When To Stop Talking

Experts conduct studies on a diverse range of topics, but this one, on when to end a conversation, is quite revealing. Friends can jabber for long; yet the conversation has to end at some point. Then there are those who sit in silence, yet speak volumes. How does one figure out when to stop talking, or when to remain silent? Talking and conversing with another is one of the most basic of social interactions, yet we are unsure as to how to find our way through it or even how and when to conclude it. Scientific American reports on a study conducted by psychologist Adam Mastroianni, whose interest in the subject of conversation got triggered when he wondered,  “What if both people are thinking exactly the same thing, but we’re both stuck because we can’t move on when we’re really done?”

How long should a particular conversation last? The team found that conversations almost never end when both parties want them to—and that people are a very poor judge of when their partner wishes to call it quits. In some cases, however, interlocutors were dissatisfied not because the talk went on for too long but because it was too short. Mastroianni, who is now a doctoral candidate in psychology at Harvard University, says, “Whatever you think the other person wants, you may well be wrong,  so you might as well leave at the first time it seems appropriate, because it’s better to be left wanting more than less.”

That people fail so completely in judging when a conversation partner wishes to wrap things up “is an astounding and important finding,” says Thalia Wheatley, a social psychologist at Dartmouth College, who was not involved in the research, reports Rachel Nuwer in Scientific American. Conversations are otherwise “such an elegant expression of mutual coordination,” she says. “And yet it all falls apart at the end because we just can’t figure out when to stop.” This puzzle is probably one reason why people like to have talks over coffee, drinks or a meal, Wheatley adds, because “the empty cup or check gives us an out—a critical conversation-ending crutch.”

Telephone conversations give you the advantage of switching on the speaker and listening/ responding while going about your business – when faced with a persistent caller who talks endlessly. If you happen to be in your private space, that is. Long conversations can be energy sapping, especially when they lead to nowhere. The moment one hears the sentence, “And … what else is happening?” you know it is time to say goodbye and hang up. This is a common refrain, especially these days, when a lot of people are at a loose end and they keep calling each other across states and continents to find out what’s cooking, what the weather is like, if you’ve done your 10,000 steps for the day, whether you’ve taken your first or second vaccine shot against the Coronavirus and what kind of side effects you suffer from. Perhaps that’s why youth today prefer texting rather than talking. Who has the patience?



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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