Best. News. Ever? Dan Ariely Says to “Stop Making Small Talk”

I’ve written a few times about how uncomfortable I am making small talk. And it doesn’t matter if it’s someone I know or a complete stranger.

So imagine my excitement when I saw the headline for Dan’s most recent Wall Street Journal advice column: “Stop Making Small Talk. No One Will Miss It.

Here was the email:

Dear Dan,

I’ve mostly kept to my established circle of family and friends during the pandemic, but this New Year’s, my neighbors are hosting a get-together, and I’m very excited to attend. I’ll be meeting quite a few new people, and I’m nervous as to whether I can master the art of small talk after so many months without practice. Do you have any suggestions? —Michelle

And here was Dan’s response:

Small talk is boring, and becoming less adept with it may not be such a loss. What if you took advantage of this forced forgetting and tried to replace shallow pleasantries with something deeper? Most of us wish to have meaningful conversations in our daily lives but expect our exchanges with strangers to be awkward. They don’t have to be.

In an experiment, researchers paired up attendees at a small conference and gave each duo 10 minutes to discuss four questions. The questions were designed to bypass small talk and lead to greater connection—for example, “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?” After a few such questions and answers, the participants reported not feeling awkward at all—on the contrary, they came away feeling more connected to one another and happier than they had expected.

We underestimate how much potential conversation partners care about deep talk compared with superficialities, as well as how satisfying such exchanges can be. In fact, the deeper our conversations are on any given day, the happier we tend to be.

So when you go to the New Year’s Eve party, try not making small talk at all. Instead of inquiring about people’s days or their jobs, ask them what they are passionate about, or where they see themselves in a few years. Maybe even ask them about the last time they cried in front of another person.

I have to admit, I was kind of underwhelmed and felt like I was misled by the headline.

To me, meeting someone for the first time and asking them “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?” seems like small talk. I’d rather talk about the weather or sports. (Plus, the person might start crying right then and there, thinking “out of all the people at this party, how’d I get stuck talking to this guy?”)

Now that sort of question might be useful as an icebreaker at a meeting,  As Dan notes, this experiment was done at a conference, not at a party. Plus, the participants were told to discuss these questions. In addition, the participants in the research study had 10 minutes to each answer four questions between them; not sure how this would lead to a feeling of “greater connection” and be considered “deep conversation”.

Again, I have trouble seeing how this would translate to a party setting, or any gathering of people that is not part of a meeting. but I know I would feel kind of taken aback if I was at a party and someone asked me that question.

I was also curious as to what the other three questions might be, so I did some searching and found another article that references this study as well, and lists what all four questions are. Here are the other three:

  • “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?”
  • “If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, your future, or anything else, what would you want to know?”
  • “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.”

Again, these might seem like good icebreakers at a corporate event, but I would feel very uncomfortable asking or answering these at say, a New Year’s Eve party when I first meet someone.

Now perhaps one way around this would be for the host of the party to hand out these slips to the attendees as they arrived, and told the people these are the questions you are expected to ask when you meet someone new. Under those conditions, the questions wouldn’t come off as odd, at least to me. Perhaps what the research participants really liked was being told what to talk about, as opposed to having to come up with something themselves. And that is what the host is doing.

I had thought about ending this post by asking readers to answer any one of the four questions, but I feel too uncomfortable doing so.

You’re welcome…

*image from LearnTalk

75 thoughts on “Best. News. Ever? Dan Ariely Says to “Stop Making Small Talk”

  1. i had the exact same reaction and I think he is way off this time! I would feel so awkward asking these questions in this setting and the person asked would probably flee at the first opportunity. Your solution works though. She shouldn’t be going anyway, pandemic and all.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. He should have just come up with another set of questions that are not small talk, but rather interesting conversation topics. That would have been more helpful. The poor woman was so excited about the party, I hope she didn’t scare here potential new friends off.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha ha! There ought to be some middle ground between small talk and tell me your deepest, darkest secrets. The questions Dan suggests seem more suited to speed dating or a job interview. If someone asked me those question, I’d say you first. Then I’d probably excuse myself after they answered. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Coincidentally, another blog today mentioned meeting a group of people at a tourist attraction in India. One of the group asked. “what do you think of love.” The conversation was memorable as it happened about 17 years ago.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I do like deeper conversations BUT, not for a NY Eve party! And not for strangers. It would take care of the problem of having to have small talk, for the person would run from you.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. The thing about these questions is that you don’t typically even ask your close friends them. It is more things that you may learn to know about each other the longer you know each other.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Haha! If some stranger asked me the last time that I cried, I’d excuse myself to freshen up my drink.🤣🤣🤣
    I think if somebody asked me a profound question that I just met, I’d think, “What’s up with this guy?” That sounds far more awkward than making small talk. I can ask anybody questions, but I’m not asking some stranger the meaning of life or the last time he cried.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. #4 I’m loud even when trying not to be. I have almost no filter. I answer questions honestly. I feel there’s no reason for most secrets… most of the time someone is relieved to learn they’re no alone.

    My fave questions are: How’d you meet your partner? If married… who proposed and how? And What’s the best tangible present you ever received (I don’t like the philosophical answers, thus why I specify tangible… then follow with more questions).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. like you, i am not a fan of small talk, it’s awkward for me, and i’m not good at it. i tend to find one or two people to hang with and just have real talk when in a social situation. (sorry in advance if any of you may find yourself those people.) i do like real questions, but not when meeting new people in a social setting, and dan’s plan seems awkward and off-putting to me. i would probably not last through the 4 personal questions in 10 minutes and would find a way to do a nuclear irish goodbye – (spoken like my introvert self)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You summed it up nicely, Jim. My thoughts exactly – okay as an ice breaker at a conference but definitely not at a party. I think ‘they’d’ be calling the people in the white jackets.


    1. I agree that it’s helpful to connect with someone on a deeper level, but I don’t think that has to happen within the first two minutes of meeting someone…


  8. These may not be the best questions to ask someone you are meeting for the first time at a party. But asking questions is certainly the trick to ingratiating yourself to others. When you bypass the small talk and ask questions to another, it tells them you are interested in knowing about them on a deeper level. You indicate that what they think, how they live, and who they are is important to you. It also comes with the benefit of not having to be a great conversationalist as you only need to be a good listener. Great post, Jim!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Hi Jim, I like small talk and I think I am very good at it. I can talk to anyone and often don’t even know that a particular person is supposed to be shy or non-talkative because they always respond. However, I do not want to know the intimate details of peoples live in the first sentence. I would be offended if a stranger asked me any of these four questions. Actually, I’d be offended if they were an icebreaker at a conference. I don’t want to be friends with peers and colleagues, I prefer to keep those relationships strictly professional. As soon as you become friendly with work peers and colleagues, they start taking advantage of you and endlessly picking your brain and pumping you for information.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. you are lucky that you enjoy small talk and that you are good at it. But it’s good to know that even you don’t think these kind of questions are appropriate, even as an icebreaker. And if I were to think of one regret I’ve had with my career, it would be that I didn’t make more of an effort to become friends with some of my colleagues…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it depends, Jim, on whether your work is something you really enjoy and who your colleagues are. I have experienced a lot of pain at my place of work due to allegations of the firm’s involvement in the state capture under Jacob Zuma’s presidency in South Africa. I wrote it all out of my system in my book of poetry Open a new door. I have never recovered from the [unfair] loss of some of the senior partners I’d worked with for 20 years. They were most certainly collateral damage and I’ve not wanted to be hurt like that again. So now I keep work colleagues at bay. Anyhow, writing is my first love and I prefer my virtual friends here in the blogosphere.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I’d love it if the host gave out questions like that. It would give me time to prepare my answers, which is really what I need to perform well at small talk. Do you ever wonder if Dan checks in on your blog now and then to see what you have to say? He must get curious to read what others are saying about him. I’ve written a couple of celebrity posts that do quite well in google rankings that I would think said celebrity would read at some point. I wish they’d comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. If I was asked those questions, here’s how I’d respond: I’d say the last time I cried was when the Chargers lost the division. I’d say I feel most grateful in my life for the beautiful weather we’re having today. I’d say that the real truth about myself is that I’m feeling fine overall, in spite of a few muscular and joint aches and pains. And I’d say the most important thing for a potential friend to know about me is that I’m retired with a nice pension, so I’m not likely to ask for a loan.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Dan has taken the pendulum a bit too far in order to make his point. I do, however like to ask more interesting questions than sports 😉 When I meet a couple, I usually ask “how did you two meet?” For a single I will ask “ what was the best part of your day today?” Be curious about them and let them talk about themselves in a way that makes them feel good and at ease. Then be a great listener 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  13. No thanks. Getting to know someone and making a connection is a process. I don’t care what the research says. I’ll pass. Your post made me laugh though.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I am with you on this. Those questions sound to corporate, like they were written by HR specialists. And seemingly too much for a first meeting. I think asking about jobs and family would be much better, and even then I am terrible at initiating such conversations and prefer to let someone else do it. My solution avoid get togethers if possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Things like that make me mad. Imagine a new trainee coming in on their first day and me asking them when was the last time they cried in front of someone. I think they would leave for lunch and never come back. I know that’s what I would do if I heard that question.

    Yes, we might not like small talk, but it doesn’t mean that we should replace it with something else. Especially not with deeply emotional/personal questions.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Haha I feel like we’re two peas in a pod. I, too, dislike small talk (I don’t like it, but I do it because I’m so uncomfortable with the silence and then my need to fill the space with mindless, non-stop chatter becomes even more awkward and then it’s just a terrible time and they regret getting into the elevator with me LOL). I have also been known to hide behind bushes, walk like a snail or purposely miss a train just to avoid that small talk with an acquaintance! SOO awkward!

    But yes, I agree.. these “tips” sound like they would only work at a specific event where you know you’ll be getting deeper or getting to know people or a corporate team building event!

    I read once the best thing to ask (do away with the “what do you do for a living?” questions) was *”what are you working on now that you’re excited about?”* I like this more than what do you do for a job, when was the last time you cried (that’s VERY awkward to ask someone) or where do you see yourself in 5 years (which also is quite personal and non-specific). I like that * question because it’s sort of leaving it open for interpretation -if you love your job and passionate about it then it allows them space to talk about their job, or perhaps they hate their job but they’re working on an exciting side hustle they wanted to plug, that’s an awesome invitation for them to speak freely about what’s important to them!

    But still- small talk is awkward! lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. sometimes I wish I had the ability to do nonstop chatter! But I have done the same thing in terms of trying to avoid having conversations with people I know (although I don’t think I’ve hidden behind a bush!)

      your question is a great question – I would respond by saying that I am working on my blog, with the hope that daily blogging will build the discipline I need to someday write a book…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I would never ask someone what they do for a living, far too intrusive, I wait for that to emerge during conversation without me prying. I’d rather go for ‘How do you know our hosts’? or ‘How did you get here’? then somehow slide on to ‘What do you do in your spare time’? which will reveal hobbies. And who knows. You might even end up enjoying the conversation, might meet another book-lover or someone who likes the same films.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. It took me a while to read comments and then I had to go back to check the questions…I would also be offended…I’m good at small talk but those questions ..No, I’d be out of there or at the bar…x

    Liked by 1 person

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