Science has established that the key to good small talk is asking the other person a lot of questions.
And if you want to keep the conversation flowing freely ― and get your questions answered without moments of awkward silence ― a new study suggests it pays to throw some head nods and hand gestures into the mix.
According to a study led by Judith Holler at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, people respond more quickly to questions if you use hand and head gestures along with your words.
To study the role of gestures during casual conversations, Holler and her colleagues, Kobin Kendrick and Stephen Levinson, recorded and analyzed conversations among seven groups of three friends.
“We asked them to talk about anything they liked, as if they were meeting at home or in a bar,” she told HuffPost. “We didn’t specifically ask them to use their hands or their body to communicate, because we wanted to capture communication that is as natural as possible, even though we were in a lab setting.”
Holler and her team then watched the videos and identified all the questions asked in the conversations and separated them into two groups based on whether or not they contained a gesture.
Then, they compared the two groups of questions in terms of how soon the spoken response began once the question was asked.
The big takeaway? Responses to questions with hand or head gestures were typically around 200 milliseconds faster than responses to questions without such gestures. (FYI: A millisecond is a unit of time that represents 1/1000th of a second.)
In real world terms, think of it this way: Throwing your hands up in the air in defeat could be just the visual cue your friend needs to realize you’re done sharing your nightmare Tinder story and are ready for them to weigh in.
While a 200 millisecond difference may seem like nothing, Holler says it can make a huge difference in conversation.
“A couple hundred milliseconds may not sound like much at first, but considering the complex things that have to happen while we try to comprehend a question and produce a response and deliver it on time, it’s actually quite a remarkable difference,” she said.
Holler stressed that this was just an observational study and that the exact mechanisms and processes that explain the effect still need to be addressed. She also wouldn’t advise changing up your approach to conversations too drastically. Don’t go overboard with the hand gestures!
“Gesture use in spontaneous conversation is something that happens without much conscious awareness; you want it to feel and look natural,” she said. “What we can draw from this is that the body really does contribute a great deal to getting our messages across.”
Let’s have some hand clapping and head nods for that. 👏