The 1963 self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People suggested that when speaking to others, it’s best to encourage them to talk about their favorite topic: themselves. “Remember that the people you are talking to are a hundred times more interested in themselves,” wrote the author, Dale Carnegie, “than they are in you.”
The book sold more than 30 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books ever written; this mostly reveals how much we want to win friends and influence people, and doesn’t mean that all the advice in this book holds water. Some of its recommendations might instead highlight biases we share when it comes to having conversations, and what we think will make us likable in those conversations.
In a recent study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers found that people consistently thought that speaking less than half of the time in a conversation would make them more liked, but that this was a mistaken belief. Actually, people who talked more in conversations were seen as more likable by others.
First author Quinn Hirschi, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, and her colleagues named this the “reticence gap”: when people believe they should be more withdrawn than they need to be when talking with someone for the first time.
The researchers also found that people had different criteria for how much they think they should talk based on whether they wanted to be perceived as likable or interesting, reporting that they should talk less for likability, and more to be considered interesting. But this isn’t how most people form first impressions, Hirschi said. We tend to have holistic impressions of others, like generally positive or negative, rather than differentiating between traits.
Altogether, the findings suggest that when we talk to others for the first time, we’re policing the amount we talk to try and control for variables that aren’t in play, or adjusting how much we talk in the mistaken belief it will make us more liked. All this self-consciousness and anxiety might not be warranted.
“We think that others love talking about themselves, that other people don't want to be approached by us,” Hirschi said. “But it's a misperception that we have kind of about our whole social world that we should hold back more than would actually be ideal.”
We have all sorts of negative biases about our interactions with others besides the reticence gap. People harshly judge their own ability to have a conversation, and misjudge how much others people like them, called the “liking gap.” A study from last year found that people regularly underestimate the frequency with which others are thinking about them, dubbed the “thought gap.”
In work by Juliana Schroeder and Nick Epley from 2014, they found that people underestimate how enjoyable it’s going to be to talk to someone new, say on their commute to work. Other work from Epley and his colleagues has found that people underestimate how much others want them to talk about deep conversation topics compared to shallow topics, how much people will appreciate our compliments, or how much others will appreciate expressions of gratitude.
Across two experiments in the new study, people were asked how much they should speak when meeting someone new, and they said it should be less than half of the time in order to be liked. In a third experiment the researchers randomly assigned people to speak for 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent, 60 percent, or 70 percent of the time in a conversation with another person. In fact, the more a person talked, the more likable they were.
We all inherently know that there’s some conversational etiquette that dictates people are supposed to take turns talking, and not monopolize a conversation. But we can overreact to that rule by thinking we should speak much less.
“I feel like there is this general stereotype that we have that others just love producing information, they love talking,” she said. “But the data was suggesting that the opposite was true, that people enjoyed learning about what others had to say and learning about others' experiences more.”
Gillian Sandstrom, a social psychologist at the University of Sussex who wasn’t involved in the new study, has run “How to Talk to Strangers” workshops where she’s asked people what they worry about when meeting and speaking to new people.
“People worry about all kinds of things, but one that surprised me was that some people worry about talking too much,” she said. “This surprised me, because it’s not my personal experience—I’m more likely to just sit there in silence, with the voice in my head shouting ‘Think of something to say.’”
It could be that some people, when anxious, talk more, and then regret what they’ve said. The aforementioned liking gap could be playing a role too: If a person presumes another person didn’t like them very much, they may come up with reasons to explain it—like that they talked too much. Sandstrom said the liking gap extends to conversations: Her work has found that people think their conversation partners are more interesting than they are themselves.
In Hirschi and her colleagues’ study, people also reported that they thought that while speaking less would make them more likable, speaking more would make them more interesting. Hirschi said that this revealed another bias, which they called “halo ignorance.” When we meet other people, we tend to form global impressions of them, called the halo effect, rather than dividing them up into different traits like likability and interestingness.
“We see ourselves through a microscope, but we see others through a telescope,” said Adam Mastroianni, a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School, who studies how we perceive and misperceive our social worlds. “We simply don’t see every nook and cranny of other people’s personalities the way we see our own, so instead of coming to the conclusion that we like someone but they just aren’t that interesting, we may summarize our feelings as ‘I don’t really like this person’ or ‘This person is great.’”
In a similar finding, Schroeder and her colleagues showed that when people want to be seen as “warm and friendly” in a group task, they say they did an equal share of the work, but if they want to be viewed as “competent,” instead, they overestimate how much they did. Schroeder, a behavioral scientist at the Berkeley Haas School of Business, said it’s possible that people who want to seem competent (or in this study’s case, interesting) think they need to say more.
Hirschi said she does anticipate there to be an upper limit of talking in a conversation where it stops being enjoyable for the other person, or does make a person unlikable. In the paper, they only assigned people to groups where they spoke up to 70 percent of the time in the conversation—not more than that.
“We’re not saying that talking 100 percent of the time is the best strategy,” she said. “I’m just trying to pull people away from some under-confidence.”
This study also can’t tell us if there are cultural differences to how much talking in a conversation is received. Hirschi said she’s often asked about gender differences, or other identity differences. Might certain people feel more like talking too much is rude than others? In her data so far, she hasn’t seen much of a difference between men and women, at least. But she said more research is needed to understand all the variability that might exist.
What their work can suggest, she said, is that, after socializing, if you're agonizing over whether you talked too much, or worrying about talking too much about yourself, in many cases, the conversation went fine—and maybe better than you think.
“It turns out the average conversation is pretty great,” Mastroianni said. “It doesn’t take any grand strategy or desperate efforts to make it good. So if you want to have a nice time talking to someone, I’ve got great news: that will probably happen by default.”
Follow Shayla Love on Twitter.