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Research

A Meeting to Plan Fun With Friends?

Setting Expectations Can Benefit Even Casual Get-togethers, UMD Marketing Research Finds

By Carrie Handwerker

Friends talk over coffee

A brief meeting about what participants want to get out of a coming social experience can actually enhance that experience, according to research from the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Photo by iStock

Coffee with a friend, a meeting at the pub, a group trek to an exhibit or movie opening—all experiences best left to unfold spontaneously, right?

In fact, just as goal-setting meetings can help teams be more productive in the workplace, a recently published study from a University of Maryland research team shows they can also help you get the most out of activities in your personal life.

When people take a few minutes to make sure they’re on the same page about what they hope to get out of an experience, they’ll have a better time and be less likely to leave disappointed, according to the study led by Rebecca Ratner, the Dean’s Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, that appeared in the Journal of Marketing Research.

She worked with Yuechen Wu Ph.D. ’19, now at Johns Hopkins University; Nicole You Jeung Kim Ph.D. ’21, now at Hong Kong Polytechnic University; and Rebecca Hamilton at Georgetown University, who found that people don’t often have goal-setting conversations before a leisure activity, and they enjoy the experience less because of it.

“There’s uncertainty. When you are with another person, you don’t really know what that person wants to get out of the experience,” Ratner said. “People become too worried about how they should act.”

Ratner and her co-researchers conducted several experiments sending people into art galleries either alone or with a companion to study how well they were able to focus on the art and how much they enjoyed the experience.

When a participant didn’t know whether their companion was truly interested in studying the art or more interested in just hanging out and casually observing the pieces, they themselves focused less on the art and socialized less.

“They end up sort of frozen,” Ratner said.

A very brief discussion beforehand about what each person wanted to get out of the gallery visit made all the difference: “They each learned more about the art, got more out of the experience overall, and felt better able to socialize,” she said.

But when given the option in the experiment, participants choose not to have an expectation-setting meeting before activities. Ratner said people don’t take opportunities to get this clarity because they seem to think the conversation won’t help and that it will be uncomfortable—more like work with a goal-setting meeting. In reality, the conversation was much less awkward than feared, study participants reported.

The quick conversation benefitted both participants no matter how well they knew each other, she said. And having clarity helped even when the partners had different goals.

“It is better for it to be clear that you have different goals than to be not sure whether you have different goals,” said Ratner.

And in some cases, you might even find you’re better off going alone, she said.

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