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Why do we “click” with some people in conversations? It may be timing.

How much we enjoy a conversation can all be a matter of timing — specifically, how long it takes us to respond to what was just said.
Credit: fizkes / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • A new study found that people are more likely to "click" in conversations during which response times are shorter.
  • When the other person responds quickly, people tend to enjoy conversations more and report feeling a deeper level of connection to the other person.
  • In records of conversations, manipulating how long it takes for people to respond can change how people feel about the chat, retrospectively.

Imagine a conversation you recently had in which everything flowed smoothly and you “clicked” with the other person. What were the factors that made it enjoyable? A study recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that one key ingredient of enjoyable conversations is timing.

“Clicking” in conversations

The study consisted of three experiments. In the first, 66 participants engaged in 10-minute-long conversations with other study participants. While all of them were students at Dartmouth college, most had never met before. After these chats, the participants rated how much they enjoyed the conversation and later viewed a video of their discussion while marking how connected they felt to their partner at each point in the clip. At the same time, the researchers measured the gaps in the conversation between when one partner finished their turn speaking and the other began theirs.

By comparing how people rated their enjoyment of the chats and the average response time, the researchers discovered that people were more likely to report enjoying themselves and being more connected to the other speaker when gaps between speaking turns were shorter. Combining these comparisons for each individual across all of their conversations revealed that some people had consistently lower average response times and higher scores in terms of connecting with their conversation partners.

Later tests examined whether knowing the person impacted the results and whether manipulating the response time on the playback tapes would impact how a person reported feeling about their chat. These follow-up experiments confirmed that the response time was a vital factor in how people reported enjoying a conversation. The faster the other person’s response came — often as quickly as a quarter-second — the more people enjoyed speaking to them, and the more connected they reported feeling later. Even slowing down the response times in the videos by fractions of a second had substantial effects on how people reported feeling about the conversation. Likewise, speeding them up even slightly made people report having enjoyed the conversation more.

Is it possible to fake this?

Not really. The times involved here — fractions of a second — are so short that conscious decision-making isn’t really a factor: It is as if you are reflexively in sync with the person you are clicking with. That’s one of the reasons scientists call responses at this speed “honest signals.”

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However, while you probably can’t learn to totally emulate people who effortlessly have enjoyable conversations with everybody they encounter, you can use this information to better understand what makes a conversation go well. The second test showed that people look at their partner’s responsivity more than their own when judging how well a conversation went. The study also found that third parties who listened to the conversations, but were not involved in them, also seemed to use each person’s response time as a heuristic to judge how connected the people were during the conversations.

While the study is not entirely generalizable — its participants were primarily Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic, also known as WEIRD — it does highlight a point that many people can relate to: We like conversations in which we have good reason to think the other person is actively engaged, and in which we feel heard and understood. One signal of such conversations is how quickly others respond to what we have to say.


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