The Empathy Booster: It’s Not Just Small Talk


Since the election on November 8, the tension and conflicts that have been simmering (or outright roiling) across the country have not abated. There are two distinct sides, but it is important to realize that each of those sides has more offshoots and subheadings than a March Madness bracket.

Many people are calling for understanding, which is important, but it is also a very broad-stroke call to action. Unity does not happen overnight, or with platitudes, and in some cases, may never be fully achieved. But there is an important way to rebuild—or establish for the first time—those important connections between people, and it is done through empathetic engagement. In their paper “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude,” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology back in October 2014, Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder argue that there is more than just superficiality at play in everyday small talk. Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, maintains that connecting with strangers can actually increase personal happiness, despite the fact that so many people go out of their way to avoid interactions with strangers.

People who avoid small talk and general interaction with strangers do so for a variety of reasons. However, in each instance, there is a fear that such engagement, even on a minimal level, will lead to a negative experience. Sometimes, there is a social anxiety at play. In other cases, people may find it difficult to navigate exchanges in which small talk can be confused for flirtation. Because of very real and negative prior experiences, there are people unable to perceive small talk as anything but an unwanted advance and may view a stranger negatively for trying to engage them at all. There are also some important cultural divides that are so entrenched that some people may be oblivious to the fact that they carry implicit biases. In such cases, they may try to make small talk with a person, hoping to make a connection, but may inadvertently make an offensive comment, one they had no idea was actually offensive to a community. Because of this, it is easy to become defensive and believe that anything said might be taken out of context, so why bother engaging in the first place.

These are the real fears at work here. However, that doesn’t mean that small talk is suddenly unsafe. In fact, it may be more important than ever.

The nine experiments of Epley and Schroeder showed that people find pleasure in disconnection because they assume that social interaction with strangers will be less pleasant than solitude. People are more likely to underestimate a stranger’s intentions out of fear or other assumptions, usually because of an implicit bias they may be unaware they have. And yet, participants in the study indicated that they had a more positive experiences connecting with strangers than keeping to themselves. (The aim of the study was not to prove that interactions with strangers would lead to more positive experiences than interactions with friends.) In a study from 2008 conducted by Robyn Mallet, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert, white participants predicted they would have more positive experiences with other white participants in the study than with black participants; however, after the study was completed, white participants reported having equally pleasant interactions with both groups. There tends to be a hesitation to engage with people outside of one’s own group, whether it is racial, cultural, gender-based, or a previously established social/friend group.

Epley and Schroeder’s findings, however, concluded that people can find joy in interactions with strangers, even among a different social group. Participants instructed to engage in a variety of situations reported feeling much more pleasure than those instructed to remain isolated. With the engagement group, expectations were overturned, and what was initially expected to be a negative situation in fact became such a positive experience that the pleasure of making the connection was contagious.

In one of the tests, a preference for isolation over engagement indicated a misunderstanding of the importance of social engagement (which was an even stronger condition than predicting a negative experience because of the social interaction). The results found that this misunderstanding of the importance of social engagement actually came from the inexperience—and not a negative experience—of the participants who resisted small talk.

Small talk is something that can be learned through practice. Reaching out to others even on a seemingly superficial level can do much to increase empathy, first for individuals, and then for groups of people. Being able to see another person’s perspective, especially outside of a small, personal social group, is to empathize with their experience. Empathy is critical to our experience as social creatures, and it is critical to operating a functioning society. Empathy is what establishes connections—not just with friends of family, but as a group, as a single humanity—and it may be the only thing to restore some of the harsh divisions we see around us.