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How long should a conversation last? The people involved haven’t a clue

Two women talking together in a cafe.

Two women talking together in a cafe.

One person in a conversation might be happy to bring it to a close, the other person not — but neither knows the other’s desires. Credit: Dougal Waters/Getty

Human behaviour

04 March 2021

Participants in a tête-à-tête often misjudge when the other person is ready to call it quits.

When two people talk, one almost always wants the conversation to end before the other does, but it’s rare that either party is aware of what the other wants, according to an analysis of almost 1,000 chats.

Conversations play a huge part in daily life, but scientists know little about how they start, unfold or end. Adam Mastroianni at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his colleagues got more than 800 people to complete an online survey about a recent conversation with another person. The team also paired off 252 strangers in laboratory studies and asked them to talk to each other for between one minute and 45 minutes.

In both groups, around two-thirds of participants felt ready for the conversation to end before it did, but one-third wanted the chat to continue. In the lab studies, none had any idea when their partner wanted to stop talking, and all underestimated how different their partner’s desires were from theirs.

The researchers conclude that ending a conversation is a coordination problem caused by the fact that individuals keep information from each other.

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