To some extent, someone is bound to come away from a conversation wishing it had been either shorter or longer simply because their desire will likely differ from that of the person they’re talking to. That’s something people can’t control, but what they can control is communicating their preferences effectively. And very often, they don’t. “Imagine how vexing [it] would be if friends almost never wanted to eat the same thing and almost always kept that fact from each other,” Mastroianni and his fellow researchers write. “Under those circumstances, a friend who loved pizza and a friend who loved sushi might end up eating liverwurst sandwiches—often, in silence, and to their mutual chagrin.”
One reason people end up with the conversational equivalent of liverwurst is that it’s difficult to simultaneously do three things: end an interaction, be honest, and be considered polite. “You may not have the vocabulary to shut down the conversation without feeling that you’re going to be rude, so you endure listening to other people far longer than you’d actually want to,” Robert Feldman, the author of The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships, told me.
Without such a vocabulary, people frequently come up with excuses, honest or not, for needing to leave. At a party, you might excuse yourself to refresh your drink. At work, you might mention an upcoming meeting. During a Zoom happy hour, when excuses are harder to come by, you might blame a bad internet connection or an impending meal.
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This tactic, Feldman said, deflects blame for ending the conversation onto an obligation beyond someone’s control, and is generally accepted as polite. This notion of politeness, though, is pretty ridiculous: It demands a “valid” reason to leave, which basically requires pretending that the ideal conversation would never end.
One particularly powerful conversation stopper is “I’ll let you go,” a sort of Jedi mind trick that merits some unpacking. Ostensibly, you’re communicating that you would love for the conversation to continue, but that you understand the other person has more important things to tend to. Really, it’s a way of saying you want the conversation to end but making it sound like the other person’s idea. It’s disingenuous, but because it’s also flattering, it’s socially acceptable.
But perhaps we’re overthinking. “Everyone can rest assured that very few people are hurt when a conversation ends,” Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School who teaches a class there about improving conversation, told me.
Brooks’s sense is that specific excuses are less necessary than people think. When I asked her how she’d recommend ending a pleasant interaction that’s nonetheless lasting too long, she suggested something like “I’ve loved this conversation. We have so much more to discuss, but I have to scoot—talk to you soon.” A couple notes: If you’re going to say “Talk to you soon,” you should keep that promise, even if it’s just with a follow-up text; if you didn’t love the conversation, you don’t have to reveal that. Just bid farewell and part ways.