When conversations flow

Social Validation

Another way to interpret the feeling of being out of sync with each other is as a signal of having little in common with your interaction partner. You could for instance think of a date in which no matter how hard you try, you do not succeed in keeping the conversation going. After having a dinner in which you put a lot of effort in preventing awkward silences from occurring, you probably decide that your date and you may not be such a good match. You may even assume that because the conversation is not progressing fluently, you and your date may have little in common and have different worldviews. You may literally “not be on the same wavelength”. On the other hand, when you and your date would have had a conversation characterized by smooth turn-taking and absence of awkward pauses, you might have perceived this as evidence that the two of you have a lot in common and see the world in similar terms.

As this situation describes, people often try to validate their opinions to those of others. That is, people like to see others as having similar ideas or worldviews as they have themselves, because this informs people that they are correct and their worldviews are justified (Cialdini, 2009; Koudenburg, Postmes, & Gordijn, 2011b; Ross, Greene, & House, 1977). One way in which people can justify their worldviews is by assuming that, as long as their conversations run smoothly, their interaction partners probably agree with them. We have tested this idea that conversational flow signals consensus (or agreement) in a video paradigm (Koudenburg et al., 2011a). Participants imagined being one out of three people in a video clip who had either a fluent conversation or a conversation in which flow was disrupted by a brief silence. Except for the silence, the videos were identical. After watching the video, participants were asked to what extent the people in the video agreed with each other. Participants who watched the fluent conversation rated consensus to be higher than participants watching the conversation that was disrupted by a silence. Moreover, participants who imagined being one of the people in the fluent conversation felt more socially validated than participants who imagined being in a conversation in which flow was disrupted. This study suggests that conversational flow serves as a proxy for acceptance and consensus: As long as the conversation proceeds smoothly, what we say is accepted and thus we probably agree. Interestingly, the effects occurred even though participants were not consciously aware of the disruption. It appears that the subjective feeling of being out of sync informs people of possible disagreements, regardless of the content of the conversation (Koudenburg et al., 2011a).

The idea that conversational flow could lead to social validation complements existing theories about social validation, which tend to focus on the way in which people make explicit social comparisons by consciously comparing the content of their opinions to those of similar others (e.g., Festinger, 1954). Our research suggests that a more implicit route to social validation might be an important one, too: People do not always compare their opinions with those of others, but they may oftentimes validate their opinions by deriving a general feeling of consensus from fluent conversations. On the other hand, in the case of disfluency – for instance instigated by a silent moment – people may attend more closely to what is actually being said by others.


The research described in this paper shows that people infer information from conversational flow that is not revealed by the content of the conversation. More specifically, people infer a sense of belonging and social validation from the fluency of their interactions with others. These inferences seem to be independent of what has actually been said. Because people are generally so well-trained in having smooth conversations, any disruption of this flow indicates that something is wrong, either interpersonally or within the group as a whole. Consequently, people who do not talk very easily may be incorrectly understood as being less agreeable than those who have no difficulty keeping up a conversation. On a societal level, one could even imagine that a lack of conversational flow may hamper the integration of immigrants who do not completely master the language of their new country yet. In a similar sense, the ever-increasing number of online conversations may be disrupted by misinterpretations and distress that are produced by insuperable delays in the Internet connection. Keeping in mind the effects of conversational flow for feelings of belonging and validation may help one to be prepared to avoid such misunderstandings in future conversations.

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