Small Talk and Lasting Relationships

Every now and then I hear someone make the following joke:  Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.  And, I admit, I think it’s funny.  Talking about the weather is the quintessential example of small talk—that thing people do when they don’t know each other or have very little in common to discuss.  We can always rely on the weather, something in the news, or sports to get us through those awkward silences.

But a recent study by Matthias Mehl and his colleagues at the University of Arizona suggests that having more substantive conversations is associated with higher levels of happiness.  They defined small talk as “…uninvolved, banal conversation… (e.g., ‘What do you have there? Popcorn? Yummy!’)” (p. 539) and substantive conversation as “…involved conversation of a substantive nature…(e.g., ‘She fell in love with your dad? So, did they get divorced soon after?’)” (p. 539).  They found that happy people had twice as many substantive conversations and engaged in about one-third the amount of small talk than less happy people.

I am not so much interested in the study itself because it was not restricted to those in love relationships. But it does agree with much of the research on interpersonal relationships. Relationships last when couples have positive, meaningful interactions where they disclose information about themselves, offer support to their partners when they self-disclose, and discuss substantive issues.

The very simple take-home point is to make an effort to have more substantive discussions with your partner.  Will it solve all your relationship problems?  Of course not.  But it may be a path to the kind of interactions that happy couples have.

In case you are interested…..

Mehl, M. R., Vazire, S., Holleran, S. E., & Clark, C. S. (2010). Eavesdropping on happiness: Well-being is related to having less small talk and more substantive conversations.  Psychological Science, 21, 539-541.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit