It has been smooth talking to you

Have you ever had the experience that, no matter how hard you tried, it was impossible to keep a conversation going? If you did, it is quite likely that you ended up feeling that you and the other person just didn’t get along well. Which may have been true…

But now imagine yourself having an online conversation in which you are similarly unable to have a smooth conversation with the person on the other side. Not only are there awkward silences, but you also interrupt each other frequently. You get uncomfortable, and start questioning whether you might have said something that upset the person, or whether he or she may have lost interest. It seems like the lack of flow in the conversation has unconsciously created a barrier between you and the other speaker.Although this barrier may have been caused by actual flaws in your relationship, it is also possible that brief delays “on the line” obstructed establishing a close social connection.

Conversational Form

Resent research shows that people derive a sense of connection not only from the content of a conversation, but also by seemingly trivial characteristics in the form of conversation. A single 4-second silence, a brief interruption, or a simple lack of conversational flow is enough to inform people that there must be some kind of disagreement, or else, that there is a problem in the relationship (Koudenburg, Postmes, & Gordijn, 2011; 2013a).

What if I know that the lack of flow is caused by a technical delay?

In two studies, we manipulated the online conversation by introducing a delay, while we told participants that there was a problem with their internet connection. The result? People still experienced less belonging with the person on the other side than when the conversation was smoothly flowing (Koudenburg et al., 2013a). It thus seems that people are not able to correct for the effects of such brief delays in their online conversations.

Why do silences hurt?

Suppose that you have a smooth conversation among friends and at a certain moment, you express your opinion on, say, smoking in public areas:

“I think we should ban all smoking from public life. People who smoke give children a bad example.”

But after you finished your sentence, your friends don’t respond for a few seconds. You start feeling awkward and all sorts of questions arise:

“Did I touch a tender spot? Are we on a completely different wavelength? Do they think I am stupid?”

People are very sensitive to cues that signal a potential threat to their feelings of belonging. We know that ‘silencing someone’ is a very painful form of social exclusion (Williams, 2001). In one of our studies, we showed that a very brief, 4-seconds silence is enough to elicit feelings of rejection, and thus threaten one’s fundamental need to belong (Koudenburg, et al., 2011).


So how do people respond, when the expression of their opinion results in an awkward silence? Well, because people experience a silence as threatening, they will try to restore their belonging to the group. Indeed, we found that if a silence occurred after people had given their opinion, those who were highly motivated to belong shifted their opinion to be more in line with the group norm (Koudenburg, Postmes, & Gordijn, 2013b). In other words: the threat of a silence was relieved by conformity.

So, what can we learn from all this? First, content is just one aspect of a conversation and subtle characteristics within the form of conversation reveal a lot about our relationship to the other speaker. Building relationships can be obstructed by something as subtle as a dodgy internet connection. But, most of all, the impact of conversational flow and silences tell us that there is more to a conversation than words that are spoken between people.


Relevant Publications and Links

Koudenburg, N., & Postmes, T., & Gordijn, E. H. (2011). Disrupting the Flow: How Brief Silences in Group Conversations Affect Social Needs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (2), 512-515. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.12.006 

Koudenburg, N., Postmes, T., & Gordijn, E. H(2013a). Conversational Flow Promotes Solidarity.  PlosONE, 8(11),e78363. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078363.

Koudenburg, N., Postmes, T., & Gordijn, E. H. (2013b). Resounding Silences: Subtle Norm Regulation in Group Interaction. Social Psychology Quarterly, 76 (3), 224-241. doi:10.1177/0190272513496794.


NOTE: “Conversation” by Thomas Szynkiewicz, is licenced under CC BY 2.0

Dr. Namkje Koudenburg is an Associate Professor in Social Psychology. She is broadly interested in group dynamics and communication, and specifically on the question how everyday communications may work to catalyze polarization and social change. She obtained her PhD (cum laude) in 2014 at the University of Groningen, working together with Tom Postmes and Ernestine H. Gordijn. In this research, she focused on the role of conversational flow and silences in the emergence and regulation of social relationships. She received early career awards from the European Association of Social Psychology (EASP) and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and several dissertation awards, among others by the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (SESP). In 2017, Dr. Koudenburg received a VENI-grant for her research project on the role of communication in social change. For more information, please visit her website.

Selected Publications

  • Koudenburg, N., Kiers, H. A. L., & Kashima, Y. (2021). A new Opinion Polarization Index developed by integrating expert judgments. Frontiers in Psychology. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.738258.

  • Koudenburg, N., Kashima, Y. (2021). A Polarized Discourse: Effects of Opinion Differentiation and Structural Differentiation on Communication. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Doi: 10.1177/01461672211030816

  • Koudenburg, N., Kannegieter, A. Postmes, T., Kashima, Y. (2020). The subtle spreading of sexist norms. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations.

  • Roos, C. A., Koudenburg, N., & Postmes, T. (2021). Dealing with disagreement: The depolarizing effects of everyday diplomatic skills face-to-face and online. New Media & Society.

  • Van Mourik Broekman, A., Koudenburg, N., Gordijn, E.H., Krans, K., & Postmes, T. (2019). The Impact of Art: Exploring the social-psychological pathways that connect audiences to live performances. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(6), 942-965. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000159

  • Koudenburg, N., Gordijn, E.H., & Postmes, T. (2017). Beyond Content of Conversation: The Role of Conversational Form in the Emergence and Regulation of Social Structure. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(1), 50-71.

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