The science of not knowing when to shut up

If you feel that most conversations go on far longer than they should, you're right. According to a new scientific study, "conversations almost never end when anyone wants them to." Harvard psychologists and their colleagues studied nearly 1,000 conversations to gain insight into how they begin, unfold, and eventually end. Ending a conversation, they determined, is a "classic 'coordination problem' that humans are unable to solve because doing so requires information that they normally keep from each other." From Scientific American:

In some cases, however, interlocutors were dissatisfied not because the talk went on for too long but because it was too short.

"Whatever you think the other person wants, you may well be wrong," says Mastroianni, who is now a doctoral candidate in psychology at Harvard University. "So you might as well leave at the first time it seems appropriate, because it's better to be left wanting more than less.[…]"

That people fail so completely in judging when a conversation partner wishes to wrap things up "is an astounding and important finding," says Thalia Wheatley, a social psychologist at Dartmouth College, who was not involved in the research. Conversations are otherwise "such an elegant expression of mutual coordination," she says. "And yet it all falls apart at the end because we just can't figure out when to stop." This puzzle is probably one reason why people like to have talks over coffee, drinks or a meal, Wheatley adds, because "the empty cup or check gives us an out—a critical conversation-ending crutch."

"Do conversations end when people want them to?" (PNAS)