dinner party dinner party Conversations about deeper topics build relationships. (Photo: Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock)

How to have a party without small talk

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely argues that small talk doesn't build relationships, and he's figured out how to avoid it.

Nobody likes small talk. Granted, there's always someone at every party who enthusiastically zips from conversation about the weather to conversation about travel delays, but we don't know who this guy is or when he's going to rip off his human mask and take over the planet.

According to Dan Ariely, an Israeli behavioral economist and bestselling author, small talk doesn't help people build relationships, and it doesn't make anyone happier. The problem is, people feel a social pressure to talk about agreeable, simple things. We minimize risks, and so we miss out on the rewards of meaningful conversations.

That's why Ariely and Kristen Berman, who cofounded a behavioral consulting company with Ariely, decided to hold a dinner party with zero small talk. They invited a couple dozen guests and set out two rules to keep conversation interesting.

One rule had to do with timing: The social scientists believed that having guests drift into a party at different times prevents deeper conversations from forming. So they asked everyone to come between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. If you couldn't make it by 8 p.m., you were asked not to come.

The other rule was pretty obvious: no small talk allowed.

"These rules eliminated some individual freedoms in favour of better outcomes for everyone," wrote Ariely and Berman in a Wired article.

The Israeli-born Ariely is known worldwide for his TED Talks and bestselling books.Israeli-born Dan Ariely is known worldwide for his TED Talks and bestselling books. (Photo: Courtesy Dan Ariely)

When the day of the party came around, people stuck to the rules. The guests all arrived on time (Well, some came at 8:05. The hosts and guests debated before letting them in.). Instead of being dominated by falsely earnest discussions about what hometown everyone was from and what they were up to over the weekend, the party was filled with questions like "Who would be willing to donate a kidney?" The guests even self-policed, calling out small talk when they heard it.

"By establishing a common rule for behaviour we created an environment with a new set of social norms that redefined people's best interests," wrote Ariely and Berman. "And everyone was happier."

According to the organizers, the party was a huge success. Two dates came out of it (and if the daters are friends with Ariely, they might end up on an Ariely-style date). "Perhaps meaningful conversation also makes us more attractive?" wondered Ariely and Berman.

Ultimately, the no-small-talk rule seemed to be an incredibly simple solution to boring gatherings, one we might try out at our next house party (and we won't invite overly enthusiastic weather conversation guy this time).

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