to me that they feel like it is the right thing to do. And I don’t want to signal to this person that I don’t care about their choice or that I think their choice is bad. There seems to be something confrontational about passing someone on the sidewalk wearing a mask when you are not and I don’t want to have that confrontation. So in the end I do what I don’t really think is important. It’s just a sign of respect for another person.

But don’t you preach to the converts? Your mask signals that you are thoughtful, polite, and likely vaccinated. It is gloomy when one of you is exposed: are you (or you) vaccinated and expressing real liberation? Or unvaccinated and express independence? The health risk is still negligible. What you really want to know right now is: Have you been vaccinated? But decency keeps us from asking directly.

Yes, it’s remarkable how much this has become a focus during the pandemic because it’s the most public thing you do. It’s like wearing a t-shirt with something on it – but right now we’re all not sure what the t-shirt says. Do I put it on or not?

Their research found that basically 98 percent of all conversations end with at least one person who is dissatisfied with the length. Why do we bother each other at all?

What we find is that the people who said they wanted to continue a conversation were not the people who felt cut off; They were still having a good time and wanted more. It wasn’t so much like they felt rejected. It was more like I had one delicious piece of cheesecake and I could have had another – but the one I had was really great and I feel good.

You’re leaving the party or conversation while you’re still having fun.

Better to want more cheesecake than to have eaten too much cheesecake.

It also turns out that you have a lot more fun talking to a stranger. When you are talking to a friend or your romantic partner, you sometimes argue. When you talk to someone who is new you become kind of the best version of yourself and that self is fun to be.

What have you personally learned from your years of conversation studies?

That I should spend a lot less time playing fourth-dimensional chess in my head during my conversations, and just try to pay more attention and let it flow naturally – and find solace in the fact that people really enjoying these conversations more than they expected. Conversation is the building block of our social life; It’s part of what makes life worth living and interacts with other people. The more we think about whether to stay or go, the more we deprive our interactions with other people of some of this basic joy.

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