Later this year, if all goes well, Americans will be awash in social interactions again. At offices and schools, on sidewalks and in coffee shops, we’ll be bumping into one another like it’s 2019.
The resulting flood of conversations will be extremely welcome. But less front of mind, at this still socially stifled moment, are the awkwardness and discomfort that will return along with day-to-day interactions. The co-worker who yammers on, the chatty subway seatmate who keeps you from reading your book, the friend of a friend who bores you at parties—they are all very excited to see you again, and have lots to catch you up on.
Perhaps this period before social life fully resumes is an occasion to revisit what we want from conversations and, more to the point, how we end them.
In this regard, people generally have a poor sense of timing. “Conversations almost never ended when both conversants wanted them to,” concluded the authors of a study published earlier this month that asked people about recent interactions with loved ones, friends, and strangers. About two-thirds of them said they wanted the conversation to end sooner; on average, that group wanted the conversation to be about 25 percent shorter, Adam Mastroianni, a psychology doctoral student at Harvard and a co-author of the study, told me.
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.
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.
Mastroianni brought up a related thread of research on conversations, about how people often enjoy exchanges with those they don’t normally talk with frequently or at all—even when they don’t expect to. This insight, combined with Brooks’s observation about people generally being okay with conversations ending, yields a useful maxim for post-pandemic socializing: Don’t avoid conversations, but also don’t hesitate to extract yourself from them when you run out of things to talk about.
In order to heed that advice, Brooks encourages people to experiment with different tactics and find what she calls their “assertive-exit comfort zone.” As I warm up for more social interactions later this year, I’ll be searching for mine.