Why is it that some conversations end naturally, while others become an unending exercise in awkwardness? One person talks on and on, while the other fidgets uncomfortably, tries to insert an excuse to leave, or maybe just backs away slowly into the distance.
If you’re wondering about the right way to exit a conversation like this, a study conducted by a graduate student at San Jose State University offers some suggestions. (The paper is from 1989, but the dynamics of awkward conversations don’t appear to have changed much since then.)
The paper analyzes 350 different “conversational retreat tactics” – ways to end a conversation that is desired by one party but not the other – among 145 participants, and then performs a statistical analysis on people’s responses. The chart below graphs those responses on a horizontal access of how efficient they are at getting you out of a conversation and a vertical axis of how socially appropriate they are.
The more successful behaviors on the top right include politely hinting that it’s time for you to go, turning the tables (“You must be busy,” or “I’d better let you get on with your work”), or making excuses. You can also make what the author calls “closing statements” — “Well, take care,” “It was really nice to see you” or cliché conversation summaries like, “They just don’t build them like they used to” — or enlist the help of a third party. Changing the subject was found to be socially acceptable but not very effective at ending a conversation, while being rude and just simply disappearing were the opposite — effective, but not ways to win friends and influence people.
In the bottom left are the behaviors you should really avoid, those that are neither effective nor very nice. They include being non-responsive (staring off into space, grunting your responses) and restlessness (acting uneasy or impatient, shifting your weight from one foot to the other, prematurely packing up your things or taking out your keys).
Try to avoid those tactics, but let’s be honest — if your conversation partner doesn’t get the hint after all this, they probably deserve to be interrupted.