Why People Don’t Shut Up And Leave You Alone!”

photography of a woman sitting on the chair listening to music
photography of a woman sitting on the chair listening to music
Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

How often do you get frustrated when a conversation goes on too long, or is forced to finish to early? If you do, then you are not alone. A recent study in the USA (Mastroianni et al., 2021) suggests that only 1 in 50 of our conversations end when both parties want them to; most conversations seem to end when no one wants them to! The obvious question to ask now is: how does this happen?

Well, this group of researchers suggest that we tend to keep the person we are talking to in the dark, by withholding information needed by them. Just imagine for a moment, that there is no COVID pandemic, and two friends want to go to the cinema. The question of which film to see then arises. Clearly, if both people want to watch the same film, there is no problem.

But, what if each person wants to watch a different film; they would have to compromise. With two friends this should be easy; each will say what they want to watch; they may choose one of the films or they may choose a third film that they can agree on. However, what if they end up compromising on a film that they really don’t want to watch; just but watching it to keep the piece and not saying anything. You might imagine them both sitting there, eating their popcorn noisily, muttering away to themselves; promising themselves never to go to the pictures with this friend again.

The researchers suggest that the ‘film’ scenario is not that uncommon. Interviewing nearly a thousand people they found that not only do our conversations end with both parties unhappy with when they ended, but also that what both parties wanted, in terms of length of conversation and what they got, was roughly half the time. They offer several explanations for this:

* what they call ‘incompatible deisres’, each person wanted a different outcome. The researchers suggested that you might expect a degree of coming together of the two people but this study did not provide ‘one shred of evidence’ (p. 7) to support this expectation,

* while each person knew what they wanted, they didn’t have a clue about what the other person wanted, which means you cant really find a midway point on which to end the conversation, 

* even at home, the researchers found that good honest communication was missing; instead the found that we have conversations that we think will please the other person even when we have not asked the other person what they want. The conventions around being polite (t strangers) or kind (to our intimates) seem to lead us to end conversations at the wrong time, and us becoming annoyed; in both cases we withhold information which makes us carry on talking. Interestingly they do not discuss the dynamics of control around the issue of people-pleasing.

If you were to be honest, how many people do you try to avoid because ‘they just won’t shut up’  or those people that ‘prattle on,’ with whom you ‘just can’t get a word in’ or you’re just not interested in what they are saying? Just think, if only 1 in 50 conversations end with both parties happy with the timing, how many annoyed people are wandering around, and what does that frustration do to their mental health? Even professional counsellors have to be aware of implications of study; how do we make sure that a session finishes with both counsellor and client happy – or do we just have to manage the disappointment. 

The study vindicates an issue I have been passionate about; that we need to improve our communication with each other, be willing to have the open and honest conversation and tell the other person what we want. Or more to the point, with apologies to any client who has heard me say this on multiple occasions) the art of conversation is not be understood but to understand; a point backed up by key authors in my pantheon of greats Paulo Freire, Erich Fromm, Barney Glaser, and Niklas Luhmann.

Mastroianni et al. are clear in their summing up: ‘social interaction is not a luxury; it is critical to psychological well-being, physical health, and longevity, and conversation is its bread and butter’ (p.8). We could all do with learning better communication skills in our aim of improving our mental fitness.

Reference:

Mastroianni, A.M., Gilbert, D.T., Cooney, G. and Wilson, T.D., 2021. Do conversations end when people want them to?. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(10).