With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in March 2013.
We’ve done several articles on the Art of Manliness covering the wonderful art of conversation, from its dos and donts, to how to make small talk, to avoiding the dreaded plague of conversational narcissism.
A comment each of those posts invariably received was, “This is great. But, uh, how do you end a conversation?”
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I get it. Warm, stimulating conversation can be one of the greatest satisfactions in life. But, unfortunately not all conversations are created equal. Some are more pain than pleasure. Maybe you strenuously avoid conversational narcissism yourself, but you’re stuck talking to someone who’s a master practitioner of the conversation-as-monologue method. Perhaps you’re always getting caught by an annoying co-worker or neighbor who bends your ear complaining about the new prices in the cafeteria or waxes poetic on the joys of owning a Kia. It may not be that you don’t like the person or enjoy his conversation, either. You may go to a party or networking event hoping to meet a lot of different folks but find yourself pinned down for a long time by one fellow. He’s likable enough, but you spy people having a good time in other parts of the house and wonder what you’re missing out on. Or you may simply genuinely have something you need to do, and you just don’t have time for the conversation at the moment, even though you wish you did.
We would all be well-served by striving to engage in more face-to-face conversations, taking the time to listen to others, and doing our best to add to the back and forth of our daily interactions. But there are times when the conversation is truly going nowhere and/or we need to go somewhere. So yes, the question naturally arises . . . how do you end a conversation without making it overly awkward or offending the other person?
It isn’t easy. Approaching someone might make you nervous but it consists entirely of positive behaviors – coming over, smiling, starting some small talk. Exiting a conversation, on the other hand, is made up of negative behaviors – stopping talking, backing away. No matter how amiable your intentions, the person can feel like you’re rejecting them. This isn’t a big deal if you’re never going to see the person again, but if you will, you don’t want things to be awkward (and you truly don’t ever know for sure whether you’ll meet someone again, so why burn any bridges?). And if the person is actually someone you do want to see in the future, but you just don’t have the time to talk to them at length at the moment, you want to solidify your connection and leave things on a positive note.
There’s no magic formula for making an exit that guarantees the person won’t take offense. But there are several things you can do to disengage in the smoothest, most dignified way possible – minimizing the awkwardness, sparing the person’s feelings as much as you can, and shoring up your rapport with someone you want to reconnect with later.
These tips may be combined or used separately depending on your situation. Many apply both to face-to-face conversations and those conducted over the phone.
Have a clear purpose/agenda in mind. Whether you’re going to a party, a networking event, or simply the bathroom, have an agenda in mind for what you want to accomplish. Do you want to meet a lovely lady? Make a connection with someone who can help you redesign your website? Empty your throbbing bladder? Whenever you’re trapped in a conversation, you’re torn between potentially hurting someone’s feelings by moving on and wanting to do something else. Having a clear purpose in mind for what you want to get done gives you the motivation to choose the latter. It also gives you some easy-to-create exit lines, as we’ll discuss below.
Wait for a lull in the conversation. “Well.” “Okay.” “Anyway.” “So.” Such words emerge when a conversation has momentarily stalled. They’re turning points where either a new topic can be introduced, or the conversation may draw to a close. As such, they’re the perfect opportunity to begin to disengage. The speaker will say “So,” with an upward lilt in the voice, hopeful of the continuation of the conversation. You answer with a tone of more downbeat finality: “So.” And then you quickly transition into your exit line. “So, listen, it’s been great catching up with you . . .”
Bring the conversation around to the reason