DUCKWORTH: I mean, I didn’t swear or reveal secrets.
DUBNER: Oh, you’ve sworn. You’ve sworn.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: What’s so gratifying about celebrity gossip?
DUCKWORTH: I hope that I don’t get sucked into this illusion that most people are walking around in five-inch heels, and spent three hours in hair and makeup.
Also: what is the purpose of small talk?
DUBNER: “We’re going to stick to small talk. And you know what? That’s okay. We don’t need to be friends.”
* * *
DUBNER: Angela, you have mentioned in the past, that you love reading Us Weekly magazine. And I believe “cover to cover” is the phrase you used.
DUCKWORTH: Correct. I read Us Weekly, weekly.
DUBNER: I would like to know why you love it so much and whether you consider it a, quote, “guilty pleasure”? Or is it something more, or different, than that?
DUCKWORTH: I love Us Weekly for so many reasons, Stephen. And I’m not sure I feel guilty about it as much as I used to. Maybe when I was on tenure track to become a professor who didn’t get fired. The reason, obviously, why I would feel guilty is that there’s something base about looking at women and men parading around in sequins and whatever. Like, John Stuart Mill, the philosopher, said that —.
DUBNER: He’s not commonly featured in Us Weekly, is he?
DUCKWORTH: No. I mean, he’s dead.
DUBNER: So, the Mill quote you’re about to give does not come from Us Weekly.
DUCKWORTH: It does not — although Us Weekly is always filled with quotable quotes. John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher, said, “There are higher and lower pleasures.” I believe that Mill made the claim that given the choice between the higher and lower pleasures, that we would always spontaneously choose the higher pleasure. Which is correct only to people like John Stuart Mill and incorrect for really everyone. Because most of us just want to eat pizza, and binge-watch Netflix, and read Us Weekly.
DUBNER: Can you tell us a few things that you’ve learned and/or enjoyed from Us Weekly? Because I have to admit, I have close to total ignorance of what’s in it.
DUCKWORTH: The premise is that in the last week, these celebrities have lived another seven days, and there was the opportunity to photograph them and interview them about their latest movie, et cetera. And the issue always has this very familiar structure. You open it up, and there’s always this spread of one kind of dress — like, they’re all pink, or they’re all by Louis Vuitton. And then you get to see all these different celebrities wearing it. And that’s kind of fun. And then there is a piece called “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!” And that could be a picture of John Travolta putting gas in his Winnebago, or it could be Julia Roberts at the grocery store with her own cart. And you’re like, “She’s just like me. I also go to the supermarket.”
DUBNER: Is the motivation to be inspired by the lives of these celebrities? Is it to feel like you’re part of their world momentarily? Is there some schadenfreude involved?
DUCKWORTH: I think there’s probably a variety of gratifications. One is, by the way, just looking at really hot people.
DUBNER: And why is that fun? Because, I would assume that most people, when they get a high dose of really good-looking people, would feel worse about themselves, not better.
DUCKWORTH: There is some research showing that when we are in a context where the people are somehow our peers, that if everybody’s looking great, we can feel worse. Upward social comparison to your peers can make you feel terrible. But, when I look at Angelina Jolie, I’m not thinking, “Oh, gosh, I don’t look as good as Angelina Jolie.” She’s a different universe. Even though there is the “Stars — They’re Just Like Us,” it’s obvious to everyone that they do not live in Hollywood and they are not celebrities. And so I am not picking up Us Weekly and feeling bad about myself for not looking like people did at the Oscars.
DUBNER: You’re saying two things that are, in a way, opposite. You’re saying, “Stars, they’re just like us. They do things that we do all the time.” And, “Stars, they’re nothing like us. They are a different category of people.”
DUCKWORTH: Do you see the depth and the complexity of Us Weekly now, Stephen?
DUBNER: I’m starting to appreciate it.
DUCKWORTH: By the way, we wouldn’t need the “Stars — They’re Just Like Us” feature if it were obvious that stars were just like us. So, the fact that they have a picture of John Travolta getting gas for his car, or whatever it is, is because they are not like us — you appreciate these glimpses, that they are sometimes living a quotidian life like the rest of us.
DUBNER: You mentioned that, earlier, when you were untenured, let’s say, you might have not promoted your reading of Us Weekly as aggressively as you now might. But I am curious whether you now see it as, like I said, a guilty pleasure for you? Or is it just a pleasure — which we all pursue, except for John Stuart Mill, apparently — and that you feel no guilt about it? And I certainly don’t mean to make you feel guilty about it. That’s not my intention.
DUCKWORTH: Here’s the part that I do feel a little bit guilty about. It’s like, who took this picture of John Travolta picking up a takeout container from Qdoba? The paparazzi must be following him all the time. What a terrible thing to be hounded by scores of photographers. You know, Princess Diana being chased by the paparazzi leading to her untimely death. I mean, this is like eating meat. It tastes good, but you’re kind of like, “Yeah, a lot of cruelty involved in producing this.” And so, I feel a little guilty about that.
DUBNER: You know, I learned in reading a piece in The New Yorker, that the phrase “guilty pleasure,” when it first appeared in The New York Times, which was in 1860, it was used to describe a brothel.
DUCKWORTH: That is a guilty pleasure I guess. This is a very G-rated guilty pleasure then, relative to that.
DUBNER: So, let’s talk about the upsides and downsides of gossip. I have read that there’s psychological research arguing that gossip is really an elemental part of humanity. Can you tell us about that?
DUCKWORTH: The strongest arguments, I think, come from people who are evolutionary psychologists. And the functional purpose of gossip, these scientists would argue, is that it’s the communication of very important information. For example, if you are gossiping about people that are at your office — you know, who’s really enemies with whom and what they said — that’s inside information that could be helpful. You know who to avoid and you know who to ally yourself with. Because we are a social species, gossip is a way that we can get and give valuable information at relatively low cost.
DUBNER: What sort of information is Us Weekly delivering to you? Because it’s not information about people you know or that you’ll interact with.
DUCKWORTH: I think this question is good in that, if I’m not getting information about anybody in my direct social network — I’m getting information about, you know, Bruce Springsteen — how is that helpful to me?
DUBNER: You might run into him sometime, because he’s another Jersey guy.
DUCKWORTH: I would love to run into Bruce Springsteen. I don’t think I will. So, the question is, what function could gossip have? It could be that we have this instinct to gossip that is being played out in the form of reading Us Weekly, but actually, that’s not good for us. It’s just that we have this evolutionarily-conserved tendency — you know, much like craving for fat, salt, and sugar had its evolutionary origins. It’s kind of getting us into a lot of trouble right now. So, you don’t have to actually have a function which is contemporary for reading these gossip rags.
DUBNER: But you’re making an argument against your consumption of gossip.
DUCKWORTH: Well, okay. But here’s an argument for it, and this is plausible. This was made by Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs and their collaborators. And they argued that gossip is a form of cultural learning where these anecdotes — say you read a story about JLo reuniting with Ben Affleck, and you get this little snippet of what people are saying about it and what they’ve said — that in this story of these two people that you will probably not meet, you are getting social rules in narrative form. And so, the valuable information you’re getting is, like, how does society work? What’s frowned upon? What’s approved? How should we behave? How will other people think? And you’re getting it with these superstar actors and actresses in their actual lives. So, it’s social information about norms in this story form where, as a bonus, you get to see pictures of them and they tend to be attractive and live exciting lives.
DUBNER: But one could argue a lot of gossip is not at all valuable information and, in fact, can be hurtful to people. Consider it from the perspective of, let’s say, Angelina Jolie. You get to consume it, and it’s relatively cost-free for you, you might feel a little bit guilty, but to be a person who is gossiped about all the time — whenever they’re gassing up their Winnebago, or shopping, or getting in a fight with their mate — that seems like close to pure downside to me.
DUCKWORTH: That’s the reason I feel some guilt. It is kind of terrible. Maybe it’s not kind of terrible. Maybe it’s just terrible. And I am ignoring all that while I read it.
DUBNER: And a lot of gossip is unverified, right?
DUCKWORTH: Can I just tell you, Stephen, in the pantheon of rags on celebrities, Us Weekly is legit. You know, there are ones I wouldn’t be caught dead with. So, I just wanted to defend my tabloid as being the better of the tabloids.
DUBNER: Let me just throw an old cautionary tale out there, though. I’ve read a story about when polio was still raging in the U.S. and there were these vaccine trials, including one from Jonas Salk. And Walter Winchell, who you may know, was considered kind of the founding father of celebrity gossip — Walter Winchell had learned something about the Salk trial and he broadcasted: “Attention, everyone. In a few moments, I will report on a new polio vaccine. It may be a killer.” Meaning not killing polio, but killing people. And apparently, Winchell had heard this from a scientist who’d been fired by the president of the Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. So, it turned out to have been a disgruntled and bad source. That said, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis estimated that this report by Walter Winchell led to about 150,000 children, or ten percent of the overall study population, dropping out of the Salk trial. So, that would be an example of where essentially gossip could have really a pretty gigantic negative social effect.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, Stephen, you said you were not trying to make me feel bad about reading Us Weekly, correct?
DUBNER: Am I failing?
DUCKWORTH: I feel like that story is something that would give me pause. And then, I’m trying to graft that onto, like, Jennifer Aniston’s new haircut and what’s going on with Tom Cruise, really, on set. And then I’m trying to figure out whether what you’re saying about polio and vaccines is something that I have to worry about.
DUBNER: Now I feel as bad as I’m making you feel.
DUCKWORTH: No, I’m just pausing. I will say this. When people become celebrities, it is usually not by accident. They don’t wake up one day and accidentally find themselves in Hollywood, trying to make it in movies, and television, and so forth. I know this sounds like rationalization, and maybe it is, but if they are going to make that deal with the devil that says, “Okay, I get to do this thing that I love, and I get all the perks of fame, and the cost of it is that I will be photographed at the checkout in my supermarket and occasionally untruths will be said about my last boyfriend,” I feel like if they are signing that contract, then it is within my human rights to — I don’t know if I really believe that. I can’t even finish the sentence.
DUBNER: All right, since you’re on the fence, let me just offer one more thought. I think about this when I think about how people consume news often a little bit out of context. In other words, you might have a feed of headlines that don’t have the articles.
DUCKWORTH: Or a quote from something which is excerpted, but nobody actually clicks on the link to the full story.
DUBNER: Exactly. I think one downside of consuming a lot of news is that people tend to think that the anomalous is normal. In other words, when you’re always reading about some heightened event, some tragedy, or scandal, or political fight, whatever — since, let’s be honest, that’s what the news usually covers — it’s new. That’s what makes it news. Then, it’s easy to start to believe that is typical behavior. And that gives people a warped outlook on how the world really operates. And I’m curious whether you think that celebrity gossip is another version of that in a way? That you’re consuming this information that is inherently anomalous.
DUCKWORTH: Because the stars are not just like us.
DUBNER: And yet, I wonder if, perhaps subconsciously, we treat it as if it is a little bit more normal than it is, and if that might have any downsides or upsides.
DUCKWORTH: I hope that I don’t get sucked into this illusion that most people are walking around in five-inch heels, and wearing two pairs of Spanx, and spent three hours in hair and makeup. Or that it’s normal to start your day with a kale smoothie like all these celebrities seemingly do.
DUBNER: But that does sound like something you would do.
DUCKWORTH: No! The kale smoothie or the heels?
DUBNER: Kale smoothie. You’ve had a kale smoothie.
DUCKWORTH: I have had a kale smoothie. It is true. Guilty as charged!
DUBNER: Have you or have you not had a kale smoothie in the last 90 days?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, not in the last 90 days. It’s not that good. If you want to go that route, you go with spinach, Stephen, because it disappears and turns this, like, sludgy gray color, but doesn’t taste any different. I think if I had, for example, self-image problems, I think reading Us Weekly could be dangerous, because to some extent, it creates a standard of beauty, or a norm of behavior, that’s not healthy. Not having those issues, mostly what it is, on a Friday night when I curl up in the fetal position with my Us Weekly, eagerly anticipating all those features I’ve come to love — “Fashion Police,” by the way, is at the end, and “25 Things You Didn’t Know About Me,” all those things which I greedily devour — I think mostly I’m looking at pictures of hot people, don’t have to read a lot because it’s heavy on the pictures, not very heavy on the text, and I have some weird para-social relationship with these people, because I’ve been reading the same magazines for so long that I almost feel like I know the life history of Ben Affleck as a friend would. And aside from that guilty twinge from like, “Ooh, what was the cost of getting this?” I feel mostly like it’s okay.
DUBNER: Last question, Angela Duckworth. Let’s say that next week in Us Weekly, there is —.
DUCKWORTH: Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: There is Angela Duckworth in a “25 Things You Didn’t Know About Me” feature. What is No. 1?
DUCKWORTH: The No. 1 thing you don’t know about Angela Duckworth is that Angela Duckworth would love to be in the back of Us Weekly saying 25 things you didn’t know about Angela Duckworth.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss the value of small talk.
DUCKWORTH: I would like to, for most of my neighbors, wave to them cheerfully without breaking stride.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have an email here from a listener named Yvonne Couch. Does that ring a bell?
DUBNER: I believe she has had a question of hers answered before on this show, is that true?
DUBNER: She may be the first person to have two questions addressed on No Stupid Questions. So, we should send her a —.
DUCKWORTH: A celebratory —.
DUBNER: A Pez dispenser?
DUCKWORTH: At least a mug. So, Yvonne asks, “What is the point of small talk? Don’t get me wrong, I love a good natter about. the latest No Stupid Questions episode or whatever random podcast I’ve recently found. But the, ‘Hi, how are you?’ ‘I’m fine, thanks. How are you?’ That really baffles me. Terry Pratchett, in one of his books, said it was just noises one human makes to another to say, ‘I’m alive and so are you.’ I would get it more if people actually cared how you were, but I’m not sure most of them do. Thoughts on the matter appreciated, as always.”
DUBNER: Interesting. So, we should distinguish: this is small talk and not gossip necessarily, correct? Although, I guess, gossip could be small talk.
DUCKWORTH: I think, actually, Yvonne is not talking about the kind of gossip that we were talking about, because small talk is almost this formulaic, like, “Hey, how are you?” “I’m fine. How are you?” “How’s the weather?” “Kind of humid.” That kind of thing.
DUBNER: Although, I could imagine that gossip could constitute small talk on occasion. Like, “Can you believe what so-and-so said — some public figure said?” You could have that conversation, even with someone you didn’t know well. Theoretically.
DUCKWORTH: Perhaps. But I think this is more about — like, I was just reading this interview with Alice Waters. And the very first question the interviewer asked her is, “How are you?” And she responded, “I’ve never been able to answer that question the way you’re supposed to, because what I’m supposed to say is, ‘Oh, great, beautiful day.’ And that’s always been an existential question for me.” So, she actually takes it seriously. So, I think Yvonne is asking about these automatic pleasantries. If you ask another person what they think about some politician’s last statement, that’s not small talk. I think that’s what scientists would call substantive talk. Small talk versus substantive conversation is a topic that scientists are really interested in. In large part because it looks like small talk is much inferior to substantive conversation when it comes to happiness.
DUBNER: So, you’re saying that people who engage in small talk often are less happy on average than the people who engage in substantial conversation.
DUBNER: Well, I think the most convincing evidence about the benefits of substantive conversation — like, you’re really having a conversation, and you’re thinking about what you’re saying, and it’s not formulaic, and it’s not just skimming the surface of things — the most convincing evidence for this comes not from small talkers versus substantive talkers, but more that, even within a person’s day, they might have more substantive conversations, they might have more superficial conversations. And within-person research on this is even more convincing.
DUBNER: How much do you think, however, that might be driven by the fact that small talk is usually engaged in with people that one doesn’t know very well, whereas more substantive conversation is with people that you do have a deeper relationship with? So, wouldn’t it be possible that the different levels of happiness are more connected to your different level of connection with the person you’re talking to?
DUBNER: Yeah. I think that’s actually a really good point. You want to make sure that it’s really the conversation itself that’s moving your feelings around. And there have been some experimental studies where you can get people to be self-disclosing, vulnerable — talking about deep things that are emotional, and close to your values, and so forth. And that tends to make relationships better and get people to feel more like they like the other person, that there’s intimacy there. And those experimental research findings are so important because of what you just said. Because, otherwise, you can think of a million reasons why small talk would be just correlated with less well-being.
DUBNER: Unless the person you’re speaking with finds out later that you were lying about those revealing things you said.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I don’t know that anybody’s actually studied that, Stephen.
DUBNER: Let’s do it.
DUCKWORTH: Let’s lie to people and see what happens!
DUBNER: Okay, but I do wonder if Yvonne is being a little bit hard on small talk. So, let me try to, I don’t know if “defend” it, but at least talk it out a little bit. First of all, it’s better than nothing. It’s awkward to stand there in silence with other people, isn’t it? We’re expected to engage in some kind of conversation.
DUCKWORTH: Look, I have a husband who is constantly making small talk with neighbors. My civic husband, right?
DUBNER: From your tone of voice it sounds like you’re not 100 percent on board with this small talk.
DUCKWORTH: I would like to, for most of my neighbors, wave to them cheerfully without breaking stride. But Jason wants to stop and ask about that new rhododendron that seems to be flourishing.
DUCKWORTH: I would call that medium talk. Rhododendron, that’s, like, a step above. But, like, this kind of conversation happens a lot in coffee hour for church. I will confess that it’s been a long time since I’ve actually been to church with Jason. But when I did go, I dreaded coffee hour. You’re in this room with a bunch of people that you see once a week. By the way, during the service, you’re not interacting. You’re just all facing the same direction. So, you don’t really know each other. And I found myself dreading this small-talk pleasantry, like, “Oh Gloria, I just love that blue dress, and what a pretty hat you have.” And it was always a charade, almost, of intimacy. I would just go to the bathroom and spend as much time washing my hands as possible and then come back when I needed to.
DUBNER: Maybe it was more about — you did not want to engage further in that community, and therefore, it was capped at small talk for you. Whereas, theoretically, if you’d been more enthusiastic about that community, per se, no judgment here, that maybe it would have turned into — because, you know, I get the criticism of small talk, no doubt, but I also think that it is a starting point. If the small talk goes well with a particular person, or group of people, then it’ll get deeper. I’m thinking of this friendship formation I’m in the middle of right now. There’s this guy that I know and I chatted with him five or ten times. And it started as pure small talk.
DUCKWORTH: Who is this person?
DUBNER: He’s actually a golf buddy who I met playing golf. And our level of conversation was extraordinarily superficial for the first several times. But then after about five or ten of those, I found us talking about deeper things. It was a very natural progression. It felt kind of like you’re starting in the shallow end of the pool, and now we’re doing, like, the linguistic version of these full-twisting triple pikes off the high dive. We’re talking about real stuff. And I don’t think it would have started without small talk. So, I’m not so sure that we should dismiss it out of hand.
DUCKWORTH: What you’re saying is that this is the entry point to a human relationship. And if you’re like, “Hey, this is kind of dissatisfying,” you’re like, “of course it’s dissatisfying. It’s the entry point.” It can lead to a more meaningful relationship and more meaningful conversation.
DUBNER: But it could also be that this guy that I’ve come to like — that there were nine other guys that I didn’t like, and the small talk stays small talk. And that’s fine. You don’t want to be friends with everybody, right?
DUCKWORTH: Okay, fair point. And, by the way, I think there is a social lubricant function of small talk. Maybe that’s part of the glue that holds us together. You know, we do want a best friend. We do, for many of us, want a romantic partner for life. But we must also want these weaker social ties. Just to have a neighborhood where you walk around, and you do wave pleasantly to people, and know a little bit about them.
DUBNER: Which is what you want. You don’t want to talk about the rhododendron, but you’re happy to have the wave. I also think that small talk is useful as a way to set a boundary. Like, “Yes, you and I, we are communicating, but we don’t have the kind of relationship where we’re going to engage in big talk or deep talk. We’re going to stick to small talk. And you know what? That’s okay, because we don’t need to be friends.” And it reminds me of other linguistic strategies — the formal and familiar versions of words in French. Sometimes you’re “vous,” sometimes you’re “tu.” I just don’t want to toss out the small talk with the big talk. You know, I just learned of this interesting research about work-from-home or work-from-anywhere. We’ve been in this pandemic for 15, 16 months and starting to come out of it. And every firm and employee in the world is basically wondering: if I was able to do remote work, how much of my work will be remote in the future? How much should be in person? What does it mean for real estate, for companies, for personal relationships, and so on? And this one researcher found really useful what was called a “virtual water cooler.” Different people within a firm, especially the kind of people who typically wouldn’t share a meeting, let’s say — when they were invited into a virtual water cooler and engaged there, it led to really significant information exchange, and in some cases, deeper relationships — in some cases hiring or promotion that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. And that, to me, is like the epitome of the potential for small talk. And if it can be done even virtually in a Zoom, I think it’s not to be discounted so easily.
DUCKWORTH: The proverbial water cooler as a metaphor for what we’re missing when we’re not all in person — I’ve never actually seen anybody standing around.
DUBNER: I think bottled water killed the water cooler.
DUCKWORTH: But we actually used to have a water cooler, literally. You know, with one of those 60-gallon clear plastic jugs that you’d have to tilt over. And I’ve gotten water out of the water cooler, but I’ve never seen anybody stand around the water cooler and socialize. Usually, after you get the water, you go back to your desk.
DUBNER: For all we know, it may be even easier with software than it is in person. We’ve talked about a similar thing in the past. I mentioned that one reason photographers still love black and white is because it kind of sharpens the intensity of the focus. Not the camera focus, but the topical focus. The color makes it almost too rich, too dense, too lifelike. And instead, black and white can sharpen what you’re actually looking at. It may be that virtually, that kind of small talk is better because you’re not dealing with all the in-person cues that happens when two people, or five people, talk with each other. And you can actually focus, instead, on the content of what’s being said. And maybe that content actually builds stronger ties. Maybe that’s why Yvonne is so frustrated, is because when you’re in-person talking small talk with someone you kind of know that you’re killing time, and you’re not really affording the opportunity to make it slightly-bigger talk. But, look, Yvonne maybe should just move somewhere. Small talk is not universal. It is not popular everywhere.
DUCKWORTH: Are there cultures that don’t have small talk?
DUBNER: Well, first of all, I think America is a world champion in small talk.
DUCKWORTH: Are we really?
DUBNER: There is a Brandeis psychologist named Andrew Molinsky who’s written about how people from other countries are often surprised at how important small talk is in the U.S., and how naturally and comfortably people seem to do it. I’m sure you know the cross-cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand. She’s talked about the difference in national cultures being either generally loose or tight. And the U.S. is pretty loose. And so, that would make sense that we are willing, and even able, to engage in some kind of conversation, even with people we don’t know at all, and even if the conversation is not going anywhere. But not everywhere is this the case. So, in Finland, for example, small talk is seen, as I understand it, as a total waste of time. There is, apparently, a national saying which says, “Silence is gold, talking is silver.”
DUCKWORTH: Now I’m trying to picture these Finns standing around in silence. Are they really just not saying anything to each other, unless they’re going to drop a deep insight? I mean, I’m trying to imagine what social life looks like in the absence of these pleasantries. Feels awkward.
DUBNER: Okay, let me ask you this then. What would your best advice be for Yvonne, or anyone, who chafes at the emptiness of small talk? What would your best advice be for turning small talk into something more substantive?
DUCKWORTH: So, Yvonne, you might enjoy research that says substantive, self-disclosing conversations — by “self-disclosing” I mean you are revealing something personal about yourself —.
DUBNER: Like, “Let me tell you about my last colonoscopy,” that kind of thing?
DUCKWORTH: That would be self-disclosing, Stephen. I know my friend Marc Brackett at Yale would prefer people ask each other, not “How are you?” but, “How are you feeling.” “How are you feeling?” might invite like, “Actually I’m kind of tired right now.” As opposed to, “How are you?” Which gives you the reflexive, “I’m fine. How are you?” So, there are paths to this more substantive and self-disclosing kind of conversation. One question I might have for Yvonne, though, is whether she considers herself an introvert or an extrovert? Because, it turns out that when you ask people to be a little more socially engaged with other people — basically act like an extrovert would — introverts can actually get a short-term boost in mood. If they act like extroverts, they can feel better in the short term, but they also find it kind of exhausting. I’m thinking about research that was just published by Jessie Sun, who’s a postdoc I know, and her colleagues. And I find that really interesting, because I remember reading Quiet by Susan Kane, and she had claimed that introverts are exhausted by some of the requirements of socializing. So, I’m all for a substantive conversation, but I do think getting over that speed bump, it can be a little bit more exhausting for some of us than for others. Did we have small talk when we first met? No, because, I think, our first conversation, you were, like, interviewing me about what I really thought about something.
DUBNER: Yeah, and I remember afterwards, you sounded a little bit pissed off, actually.
DUCKWORTH: You got me to say things that I was like, “I probably shouldn’t say those in an on-air interview.” I mean, I didn’t swear or reveal secrets.
DUBNER: Oh, you’ve sworn. You’ve sworn.
DUCKWORTH: Well, but not in that conversation, I think I just said things that were more speculative. I was like, “Well, if you want to know what I really think.” I think I was just astonished that I had done that. I was like, “Damn, you must be a good interviewer.”
DUBNER: But I think that you like to disclose.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I’m a little bit of a self-discloser. True.
DUBNER: But in a very appropriate measure — as a means to either express, or to signal to the other person — which is a really nice thing to do as a conversationalist — that, “I am willing to disclose, and therefore, if you choose to also disclose, I welcome that.” That’s what a conversation is. You’re good at that.
DUCKWORTH: Well, thank you. And if that’s true, why have I had so many dissatisfying —.
DUBNER: Why do you hate coffee hour so much?
DUCKWORTH: What’s up with me and coffee hour?
DUBNER: Can I float a theory here?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, go.
DUBNER: Because you mentioned that you were going to church for a while, but you’re not any longer. And it sounds — this is just me totally speculating, but — but maybe, the hatred of small talk at the coffee hour was just connected to the fact that that was a place you did not want to be, and therefore, you didn’t want to disclose and have substantive conversation. Like, the Angela who discloses and is substantive is in a different kind of circumstance, and with a different set of people, than the people who were going to the coffee hour after the church service. That would be my theory.
DUCKWORTH: I have to say that I really like these people who go to Overbrook Presbyterian Church. They’re community-oriented, and they’re smart, and they’re friendly. Not going to church really wasn’t because I was just avoiding coffee hours, more like I just didn’t want to go to church anymore, but that’s a whole other conversation. Maybe, it was that in this pleasantry exchange, there was no progression. But I think, what this conversation is making me realize, is that isn’t inevitable. For example, there is this one woman, Natalie, whom I loved to hunt down at coffee hour. I would scan the room looking for Natalie, and I would make a beeline to Natalie if I found her. And that is because we had progressed beyond small talk to friendship. I knew her two kids, and she knew mine. And she was a medical doctor. So, whatever medical thing had happened in the last week to anyone, I was like, “Natalie, I have to ask you a question.” So, I think maybe, what this is telling me is that I need to figure out how to get beyond the first opening moves of small talk and not get trapped. And that’s possible.
DUBNER: I mean, look, no one’s saying you have to. You could model yourself on Calvin Coolidge.
DUCKWORTH: The president?
DUBNER: Yeah. “Silent Cal,” he was called.
DUCKWORTH: I didn’t know that.
DUBNER: He was a man of few words and he particularly hated small talk.
DUCKWORTH: By the way, was he a good president?
DUBNER: I don’t know that. I just know that he didn’t like small talk. He was once described as “an eloquent listener who could be silent in five languages,” and his wife told this story once where he’d gone to a party, or some gathering, and the hostess of the party said to Calvin Coolidge, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” And Coolidge said, “You lose.”
DUCKWORTH: Okay, well, look, if you came up to me at coffee hour and you said anything like that, I think I would like coffee hour a whole lot more.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and the Freakonomics Radio Book Club. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.
Angela says, “In the pantheon of rags on celebrities, Us Weekly is legit.” According to a 2010 report by the now-defunct gossip website Gawker, 35 percent of Us Weekly’s cover stories and 59 percent of the unconfirmed reports turned out to be true during the 20-month period that Gawker reviewed. So, “legit” might be a misleading description, but the investigation did find that Us was actually the most accurate magazine out of all of the tabloids they looked into. OK! had a seven percent cover accuracy and just 14 percent overall accuracy. And only nine percent of Star Magazine’s cover stories turned out to be true, with a 12 percent accuracy overall.
Also, Angela recalls that 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill believed that humans would always choose higher, more intellectual pleasures over lower, base pleasures. This is an exaggeration. In his 1861 work Utilitarianism, Mill does claim that higher pleasures are more intrinsically valuable, but he also says that they are the, quote, “preferences of a competent judge.” Whether or not he would deem Us Weekly readers “competent judges” is hard to say.
Finally, Stephen and Angela wonder whether Calvin Coolidge was a, quote, “good” president. Since 1982, the Siena College Research Institute has conducted a survey of historians and political scientists during the second year of the first term of a new president. Participants rank presidents across 20 different categories, ranging from integrity to ability to compromise. These historians don’t think Coolidge was great, but they don’t view him as the worst of the worst either. In the most recent survey, he comes in at 31 out of 44 presidents. George Washington ranks at the top of the list, and Andrew Johnson comes in dead last.
That’s it for the fact-check.
No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Zach Lapinksi, Mary Diduch, Brent Katz, Morgan Levey, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to email@example.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert, or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: I’m just picturing Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. And I’m like, “Dude. if Calvin Coolidge has Us Weekly looks, and he says things like ‘you lose,’ he could be a really hot lead in a romantic comedy.”
- John Stuart Mill (deceased), philosopher.
- Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University.
- Kathleen Vohs, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota.
- Andy Molinsky, professor of psychology at Brandeis University.
- Michele Gelfand, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland.
- Marc Brackett, professor of psychology at Yale University.
- Jessie Sun, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.
- “Alice Waters Says People Who Call Her Elitist Just Don’t Get It,” by David Marchese (The New York Times Magazine, 2021).
- “What Really Happened With the ‘Cutter Incident,’” When a Bad Batch of Polio Vaccine Paralyzed Kids,” by Rebecca Onion (Slate, 2021).
- “Is Well-Being Associated with the Quantity and Quality of Social Interactions?” by J. Sun, K. Harris, and S. Vazire (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2020).
- “The Science Behind Why People Gossip — And When It Can Be a Good Thing,” by Sophia Gottfried (TIME, 2019).
- “Costs and Benefits of Acting Extraverted: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” by R. Jacques-Hamilton, J. Sun, and L. D. Smillie (Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2019).
- “Presidents 2018 Rank by Category,” by the Siena College Research Institute (2019).
- Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, by Michele Gelfand (2018).
- “How the Finnish Survive Without Small Talk,” by Laura Studarus (BBC, 2018).
- “‘I Bet I Could Get Three Words Out of You.’ ‘You Lose.’” by (Quote Investigator, 2016).
- “Gossip and Ostracism Promote Cooperation in Groups,” by Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer, and Michael Schultz (Psychological Science, 2014).
- “Against ‘Guilty Pleasure,’” by Jennifer Szalai (The New Yorker, 2013).
- “The Big Challenge of American Small Talk,” by Andy Molinsky (Harvard Business Review, 2013).
- “Which Tabloids Lie the Most?” by Maureen O’Connor (Gawker, 2010).
- “Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations,” by Matthias R. Mehl, Simine Vazire, Shannon E. Holleran, and C. Shelby Clark (Psychological Science, 2010).
- “Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective,” by R. I. M. Dunbar (Review of General Psychology, 2004).
- “Gossip as Cultural Learning,” by Roy F. Baumeister, Liqing Zhang, and Kathleen D. Vohs (Review of General Psychology, 2004).
- Wings, by Terry Pratchett (1990).
- Utilitarianism, by John Stewart Mill (1863).