Study shows conversations rarely end when people want them to end


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A team of researchers from Harvard University, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Virginia have found that conversations between people usually don’t end when one of the conversation partners wish they ended. In their article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group describes the results of surveys and experiences they have conducted on the conversations and what they have learned from them.

Humans spend a lot of time talking in conversation. But according to the researchers, very little is known about the conversations. What are the rules, who chooses what to talk about and how do they end? In this new effort, the researchers sought to learn more about the conversations; Specifically, do they end when one or both parties want them to end?

To find out, the researchers used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system to interview more than 800 volunteers about their most recent conversation. In addition to asking the nature of the conversation and the relationship of the parties involved, they asked if the conversation ended when they wanted it to end. They found that about 67% of those surveyed wanted or expected their conversation to end before it did. Half of them also said they wished the conversation had lasted longer or shorter.

Intrigued, the researchers set up an experiment in their laboratory. They invited 252 student volunteers to sit alone with another volunteer and discuss what they wanted. Each of the focus groups were invited to speak for at least one minute, but for less than 45 minutes. After their conversations, the volunteers were asked about their conversations. Researchers found that only 2% of conversations ended when both parties wanted them to end. About 60% wished the conversation had ended before it did – very close to the number found with the volunteers participating in the survey.

After listening to the conversations in their lab and asking other questions of the volunteers, the researchers came to believe that the reason the conversations last longer (or sometimes are shorter) than what people want is is because neither partner knows what the other wants. Both tend to fear that ending a conversation prematurely will be seen as rude.

Filling in the ‘lack of taste’, researchers discuss the awkwardness of conversations

More information:
Adam M. Mastroianni et al. Do conversations end when people want them ?, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2021). DOI: 10.1073 / pnas.2011809118

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