Advice For Your Dinner Party Stories: Keep It Familiar

May 17, 2017
Originally published on May 30, 2017 10:14 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, I want you to think about the last time when you were at a dinner party and you were telling a story to your friends. Maybe you were talking about that exotic vacation you just got back from, maybe a brand new movie you saw that no one else had seen. Well, there's some new social science research suggesting that you might be better off talking about experiences that your audience also has had. And to understand why this is, we are joined by NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. Hey, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So what's wrong with talking about a movie you've seen that no one else has seen? Is that a problem?

VEDANTAM: Well, it kind of is a problem, David, because what happens very often when you do that is that you leave your audience with blank stares. I was talking with psychologist Dan Gilbert at Harvard...

GREENE: And you don't want that. You never want a table full of blank stares (laughter).

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Gilbert told me that people who tell you about a movie that they've seen that you haven't seen often end up confusing you.

DAN GILBERT: They say, oh, there's this guy. He's a detective, and he lives in New York. And he's got this girlfriend. And then they go to this place. And you're just thinking, what, what, who? So we get lost very quickly when other people are speaking because most people are not particularly talented at telling stories.

GREENE: OK, I got totally confused when he was describing that movie. So is this a problem because I, as a listener, am sort of just totally left out?

VEDANTAM: That's right. Now, it's also possible that envy may be a part of this. If you tell me, David, that you're off to Maui tomorrow, I might end up feeling envious of you. And so that earlier research has actually shown that one reason that stories about experiences we haven't had are less satisfying to us is that they can leave us feeling left out. But what Gilbert and his colleagues Gus Cooney and Timothy Wilson are finding here is a different phenomenon. A common assumption that both storytellers and listeners are making turns out to be wrong.

GILBERT: Speakers tend to think that listeners will most enjoy hearing novel stories - that is, stories about experiences the listeners haven't had. And that makes perfectly good sense. We think of communication as an attempt to tell people things they don't already know. But what our experiments revealed was that listeners actually far preferred to hear stories about experiences they had already had.

GREENE: Shankar, how did Gilbert do experiments here? Did he hang out at hundreds of dinner parties or what?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter). Well, he did something much easier but less interesting, David. He and his colleagues exposed people to stories about novel and familiar experiences. And what they found is that stories about familiar experiences were enjoyed much more than stories about novel experiences. Now, it's not that people don't want to hear about new stories. You know, we go to movies. We read books. The reason we don't enjoy such stories told by our friends is that storytelling is really hard, and most people we meet aren't great storytellers.

GILBERT: Most of us, when we tell stories, leave all sorts of things out. As a result, if our listeners aren't already familiar with the topic we're talking about, they get lost really, really quickly.

VEDANTAM: One of the things that Gilbert recommends, David, is that at your next dinner party you should spend less time talking about experiences that only you've had and more time talking about experiences that your listeners have also had. So when you talk about a movie that your friend has also seen, your friend is going to compensate for your weaknesses as a storyteller by remembering context and atmosphere and all the things that made the movie memorable in the first place.

To put it another way, Gilbert says we tend to think of stories as if they are fruit. We think old stories are rotten and should be avoided. He says it's better to think of stories as if they are wine. They get better with age.

GREENE: That's wonderful.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GREENE: Shankar, thank you as always.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That is Shankar Vedantam, NPR's social science correspondent. And he is also the host of a podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It is called Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.