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A little chit-chat provides a nice boost for male but not female negotiators, study suggests

August 4, 2014

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, +1 (718) 398-7642 or +1 (917) 903-9287,

A common feature of what may be the world's most fundamental business activity -- participating in negotiations -- seems to be a boon for men but not for women. 

New research on negotiations to be presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management  (Philadelphia, Aug. 1-5) finds that men who engage in small talk before getting down to business, compared to those who launch right into the matter at hand, not only make a much more favorable impression but get better results as well. In contrast, women negotiators seem to gain little if anything from such niceties. 

The study, entitled "Should We Chit-Chat?" finds, in the words of the authors, that "engaging in small talk enhanced perceptions of communality, liking, and satisfaction with the relationship in men but not women. Men benefited from using small talk by receiving more favorable final offers when they engaged in small talk than when they did not." 

Collaborating on the study were Alexandra A. Mislin of American University, Brooke A. Shaughnessy of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, and Tanja Hentschel and Claudia Peus of Technische Universität München. 

The findings may come as a bit of a surprise to some students of business behavior, because earlier research has found small talk to be a plus for negotiators in general -- a means of conveying an impression of benevolence, trustworthiness, and cooperativeness and of minimizing the likelihood of an impasse. Probing in a controlled experiment how gender interacts with small talk, as the study for the AOM meeting does, throws new light on the subject. 

Comments Prof. Mislin: "It isn't as if women ought to shun small talk: nothing we found suggests that it does any harm, and maybe women just have to do it better than men. For men, the principal message of this study is clear: you've got more to gain from a small investment in chit-chat than you may realize." 

What accounts for the gender variance that emerges from the new research? Differing stereotypes and the expectations that derive from them, the study concludes. In the words of the paper, "As compared to women, men are described as less communal, and, thus, for example, as less communicative, sociable, or concerned about others... Because for men communality is not assumed, they may profit a great deal from showing communal behaviors." 

In contrast, the authors add, "research shows that too much communal behavior from men -- for example, when taking on the role of a stay-at-home parent -- may lead to social penalties. Men appear to receive a bonus for smaller communal behaviors, while they are penalized for more extensive [ones]. In negotiation contexts, small talk would be perceived as a small communal behavior, not expected from men and therefore yielding tangible benefits." 

As for women, although they are typically expected to behave communally, "lack of small talk [in negotiations] is likely to be perceived as a minor violation rather than a major violation of social norms and thus unworthy of backlash." In sum, as long as women don't negotiate "too forcefully or rigidly, [they] will not have broken gender norms by omitting small talk...Therefore, evaluations of women's communality may not differ whether they actually show communal behavior (i.e, small talk) or not." 

The study's findings emerge from an experiment involving 202 individuals from an online community where people participate in studies in return for small monetary compensation. As part of a 2x2 experimental design, subjects were asked to read a transcript and evaluate a negotiator named either JoAnna or Andrew who either does or does not engage in small talk at the outset of a negotiation. At issue is whether the department of parks (represented by JoAnna/Andrew) or the department of libraries (represented by someone of undisclosed gender named Riley McGee) will gain possession of a parcel of town land. In half the transcripts JoAnna/Andrew suggests the negotiators get right down to business, while in the other transcripts, which were otherwise identical to those in the first group, Joanna/Andrew initiates a small amount of small talk about the quality of restaurants in town and a local sports team. 

After reading the transcripts, subjects were asked to respond to a series of statements about JoAnna/Andew on the extent of their communality (cooperativeness and willingness to compromise) and likability. On a scale of 1 to 5, JoAnna was rated roughly equal in terms of communality (3.22 versus 3.02) and likability (3.43 versus 3.11) whether or not she engaged in small talk. But Andrew was rated significantly higher in both when he chit-chatted than when he didn't (a mean of 4.81 versus 3.21 on communality and a mean of 3.82 versus 3.27 on likability). 

In a further test, the researchers asked participants a hypothetical question. Suppose, they asked, JoAnna/Andrew provisionally agreed to let Riley's department have the parcel of land in return for a payment to the parks department of $10,000 a year. Suppose, further, that Riley's boss had previously assumed he would have to pay $15,000 a year. If you were in Riley's shoes, subjects were asked, how much would you offer to pay in the final agreement with JoAnna/Andrew? 

For JoAnna, the amounts subjects came up with were not statistically significant -- $10,090 if she had engaged in small talk and $10,195 if she had not. For Andrew it was a very different story: the offer averaged $10,243 if he had gotten right down to business and $10,872 if he had chit-chatted.  

Comments Prof. Shaugnessy in conclusion: "The bottom line for male negotiators is that small talk not only makes a good impression but can result in a nice cash bonus. For women, negotiations will always be socially risky, and it appears they need to find other ways than small talk to cultivate a positive regard in their counterparts." 

Entitled "Should We Chit-Chat? Benefits of Small Talk for Male but not Female Negotiators," the study will be among some 4,000 research reports to be presented at the Academy of Management  annual meeting, in Philadelphia from August 1to 5. Founded in 1936, the Academy of Management is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has about 19,200 members in 118 countries. This year's annual meeting will draw some 10,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, organizational behavior, corporate governance, careers, human resources, technology development, and other management-related topics.

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