No small talk: how conversation cards became our favorite way to connect

<span>We often mistakenly believe that others would be uninterested in chatting with us, when they might in fact welcome it, according to the authors of one study.</span><span>Photograph: Fiordaliso/Getty Images</span>
We often mistakenly believe that others would be uninterested in chatting with us, when they might in fact welcome it, according to the authors of one study.Photograph: Fiordaliso/Getty Images

Last summer I was at a friend’s barbecue when he pulled out a game called We’re Not Really Strangers. The small box contained cards featuring questions like “Do you think plants thrive or die in my care?” and “Do you think I’ve ever been fired from a job? What for?”

Prompted to share about ourselves or speculate about each other, we revealed funny, personal truths. During one round, everyone weighed in on whether or not they thought I was “a romantic”, which led me to process my love of love and simultaneous aversion to weddings out loud. Progressively, the cards became more probing: “What do you think my weakness is?” “What privileges do you think I have? Explain.”

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By the end of the evening, our small group felt like we’d hacked into a level of intimacy none of us had expected at a casual gathering.

Conversation card games like We’re Not Really Strangers, Let’s Get Deep and relationship therapist Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin have become more and more common at social events or date nights.

These games can be entertaining, but their popularity has more to do with the fact that they help to foster deep connection and intimacy, which can otherwise be elusive.

According to Pinterest, searches for “deep conversation starters” have risen 185% on the platform since 2022. “Questions for couples to reconnect” was up 480% while “hot seat questions” saw an 825% increase.

“Gen Zers and millennials really have this heightened desire for establishing more meaningful connections in 2024,” says Sydney Stanback, the global trends and insights lead at Pinterest. Stanback attributes this trend in part to the lingering effects of pandemic isolation.


Perhaps our collective existential crisis nixed our patience for small talk; now we want real talk, authenticity and to take full advantage of the time we’re able to share.

“People are generally more comfortable talking about things like mental health” post-pandemic, says psychologist Dr Patrice Le Goy. “It’s much more in the zeitgeist that people can talk a bit more freely about having a hard time, or their childhood trauma, or being in therapy. Having that kind of freedom makes people feel like they don’t need to always present such a polished, buttoned-up appearance to the world.”

Research shows that social support boosts both physical and mental health, with the authors of one study even calling connection “a pillar of lifestyle medicine”. Last year, the surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, released a framework to address the national loneliness epidemic he says is on par with tobacco use and obesity, and underpins social ills like violence, addiction and extremism.

Our appetite for guidance on how to deepen relationships speaks to the fact that today, people are often unsure of how to create and develop bonds on their own. A study from Stanford and the University of Chicago found that people “routinely ignore strangers in their close proximity”, partially because they “underestimate the positive consequences of social engagement and overestimate the negative consequences”. According to the authors, we often mistakenly believe that others would be uninterested in chatting with us, when they might in fact welcome it.

“We basically underestimated the happiness effect that we would get from just talking to a stranger,” says Xuan Zhao, a Stanford researcher and co-author of the study.

Zhao uses conversation cards in all her student workshops and asked her husband the famous “36 Questions to Fall in Love With Anyone” on their first date. She is also the co-creator of a forthcoming app called Flourish, which features science-backed strategies for improving users’ lives, including prompts for sparking deeper conversations.

“There is so much research about how we can build deeper connections with each other and take small actions to brighten our days, but there is what we call the ‘last-mile problem’ of science,” she tells me, “where people wonder how to implement research into their daily life.”

Zhao says conversation prompts give players social permission to pry a little deeper without risking interpersonal weirdness. “One of the barriers to asking deeper questions is that you don’t want to appear nosy,” she says. “‘Hey, when was the last time you cried in front of another person?’ You can’t just ask people these kinds of questions out of the blue.”

People want mechanisms for building friendship in adulthood

Evelyn Gosnell

Conversation prompts don’t always have to be intensely personal. According to behavioral scientist Evelyn Gosnell, who researched party conversations while creating the conversation card game No Small Talk, “it doesn’t matter what you’re talking about”. Cards simply help people break away from polite inquiries about who lives where and what everyone does for work, and understand each other more clearly.

“People want mechanisms for building friendship in adulthood,” says Gosnell.

Nonetheless, psychologist Le Goy notes that when playing with a deck of conversation cards, it’s important for people to feel free to skip cards if they’re uncomfortable answering them or don’t want to lay bare a particular struggle. “These prompts don’t become an automatic way to build relationships. You still have to do the work of understanding where people are, what they’re comfortable with and what their boundaries are,” she says.

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Conversation prompts are not the only tool for helping us deepen our relationships. More resources for nuanced friendship-building include author Priya Parker’s 2018 book The Art of Gathering and David Brooks’ new How to Know a Person. Brooks writes about listening and responding to others as an art form. Parker emphasizes the role of the host in intentionally creating structured gatherings that unite people around a shared experience, as opposed to just throwing them into a room with alcohol and a prayer – for instance, organizing a birthday party where each guest knows they’re expected to share a favorite positive memory of the person they’re celebrating.

I recently invited friends over for brunch and conversation cards. People shared vivid memories of childhood moments that made them see their parents as fallible humans for the first time, and revealed what skill they would like to wake up suddenly possessing (one wished for easy, universally effective charisma).

“I’m not sure how much to credit the cards versus our interesting selves,” said one guest afterwards. “But maybe that’s what the cards do – they let your interesting self out of its cage.”