Students Staff

23 August 2016

When less is more – the art of an enjoyable conversation

woman talking on the phone

Less is definitely more when it comes to how much we talk during an enjoyable conversation, according to new research from Essex.

Using a special phone app which recognised phone and face-to-face conversations, the pilot study asked participants to rate how much they enjoyed each of the nearly 500 conversations it detected.

Led by Dr Gillian Sandstrom, from the Department of Psychology, in collaboration with a team of computer scientists at Cornell University, the research found that when you look at all the conversations for an individual, the conversations a person enjoyed most were the ones in which they spoke the least. And this was true regardless of whether they were talking to a friend or a stranger.

The 36 people who took part in the six-day study used a mobile phone app which recorded the conversational and acoustical properties of the conversations – ie length, turn-taking and proportion of speaking time, volume and pitch – but not the raw audio, so the content could not be heard. When the app detected the end of the conversation it triggered a survey, asking the participants to rate how they felt during the conversation.

“We wanted to see if we could predict which conversations were enjoyable without hearing the actual words that were spoken,” explained Dr Sandstrom. “What we found was that it didn’t matter what personality, age or gender the person was, they all enjoyed their conversations more when they spoke a smaller proportion of the time than they normally did.”

Whilst the findings are at odds with the fact that people who are depressed tend to talk less, the researchers feel that this trait amongst depressed people is more about how often they talk to other people rather than the length of time they talk during a conversation.

Dr Sandstrom added: “With an estimated 2.5 billion people around the world carrying smartphones during their daily lives this pilot study shows the potential of using this type of privacy-maintaining method to provide a window to everyday social experiences and well-being.”

The paper is available to read on the PLOS One website.

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