Editor’s note: When you’re less than 2 years old as The New Bedford Light is, there aren’t a lot of traditions yet. This is our first. Last year on Thanksgiving we reprinted this opinion piece from New Bedford High graduate and professor of psychology at Yale University Dr. Laurie Santos. We’re republishing it this year and hope to do it in the coming years as well. Enjoy, think about it, and Happy Thanksgiving.

It’s as much a part of the Thanksgiving experience as cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Small talk.

“Did you catch traffic on I-95 on the way here?”

Social interactions are great for improving our sense of wellbeing, but some are better than others. And research shows that aiming low with our choice of conversational openings limits the enjoyment we derive from meeting up with other people.

I get it, we can all feel awkward in social situations. Especially with people we haven’t seen in a while sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table. We sometimes find ourselves at a loss for what to say.

In these situations, talking about holiday traffic, the fall weather, or the moistness of the turkey meat seems easy and safe. While we crave meaningful relationships with those around us, we are often scared to engage in the meaningful conversations that could create those bonds.

But recent research shows such worries are misplaced.

One study by Michael Kardas (Northwestern University) Amit Kumar (University of Texas at Austin) and Nick Epley (University of Chicago) compared what people predicted about the pitfalls of deep conversation versus the actual happiness boost they achieved by ditching the small talk.

Participants in their studies predicted that talking openly about their hopes, dreams and fears — rather than discussing the last good thing they watched on Netflix — would feel awkward. They also doubted that it would have a profound impact on their happiness, or their feelings of connectedness to their conversation partner.

The saddest prediction the test subjects made was that the person they were talking to just wouldn’t care about the intimate emotions they were sharing.

But we can’t just go on people’s predictions. So the researchers running the study paired people up for conversations and doled out specific questions to use as ice breakers. Some questions were super shallow: “How often do you get your haircut?” Others were pretty deep: “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?”

What happened? The people who had the deeper conversations felt more connected to their conversation partners than those who had the shallow conversations. Subjects also underestimated the happiness boost they’d get from deep conversation, which in all cases wound up being worth the initial embarrassment. If you’re willing to share something personal during a conversation — the person you’re talking to will be far more receptive to you than you might expect.

As Nick Epley points out, we humans are social creatures and tend to reciprocate in conversation. If you share an intimate feeling or memory, the person you are with is likely to open up too. This leads to a sense of mutual connectedness — something we humans find immensely nourishing and pleasurable.

“When you are connected to somebody else, it’s because you know them. And what is it to know somebody? It means you know what is on their mind. And the closest you get to somebody’s mind is through the words that they share with you.”

Nick Epley, professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Many of the experiments were conducted with pairs of total strangers, but Nick recommends always opting for deep conversation over small talk — and that includes at Thanksgiving family gatherings.

So, if you find yourself passing dishes of sweet potato or mac ‘n’ cheese around the table and talking about the temperature outside, try one of these conversation starters:

  • For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
  • If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about your future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
  • What’s the most important thing I should know about you?
  • If you could undo one mistake you have made in your life, what would it be and why would you undo it?

The science says it’ll feel way better than you think to serve up smaller portions of small talk this Thanksgiving.

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Laurie Santos, New Bedford High School graduate and professor of psychology at Yale University. Santos began teaching Yale’s most popular course, Psychology and the Good Life, in 2018. She also hosts The Happiness Lab podcast and writes The Science of Wellbeing, a weekly free-subscription newsletter on Meta’s Bulletin.

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