A new study published in Philosophical Transactions B explores whether pauses in conversation are experienced or interpreted differently depending on whether the conversation is between friends or strangers. The findings indicate that gaps in conversations between friends are experienced more positively than the same gaps between strangers. In addition, when others observe long gaps in conversation between strangers, they perceive it to be awkward, but not when those same gaps occur between friends.
Many see a successful conversation as one that involves a rapid exchange of ideas. Studies have found that when individuals experience shorter gaps between responses in a conversation, they report they feel more satisfied than those who experience longer pauses in conversations. Conversely, some studies indicate that pauses in communication are not necessarily problematic. Doctors and therapists often use silence to encourage reflection and connection.
In their new study, Emma M. Templeton and colleagues sought to examine how long gaps in conversation affect strangers in conversations versus friends. If long gaps in conversation always indicate discomfort and awkwardness, friends may have less of them than strangers. Friends may have more complex or personal conversations that may require more or longer pauses.
In order to investigate these questions, the researchers looked at gaps in natural unstructured conversations between strangers or friends. In Study 1, researchers examined whether the frequency of long gaps and the connection experience differed between strangers versus friends. In Study 2, researchers examined whether long gaps experienced by strangers or friends were perceived differently or similarly by observers.
In Study 1, the researchers recorded 261 conversations between dyads of strangers and 65 conversations between dyads of friends. Participants in both datasets had a 10-minute unstructured conversation that was recorded with a webcam. After the conversation, participants privately rated their overall impressions of the conversation and watched a video recording of the conversation while continuously rating how connected they remembered feeling to their partner at each moment in time. The video recordings were transcribed by an external transcription company, and gap lengths between speech turns were calculated.
In Study 2, three independent observers watched video clips of conversations with long gaps and rated their impressions of the gaps, including dyadic comfort, nonverbal communication, and topic switches. The raters viewed 100 video clips, 50 from stranger conversations and 50 from friend conversations, and rated them on a variety of dimensions. The raters were not informed that clips came from two different relationship types and viewed the video clips in a random order.
Gaps were defined as the amount of time between verbal speeches. The absence of speech within these gaps sometimes meant there was no communication. The gaps were sometimes filled with nonverbal vocalizations, gestures, or changes in posture. What happens in these gaps is indicative of the meaning or context.
The study concluded that long gaps between strangers were associated with less laughter and less authentic laughter than long gaps shared between friends. Compared to long gaps between friends, the study found a greater likelihood of a change in subject following long gaps with strangers.
The observers in Study 2 perceived that the long gaps between friends were less awkward and felt more connected when compared with the long gaps between strangers. The study concluded that friends experience a different level of connection when there are long gaps compared with strangers. Long gaps indicate disconnection between strangers, which is more pronounced the longer they last. Long gaps in social contact between friends signify a strong bond.
In conclusion, the study found that long breaks in conversation have different effects for friends and strangers. Long gaps can simply be when communication is “inside” the heads of people who share a history, such as friends. This study highlights how important it is to expand interaction research outside of the context of strangers and understand how the conversational dynamics of different contexts can have social implications.
“Collectively, these studies suggest that long gaps function differently between strangers and friends,” the researchers wrote. “For strangers, long gaps are moments of dead air — awkward silences followed by swift changes in topic. For friends, long gaps may not be accurately described or experienced as ‘gaps’ at all. Though devoid of words, the long gaps of friends appear
to be full of meaning, providing natural moments for reflection and expression.”
“These differences between the long gaps of strangers and friends are apparent to outside observers: while the long gaps of strangers are hard to watch, the long gaps of friends telegraph connection. These studies add to a growing literature showing that features of conversation change based on shared history and social context. Gaps between turns carry meaningful social consequences, and those consequences change with friendship.”
The study, “Long gaps between turns are awkward for strangers but not for friends“, was authored by Emma M. Templeton, Luke J. Chang, Elizabeth A. Reynolds, Marie D. Cone LeBeaumont, and Thalia Wheatley.