I still remember in awe how plain old telephone conversations between my mother and my grandmother were on and on, apparently without end, in spite of repeated attemps of okay-mummy’s, a lot of see-you-soon’s, and plenty of bye-bye’s. Does it ring a bell?
A new study (two in fact) show that conversations almost never end when people wanted them to, and rarely ended when even one person wanted them to. Interaction with intimates or strangers made no difference. Conversants are unaware of when their partners want to end the interaction, or that their own perceptions are too different from their partner’s. Ending conversations is a classic “coordination problem” that humans are unable to solve because doing so requires information that they normally keep from each other:
Do conversations end when people want them to? Surprisingly, behavioral science provides no answer to this fundamental question about the most ubiquitous of all human social activities. In two studies of 932 conversations, we asked conversants to report when they had wanted a conversation to end and to estimate when their partner (who was an intimate in Study 1 and a stranger in Study 2) had wanted it to end. Results showed that conversations almost never ended when both conversants wanted them to and rarely ended when even one conversant wanted them to and that the average discrepancy between desired and actual durations was roughly half the duration of the conversation. Conversants had little idea when their partners wanted to end and underestimated how discrepant their partners’ desires were from their own. These studies suggest that ending conversations is a classic “coordination problem” that humans are unable to solve because doing so requires information that they normally keep from each other. As a result, most conversations appear to end when no one wants them to.Mastroianni, A.M., Gilbert, D.T., Cooney, G., and Wilson, T.D. (2021). Do conversations end when people want them to? PNAS 118.
Featured Image: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Phone Call