Should I get out of Harvard?

The longing for other people and good conversations is particularly great after this winter. At the same time, the idea of ​​being able to have small talk or a deeper conversation with less familiar people at some point feels almost strange after all these months. How did that go again, just to talk like that? And above all: What's the best way to get out of a nice chat at the ice cream parlor or a conversation in front of the kindergarten door?

The art of having a conversation is one of the most complex human activities. Just think about what computers can do - and how stiff it still sounds to talk to programs like Siri or Alexa. In a conversation people send and receive at the same time, they try to understand and at the same time pay attention to feelings, they want to experience, prove themselves, be considerate and not miss out on themselves. Scientists at Harvard University have now found that it is particularly complex: leaving a conversation.

Conversations almost never end at a point in time with which both parties are satisfied

For the study, which consists of two parts, and in the specialist journal PNAS is published, a total of a good 1000 conversations were examined for their end. So it was about the question of when two interlocutors would have liked to end a conversation individually, when, according to their perception, the other would have liked to get out, and when it was actually ended. The unambiguous, intuitively surprising and then nevertheless plausible result of the decisive second part of the study: The conversations were almost never ended at one of the two intended times (only 1.59 percent of all conversations ended like this). Only rarely did they end the moment one of the two wanted to stop talking (29.37 percent). In 46.83 percent, the conversation was continued, although on average the conversation partners would have actually wished for an end. And the conversation was only ended in 9.52 percent, although it could have been longer for those involved.

The impression that, especially in conversational situations for two, you often stand around hesitantly and for a long time before someone says "Well, I'll have to go" is not deceptive. The authors assume that the human end of the conversation is a classic coordination problem: For the optimal determination of the point in time, not only one's own needs are decisive, one also tries to anticipate the wishes of the other person. However, crucial information is missing to be correct. It is precisely this information that is often deliberately withheld in a conversation so as not to disturb the relationship of trust. The fact that when you say goodbye for these same reasons you often add an external reason ("get beer") doesn't make it any easier.

It is interesting that in the two-part study it made little difference whether the interviewees were more familiar or met by chance. For the first part of the study, 806 people took part in an online survey in which they were asked about their opinions about their last conversation with a familiar person. When did you want to end the conversation yourself? When did it actually end? When do you think the person you were talking to would have liked to end the conversation? The methodological weaknesses: Only one interlocutor was asked, and he also had to remember the conversation retrospectively. So the result depended solely on his assessment of himself and his partner. Nevertheless, the results largely coincided with the methodologically more valuable second part of the study.

For this purpose, the scientists asked 252 participants, who had not known each other before or only briefly, to come in pairs to one room. They asked the subjects to chat for between one minute and 45 minutes. Then they both asked at what point in time the conversation could have ended well for them. Or how much longer they would like to have talked themselves. The result: almost half of all participants would have liked a conversation that was a quarter of the time longer or shorter than what actually took place.

But what does it matter whether conversations last longer or shorter than the individual interlocutors would like? What one could easily dismiss as a small, primal human eccentricity, is quite relevant from a global perspective. The question is how much community and connection people around the world forego every day because it is so difficult to end a conversation properly. "Social interaction is not a luxury", write the authors in the closing words. "It is critical to mental well-being, physical health and longevity ... The more we learn about conversation, how it begins and how it ends, how it goes well and falls silent, delighted and disappointed, the more we benefit from the benefits of this primeval human trait. "