The Power of Deep Conversations

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
5 min readJun 13, 2022
Photo by Alexander Shatov on Unsplash

Small talk is a great way to express jovial politeness with passing strangers, but it often dominates longer social encounters too. Even when we have time for deeper chat with strangers or acquaintances, we tend to drift toward an abundance of weather-related complaints or “how’s the family?” chat. This isn’t the most rewarding type of conversation. Better value usually comes from revealing how we think, feel, and enjoy life, but most of us hesitate to talk on such a personal level.

Small talk isn’t useless; it’s a pleasant social lubricant in brief interactions with strangers. But we may be spending too much time on small talk purely because we fear awkwardness. New research is showing that deep conversations make people feel more connected, but we shy away from them because we wrongly expect them to be uncomfortable.

Comic from Liz + Mollie

Don’t shy away from deep conversations

In a recent study, a group of US researchers tested how people’s expectations of deep conversations matched up to reality. They started by recruiting pairs of strangers and giving them a few deep conversation starters:

  • “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?”
  • “If you could undo one mistake you have made in your life, what would it be and why would you undo it?”
  • “If you were going to become a close friend with the other participant, please share what would be important for him or her to know.”
  • “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?”

They asked everyone to rate how awkward, happy, socially bonding, and interesting they expected the conversations to be. They also asked each person how much they expected their conversational partner to be interested in what they were saying. After the strangers then chatted for ten minutes, the researchers repeated these measures to see how people actually felt about the chat.

The outcome measures showed that people consistently underestimated how interesting they’d find a conversation, and they more extremely underestimated their partner’s interest in the…

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: