When conversations flow

We all know the awkward feeling when a conversation is suddenly disrupted by a brief silence. These moments can be pretty unsettling. Because people are generally so well-trained in having smooth conversations, any disruption of this flow indicates that something is wrong, either on an interpersonal level or on the level of consensus in a group. The question we aim to answer in this paper is: Why do we feel comfortable in conversations that have flow, and why do we get nervous and distressed when a conversation is interrupted by unexpected silences?

You may have experienced talking to a friend or partner in a video conference or on the phone, when being confronted with a delayed connection. Most people experience such delays as annoying, as they often result in simultaneous talk and unpreventable silences. The lack of flow in such conversations may interfere with the ease of talking freely about personal issues or other topics, and may lead to the experience of unease or even distress. Although this distress can be clearly identified as being caused by the delayed auditory and visual feedback, you may still feel bad about the conversation afterwards. But what would happen if you were not be able to attribute the disruptions of flow to a machine? Would you doubt whether you and your friend or partner have enough in common? Would you question your relationships?

We spend a large part of our daily life talking with other people and consequently we are very well-versed in the art of conversing. A smoothly flowing conversation constitutes of a series of closely coordinated and predictable actions in which two or more speakers take turns, often within milliseconds (Chapple, 1970). This creates the outward experience of a harmonious exchange of information. Subjectively, one could say that a good conversation has conversational flow: An experience that is associated with a pleasant state of contentment (Burgoon, Stern, & Dillman, 1995). Even when talking to strangers, people generally feel good and supported when the conversation consists of a smooth interplay between interaction partners. Research shows that conversational flow provides people with a feeling of belonging and social validation, independently from the content of the conversation (Koudenburg, Postmes, & Gordijn, 2011a; Koudenburg, Postmes, & Gordijn, 2012). The question we aim to answer in this paper is: Why do we feel comfortable in conversations that have flow, and why do we get nervous and distressed when a conversation is interrupted by unexpected silences? To answer this question we will first look at the processes that underlie the effects of conversational flow. Then we will explain how flow can serve different social needs, like the need to belong and the need for social validation.



The positive consequences of conversational flow show some surface similarities with the effects of processing fluency. Research has shown that processing fluency – the subjective experience of ease with which people process information – influences people’s judgments across a broad range of social dimensions. For instance, people feel that when something is easily processed it is more true or accurate. Moreover, they have more confidence in their judgments regarding information that came to them fluently, and they like things that are easy to process more than things that are difficult to process (for a review, see Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009).

This idea can be illustrated by the Oscar-winning movie ‘The King’s Speech’, in which the stuttering King George VI is unable to deliver a single public address without awkward strains and uncomfortable silences. His inability to speak fluently hampers his ability to be convincing. You could say that in his speeches, the disruption of flow prevents the public from seeing him as a strong and reliable leader. In the movie’s dramatic conclusion, the King is finally able to speak to his people in fluent King’s English, inspiring his people in a time of great national peril. As displayed in the movie, the British public is not unsympathetic towards the King, but appears to be acting on some automatic tendency to judge the quality of ideas, and people, not just by their content but also by the fluency of expression. Research indeed shows that a speaker is judged to be more knowledgeable when they answer questions instantly; responding with disfluent speech markers such as “uh” or “um” or simply remaining silent for a moment too long can destroy that positive image (Brennan and Williams, 1995).

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