Most People Don’t Know When to Stop Talking, According to Science

A new study finds folks are pretty bad at guessing whether to wrap up a chat or keep talking

Two women having a conversation
A new study finds most conversations don't end when we want them to. Antonio Guillem Fernández / Alamy Stock Photo

A new study asks the question: Do conversations end when people want them to? The short answer, it turns out, is no.

The study, published this week in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, took a two-pronged approach.

The first piece was an online survey completed by 806 people that asked a series of questions about a conversation they recently had with an intimate friend or family member. The questions queried the participant whether there was a moment they had wanted the conversation to end and to estimate when that moment was in relation to when the talk reached its conclusion. The second part of the study involved 252 people being paired up with strangers in the lab to chat about whatever they felt like for anywhere between one and 45 minutes.

In the online survey debriefing a recent intimate conversation, 67 percent of the respondents said they wanted the conversation to end before it actually did, and most had secretly wished the chat had been either 50 percent longer or 50 percent shorter than it was, reports Cathleen O’Grady for Science.

“Whatever you think the other person wants, you may well be wrong,” says Adam Mastroianni, a psychology researcher at Harvard University and the study’s lead author, tells Rachel Nuwer of Scientific American. “So you might as well leave at the first time it seems appropriate, because it’s better to be left wanting more than less.”

In the lab conversations between strangers, the participants were similarly out of sync. Nearly 70 percent of the people reported wanting the conversation to be over before it ended. Just two percent of conversations wrapped up at a time both people were happy with, and a mere 30 percent of them ended when one of the parties wanted, per Scientific American.

The researchers also asked study participants to guess when their conversational counterparts had wanted to stop talking. Those guesses were wrong, either over or underestimating the other person’s desire to continue the talk, by roughly 64 percent of the conversation’s actual length, per Science.

Taken together, the results suggest that we aren’t very skilled at estimating each others’ desires about when to end a conversation.

Thalia Wheatley, a social psychologist at Dartmouth College who was not involved in the research, tells Scientific American that the findings are “astounding and important,” adding that in other respects conversations are “an elegant expression of mutual coordination.” Except, she says, “it all falls apart at the end because we just can’t figure out when to stop.”

Speaking with Science, Mastroianni says his takeaway is that trying to guess what someone you’re chatting with wants is almost pointless. “You really have no idea when the other person wants to go,” he tells Science. “So maybe, stop trying and just relax and enjoy the conversation.”