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 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 awkwardness 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 by both – among 145 participants, and then performs a statistical analysis on people’s responses. The chart above 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.
Being rude or simply vanishing are more efficient than they are appropriate, while fidgeting awkwardly or just becoming unresponsive are neither. The best ways? Making a closing statement such as “Well, it was nice to see you,” turning the tables on someone (“You must be busy”), enlisting the help of a third party, politely hinting it’s time for you to go, or fabricating an excuse. Yes, little white lies are always polite.
Tip of the hat to Co.Design.