Tuesday, March 23, 2010


A recent study (as reported in this New York Times article) indicates that the more we engage in conversations of some length and depth (what the study calls “substantive” conversations) the happier we are, and that people whose social interaction is heavily weighted toward “small talk” are less happy. According to the article, the study doesn’t answer the obvious question: Is it that happy people engage in deep conversations, or that deep conversations make us happy? (That, apparently, is the subject of some follow-up research.)

In a BBC interview, the author of the study acknowledged that healthy-minded people certainly engage in conversation at both levels, but that small talk for those in the happy group is probably limited to about 10% of interactive time – kind of like “How ‘bout them Yankees?” at the beginning of a cocktail party discussion before entering deeply into a twenty-minute tete-a-tete on the relationship between the current value of the Euro and the New York Stock Exchange.

Although my example sounds flippant, my intention is not to mock. I am one who hungers for conversation, and I find this research encouraging (though I am happy to report that the study comes to no apparent conclusion about the importance of the deep conversationalists knowing what they’re talking about!).

Interestingly, the study doesn’t delve into its application to new social networks like Facebook, etc., but it certainly hints at some logical conclusions: I enjoy – to a degree – the clipped and often witty Facebook exchanges between and among dozens of friends – including (though to a lesser extent) friends of friends. They even elicit witty repartee from me. But this kind of interchange seems to have a built-in fatigue trigger – after a while it’s literally no fun. With close and long-time friends, I switch to e-mail or telephone and – although they must speak for themselves – I’ve never received an e-mail from a friend that I thought was too long. I contend that a multi-day braided e-mail conversation among three friends discussing a subject at some depth approaches the same kind (though surely not the same degree) of fulfillment as a lengthy confab over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. (I’m not the only one who may be a challenging Facebook friend because of the difficulty of keeping those short “comments” from turning into something like little essays.) As an old friend said in an initial Facebook exchange: “Hey, this is just like e-mail – only less convenient!”

At the risk of damning with faint praise, Facebook has its place -- and I'm increasingly glad to be part of it. When you think about it, Facebook is almost a literal (and, I think, positive) response to John Updike’s existential invitation: “We are all so curiously alone, but it’s important that we keep making signals through the glass,” so I do not conclude (from this study) that happy people are on e-mail and unhappy people are on Facebook. I conclude, rather, that too much Facebook (or Twitter, or “how ‘bout them Yankees” or People Magazine) can bring you down. (One can quibble with the exact figure, but 10% sounds about right.) Like the couch potato (in me) who needs to get out into the sun, the Facebooker (in all of us) needs to "hie thee to a coffee shop" and have a good old-fashioned bull session.

(I'd love to hear your views on this.  Maybe on Facebook!)


Joseph G. Crippen said...

Well, we'll be the judge of whether or not what you provide on Facebook is actually "witty repartee." That being said, I think you're on to something. I chat on gmail with my daughter who's overseas, and that's good, too. But unsatisfying for a good conversation. But I also find e-mail limiting in its delay. Rather than comparing it to deeper conversations, it seems to me that e-mail is more like the correspondence of older times, where people would write a number of letters a day and keep up correspondence with friends, something I've never done. But I do with e-mail.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your essays for some time with great pleasure. I've been hesitant to reply because it might have spawned an endless string of deep communications. Sadly, no time for that. Email probably would have been the place for that, with occasional phone calls. Not for Facebook--- I find all the connections to be confusing and, if I have a mental lapse, they could be distributed embarrassingly widely. Anyway, keep up the good writing and reflecting on the many topics you are inspired to examine.
Bill Gable SW Virginia

Dick said...

Thank you, Bill. I find all the connections to be confusing, too. RLJ