Relationship Codes in Conversation

Researchers investigated the difference between happy and unhappy people in the types of conversations they tend to have. Their conclusion – happy people tend to have more substantive conversations and less small talk than do unhappy people. In fact, the study showed the happiest participants had twice as many substantive conversations and one third as much small talk as the unhappiest participants.

“Just as self-disclosure can instill a sense of intimacy in a relationship, deep conversations may instill a sense of meaning in the interaction between partners.”

It seems to me it’s okay to talk about the weather or basketball scores, but why do I talk about such things? Am I nervous or anxious or concerned about the person with whom I’m having a conversation? Then why not just come out with it instead? Well, for me, just “coming out with it” has felt uncomfortable and sometimes opened windows or doors into worlds of hurt and shame. So I “coded” my conversations so as not to directly shake the tree, so to speak. “Better safe than sorry!”

Such hidden fear coded into my conversations did not make me feel any safer or engender happiness – in me or my relationships. Rather, coding fear into my conversations tended to put me into a defensive posture in which conflict was often the result – which tended to justify my defensive posture and deepen my resolve to keep my conversations “light” and comfortable rather than substantive and meaningful.

My mother and I have a wonderful relationship. I care about her deeply and it is obvious to me she cares at least as much about me. When we get together, we talk about the weather, books we’ve read, which coffee we like best, hikes she’s taken, the good things everyone is doing – small talk. But it’s a code – like the code used by the “Farm Boy” in the movie, The Princess Bride. When he said, “As you wish,” what he really meant was, “I love you…”

What might happen to your conversations if you infused each one with a code – in which every statement was code for, “I care about you” or, “I love you” or, “You are awesome in my eyes…” Perhaps before you open your mouth you might start each conversation in your own mind with the unspoken thought, “I love and care about you, and so…” before speaking aloud, “Hasn’t the weather been nice lately?” Then listen through the same filter.

What might happen were you to think the thought, “I love and care about US and so…” before speaking aloud or listening to whatever comes next?

How might that tend to change “small talk” into “substantive conversations?” How might that affect the level of happiness and satisfaction in the relationship?


  • Psychological scientists Matthias R. Mehl, Shannon E. Holleran, and C. Shelby Clark from the University of Arizona, along with Simine Vazire of Washington University in St. Louis participated in the study, which was reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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