Ask Ariely: On Conversational Connection and Greater Gratitude

January 2, 2022 BY Dan Ariely

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.


Dear Dan,

I’ve mostly kept to my established circle of family and friends during the pandemic, but this New Year’s, my neighbors are hosting a get-together, and I’m very excited to attend. I’ll be meeting quite a few new people, and I’m nervous as to whether I can master the art of small talk after so many months without practice. Do you have any suggestions?


Small talk is boring, and losing your facility with it may not be such a loss. What if you took advantage of this forced forgetting and tried to replace shallow pleasantries with something deeper? Most of us wish to have meaningful conversations in our daily lives but expect our exchanges with strangers to be awkward. They don’t have to be.

In an experiment, researchers paired up attendees at a small conference and gave each duo 10 minutes to discuss four questions. The questions were designed to bypass small talk and lead to greater connection—for example, “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?” After a few such questions and answers, the participants reported not feeling awkward at all—on the contrary, they came away feeling more connected to one another and happier than they had expected.
We underestimate how much potential conversation partners care about deep talk over superficialities, as well as how satisfying such exchanges can be. In fact, the deeper our conversations are on any given day, the happier we tend to be.

So when you go to the New Year’s Eve party, try not making small talk at all. Instead of inquiring about people’s days or their jobs, ask them what they are passionate about, or where they see themselves in a few years. Maybe even ask them about the last time they cried in front of another person.


Dear Dan,

I know I should probably write thank you notes for the holiday gifts I received, but I’m bad at composing them. I end up wasting lots of note cards with rewrites that still end up sounding insincere. I’m starting to wonder if this endeavor is really worthwhile.


Keep going with your thank you notes! Expressing gratitude is incredibly worthwhile and easier than you think.

What you’re experiencing is a basic perspective-taking problem. Many people share your worry about finding the right words to express gratitude and about sounding sincere. People on the receiving end, however, value a thank you of any type and tend to pay more attention to the warmth of the note than the quality of the writing.

To study such “gratitude mis-calibrations,” researchers asked people to write thank you notes and then predict how they thought their expressions of gratitude would be received. Then they asked the actual recipients to report how the notes affected them. Senders predicted that recipients would experience an average happiness rating of three (on a scale of one to five), whereas the actual recipients rated their happiness at 4½.

Perhaps because we underestimate how happy our expressions of thanks make others, we let unnecessary concerns get in the way of conveying our gratitude. The best way to motivate ourselves to write thank you notes may be to experience receiving them—in which case, allow me to express my thanks to you for sending me this question.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.