Small Talk: Do These 36 Questions Really Work?

February 27, 2024  |  By: Kristen Berman
small talk

We spend large portions of our waking hours communicating with others. While the possibilities for conversation are seemingly endless, how often do we actually chit-chat about life goals or start conversations by sharing our fears or formative childhood memories? Instead, our topic choices dance around the perils of commuting, whining about the weather, or wondering about weekend plans.

While our intuition says we should stick to this safe small talk with strangers, anecdotal and academic research suggests that’s the exact wrong approach.

Anecdotal evidence arose after hosting many No Small Talk Parties. At these conversation events, people aren’t allowed to talk about superficial things and instead must restrict themselves to more intimate topics. The qualitative result? Late evenings, new friends, and sometimes the passionate lip lock.

Academic research affirms this . It suggests that after 45 minutes of intimate conversation, people will feel more connected and will want to see each other again.

We should be elated — throwing our hands in the air for joy! We now have this crazily simple recipe for making friends. And yet…it seems almost too simple. Does it really hold up when we randomly pair strangers and force them to talk about deep things?

To figure this out, we decided to push the boundaries of the experiment.

We invited 70 people and told them we would pair them with a stranger for a 45 minute, soul-searching conversation based on 36 questions.

But instead of immediately pairing them when they walked in, we had them mingle together for about 30 minutes. They strolled around and schmoozed with random strangers with heavy anticipation building…everyone knew they would soon be paired with someone for the intimate conversation.

Then we made the pairing announcements. And it happened. After shouting with a megaphone who each person was paired with and shepherding them together, we saw participant faces change to either pure joy or unfortunate dread.


After roaming around for 30 minutes, each person had eyed their ideal match. They evaluated each person as relative to the person standing next to them and when the their pairing wasn’t up to the attractive standard that they had just created, the disappointment was painfully obvious.

But what was done was done.

After the session ended, each person told us about the interaction and how close they felt to the person they were paired with. As a comparison, before the event, we asked the same set of questions about other people they know — including an acquaintance they see occasionally (a barista or neighbor) or a family member.

As the closeness research would predict, people formed a surprising bond in just 45 minutes.

small talk
Dan finds out Courtney is engaged.

In the 45 minutes, they gained enough trust in each other that they would take their partner’s ‘event recommendation’ almost as much as their own family member’s. And they gained compassion for each other.

People said they would drive 2x more out of their way to give their their new partner a ride compared to that acquaintance they see once in awhile.

We also asked people to reflect on how attractive they thought their partner was.

While attractiveness is a known predictive variable in speed dating or online dating type encounters, after 45 minutes of deep conversation, their attractiveness rating had no effect on how close the pair got to each other.

This is an important finding. It is of course nice to proclaim that looks don’t matter as much as we think they do. But it is also revealing that our intuitions (as evidenced by the visible reaction during the pairings) about what might foster connection can be wrong.

In many instances of mobile and online dating we rely purely on our intuition to choose which way we swipe or who to strike up a conversation with. While many times this could be correct, we should also realize that we can’t trust our first instinct. Instead we should try a 2nd date or just push our 1st date comfort zone with a non normative conversation.

The lesson? First impressions don’t have to be limited to first looks…they can be expanded to first 45 minutes.

The question we’ll answer next: What specific types of vulnerable questions are optimal for creating connection? This study is in progress, results pending.

The 36 questions event was put on by Kristen Berman, Logan Ury, Phil Levin, Eric Torenburg, Daniel Morse, and Nadia Eghbal.

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