Help, I'm trapped in a conversation and I can't get out
September 12, 2007 10:14 AM   Subscribe

How do I end a conversation politely?

Sometimes I find myself trapped in seemingly endless conversations which I am completely uninterested in continuing. Interlocutors can range from "Crazy Homeless Guy," to "Drunk Friendly Guy In Bar" to "Work Colleague Guy" to "Social Acquaintance Guy" to "Boring Relative Guy." Some of these, at least, are people to whom I don't want to be an asshole, or whom I don't want to offend. What are some good ways to end such a conversation with a maximum of efficiency but (and this is important) a minimum of dickishness?
posted by dersins to Human Relations (37 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
"Can we pick this up later? I gotta go" always works for me, if there's a place I can go. As for Drunk Friendly Guy in Bar, go to the bathroom when you're done your drink. Then come back and sit somewhere else.
posted by solid-one-love at 10:19 AM on September 12, 2007

Well, I've gotta get going.
posted by callmejay at 10:20 AM on September 12, 2007

"Oh, man! I have to pee really bad all of a sudden! Excuse me..."
posted by mds35 at 10:22 AM on September 12, 2007

"I don't want to monopolize your time and I've got tons of stuff to finish up, so..." and then end it appropriately by saying good-bye and walking away or signing off on a phone conversation.
posted by cooker girl at 10:23 AM on September 12, 2007

At large bars or events where drinks are served, I sometimes chug my drink and say "I'm going to get another drink -- good talking with you" as an excuse to get away and move on. This doesn't work if your interlocutor also needs a drink, as he/she will just follow you. It can also lead to excessive drinking if there are a lot of boring/annoying people around, but excessive drinking might be called for in that situation anyway.
posted by brain_drain at 10:25 AM on September 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

Say "Listen, I'm sorry, I gotta go" and then have some reason ready why you have to go; like, you have laundry in the machine at home, or you have a business meeting you have to get to, or anything really. Just say it as if you're really sincere about it.

Or if you're in a bar and you don't want to leave the bar, you just want to stop talking to that guy and talk to your friend/girlfriend/whoever else, then say that you have to talk to your friend because his mother just died, or you have to go talk to your girlfriend/boyfriend because he/she's upset about something or has manic depression or PMS or just got diagnosed with prostate cancer or anything really. A good friend or partner will let themselves get scapegoated for a good cause. Just act like you're sincere.

All you have to do is lie, really.
posted by creasy boy at 10:26 AM on September 12, 2007

there must be something else you have to do -- a phone call, an errand, a project -- that will give you an excuse to get away. Keep it light when you do. It helps to pick the right moment in the coversation (a lull or funny moment perhaps). Tell the person you look forward to speaking again, even if you don't -- a harmless lie that will get you away as a decent guy.
posted by terrier319 at 10:27 AM on September 12, 2007

"Well I suppose I should let you get back to [the party, work, your spouse etc.] now, but it was really good talking to you!"
posted by triggerfinger at 10:32 AM on September 12, 2007

The question reminded me of a lifehacker article I recently read.
posted by donut at 10:34 AM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

"Listen, I'd better let you go. This was great! Talk to you soon."
posted by jamesonandwater at 10:34 AM on September 12, 2007

I knew a bald chick who always said "Sorry, I have to go wash my hair." when she wanted to brush someone off.

Loved her dearly.
posted by rokusan at 10:38 AM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

a lot of these seem good, but personally I hate to hear "I should let you go," and equivalents when I started the conversation-- it seems obvious that the person really means the opposite but is trying to hide it.
posted by lgyre at 10:41 AM on September 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

Imply it while you bring the conversation back to some point where you talked about doing something. Like start backing away slightly and say "well I have to go but we'll definitely have to do 'xyz' sometime".

"Well I'll have to talk to you later (starting to scoot the chair back) but thank you for recommending "efg", that's going to really come in handy"

Basically, through body language or actual speech, make it clear that you have to leave, then in the process of doing so, pick out the "takeaway point" from your conversation, reiterating it so that the person knows you valued what they said, then you bounce (leave).

If they didn't give you a single thing worthy of saying back to them, you probably don't care about just saying "okay, talk to you soon, I'm gonna run."

Alternatively, you can say you have to go and if you know where you'll see the person next, point that out. "Alright man, I've got to go but I'll catch you at the meeting tomorrow morning - bring the beach ball again, that was fun"

Just make it clear that you're leaving and then throw in that last paragraph of conversation after the verbal/body language split has occurred. It makes it clear you have to go and then the time that passes while you make your "here's what I'm taking away from this" statement should allow them to lose the immediacy of their desire to stop you from leaving.

Practice it right now - "Thanks for the answers guys, I should probably get off the net and back to work. I'm going to try some of these next week and hopefully have some success. Have a nice rest of your Wednesday!"
posted by cashman at 10:56 AM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

but personally I hate to hear "I should let you go,"

Ditto (and its variant: "Let me let you go.").

When you want to stay at the party or bar:
"I've really enjoyed chatting with you. I'm going to 'mix and mingle' a bit more."

"Thanks for the chat. It was intriguing. I'm going to catch up with my friend(s) now."
When you intend to leave a party/bar soon:
""Thanks for the conversation. I've got to go."

"Nice chatting with you. I'm heading out soon and want to say "goodbye" to my friends (and the host/hostess)."
posted by ericb at 11:01 AM on September 12, 2007

The key to exiting conversations is to act as if you've got all the time in the world. Everyone knows conversations must end. The key is to do it gracefully. The less you convey "Holy crap but I MUST END THIS CONVERSATION!" in your tone, body language or words, the more pleasant it is for everyone.

A general formula is, empathize with something the other person has said (and empathize implies being genuine), then seamlessly add on your exit. I find that practicing these aloud helps them not sound so dorky when I use them in real life.

Some examples:
Work Colleague Guy - "Wow, you sure did do a lot of work on that project." Then quickly add on "And now I really have to get back to work." If you need to interact with this person to accomplish something, request a meeting. "This is something that deserves more than a hallway conversation. Would you email me with some times to meet and we can resolve it efficiently. And now if you'll excuse me, I've got to finish X by this afternoon."
Social Acquaintance Guy - "I'm so glad to hear about...[reiterate something they've been talking about]. Then try to make a connection for them to someone else in the room/area. "You might be interested in what Jane's doing about XYZ." If necessary, you can bow out to be by yourself. I don't know why this is considered such a taboo. As long as you're polite, people are fine with it (in fact, they're often secretly impressed and resolve to do it themselves more often). "And now if you'll excuse me, it's been so long since I actually finished the business section before dinner."
Boring Relative Guy - "I'm so glad to hear about your [whatever they've been talking about]. And now I should really check in with [elder relative/infant/spouse/parent]. Good to talk!"
Drunk Friendly Guy In Bar - Proximity breeds conversation here. Move away after saying something like "Well, have a good evening."

On preview, I also hate "I should let you go." Seems such a one-down position to put yourself in, like you're pointing out to the other person that they're more important and they haven't made you feel important enough.
posted by cocoagirl at 11:03 AM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

One problem I have had is that some people seem to actually structure their conversations to make it more difficult for their interlocutors to get out of the conversation. Something about the way they tell stories, dragging them out, makes extrication nearly impossible. It's the "can't get a word in edgewise" problem. I'm serious, there are some people who literally structure their conversations like quicksand, that it's almost impossible for their partners to comfortably get out of.

With some people, you just have to make that uncomfortable leap to end the conversation. With these difficult conversationalists, the best way I can think of is to begin with an apology, then follow up with an explanation of why you must go. "Hey, I'm really sorry, I know you have a lot more you want to tell me, but I promised [X] that I would pick her up for lunch fifteen minutes ago and I am already late ..." That sort of thing. Acknowledge that your gregarious friend has more gregarity that he/she wants to share, and your regret to have to put an end to the gregarity, but you must, for reasons beyond your control, go.
posted by jayder at 11:03 AM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

"I have to return some tapes"
posted by boreddusty at 11:10 AM on September 12, 2007 [5 favorites]

Just walk away. It works best if you do it while you're the one talking. In the middle of a sentence you just
posted by The World Famous at 11:11 AM on September 12, 2007 [8 favorites]

For 'can't get a word in edgewise' people--pull your phone out of your pocket as if it just vibrated, pretend to read a text message, look alarmed/worried, and make up an appropriate story 'Sorry to cut you short, but that was my girlfriend, and her car just broke down.' If you don't want to leave the party, then it was your boss and you need to call him back right away. Step outside for some privacy, have a fake phone call, then when you go back inside, avoid Mr. Chatty McTalksalot.
posted by happyturtle at 12:02 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

nthing "I'll let you go now" as a poor tactic, for the reasons already cited plus this one: it's an invitation for the other person to reply, "Oh, I don't have anything important going on. You don't have to let me go." The less socially adept that person is, the less they'll see "I'll let you go" as a polite way of saying, "I'm ending this conversation now."

Obviously, you'll have to tailor your "goodbye" to the relationship you have with the person in question. Crazy Homeless Guy and Drunk Friendly Guy might elicit your sympathy, but you're not obligated to talk to a stranger. Say nothing, walk away, cut them off mid-sentence. If they bug you about it, it's not dickish (considering the situation at hand) to say, "I'd rather be left alone," or "I don't want to talk to you right now, sorry." If you have the cojones, and depending on the specific situation, "Dude, get the fuck away from me" is dickish for sure, but it communicates clearly that you're a)not up for conversation, b)not fun to talk to, and c)not a sucker.

What's worked for me with more important relations (most of the time-- see below) is waiting for a break in the conversation and simultaneously standing up while saying, "All right, I'm gonna get going (or I'm gonna say hi to some people, or I'm gonna grab a drink). Talk to you later." The important part is the "Talk to you later" part, because you can use it to end every sentence from that point on if the person persists.

One of my friends was terrible about hanging on to every occasion where we met, whether it was planned or coincidental. Most of it was due to some rough emotional times he was on, but that made it even more annoying to deal with him because his troubles made him really cranky and not very conversational. He wouldn't pick up on subtle clues, or not-so-subtle clues ("I need to go now. See you later!") Anyhow, after one particular incident that really pushed my buttons, I sat down and sent him an email that just said, "Look man, we're friends and all, but I can't have you following me around. If I say I need to go, I need to go. I'm sorry you're having troubles, but you're not helping yourself by doing this." He apologized and we're much better friends now that he respects my boundaries.

From your OP, it seems that your real problem is that you want two things at once-- to end a conversation with someone you don't want to talk to, and for that person to happily agree that yes, this conversation is lame and should end. Since that probably will never happen, your real task is to manage your feelings of being "dickish" when you have to tell people something they don't want to hear. In these situations, try telling yourself, "One of us is gonna feel uncomfortable here. If I stay and talk, it'll be me, so I'll have to accept that and my discomfort will the price I'll have to pay. If I end the conversation, it'll be the other person, so their discomfort will be the price I have to pay." Then decide what you're willing to "pay," and act accordingly. Once you realize you're making a choice in a somewhat "lose-lose" situation, I'm betting you won't feel so bad about making the selfish choice.
posted by Rykey at 12:10 PM on September 12, 2007

I never say stuff like "I'm sure you're busy so I'll let you get back to X" because I've had people say "I'm not busy at all!" and then I am fucked. I like to blame a third party. I will normally say something like, "Well I gotta go, I am meeting my friend to do something in 20 minutes" or "Boyfriend wants me to run an errand with him, so I'll talk to you later." It's great because the person I want to get away from can't really argue with it, and they can believe that I wish I could keep talking but I am simply needed elsewhere.
posted by gatorae at 12:55 PM on September 12, 2007

"Do you want a drink/coffee/Diet Coke"

closely followed on the way to get the drink by:

"Oh X have you met Y, I must introduce you."
posted by roofus at 1:38 PM on September 12, 2007

are you a hot chick by any chance?

just give it time

in lieu of that, just start ignoring the other person, then at some point just get up and leave and say "nice talking to you"
posted by Salvatorparadise at 1:39 PM on September 12, 2007

Ask "Do you know where the bathroom is?"
posted by Sara Anne at 1:56 PM on September 12, 2007

With the continual talkers, after a couple of body-language hints have been ignored, I say (while holding up a hand) "Actually, sorry, let me interrupt you there. This is great and I've really enjoyed talking about it, but I have to get going. So , good luck, and I'll see you tomorrow" or whatever.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:57 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Try watching other people's behavior and you'll start to see how other people do it. You don't need an excuse, you just need to learn the social cues, and get better at actually stopping talking and moving on.
posted by theora55 at 2:18 PM on September 12, 2007

Lurch suddenly, giggle, and look downward. As you turn to leave, murmur "It's on vibrate...."
posted by rob511 at 3:51 PM on September 12, 2007

This. This. This.

Plus there's always the point-and-run: "Hey, look over there!" It's jerky, but it's worky.
posted by Reggie Digest at 4:07 PM on September 12, 2007

Heh, I know I'm guilty of the "I'm gonna let you go now" type of conversation ender (especially on the phone when things seem to be trailing off and I start fretting over not having anything new and interesting to add). I'm really glad this question got asked, AND that folks brought up so many good reasons why "well, I'd better let you get going" isn't really a 'nice' way of getting out of a conversation after all. Here I thought I was being polite!

Thank you, Mefites, for once again saving me from my own social buffoonery =)
posted by zeph at 4:10 PM on September 12, 2007

I have family members who don't know how to end a conversation but they don't keep talking either. They expect me to keep it going. When there's a pause, I just ask, "Anything else?" which is always answered in the negative so I quickly follow with, "OK, bye."

Now that I think about it, that would be a useful multi-purpose conversation breaker, especially the story-teller type. Just butt in and ask, "Is there anything else?" That gets the point across without making up some lame excuse.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:35 PM on September 12, 2007

All of the "Well, I've got to be going..." replies here don't really address the problem you have at the time, which is being trapped by the conversation. There doesn't ever seem to be a good time to interject that without it sounding blunt. Bottom line, you've got to take control of the conversation. Whatever the other person is talking about, say tennis, then interject a "hey that reminds me of a tennis story!", which can be a little white lie (i.e. total fiction) of only 20 seconds or so, and then you drop in the "Well, I've got to be going..." line. You want to be polite, and artful, but smooth.

/who says teaching English conversation in Japan never pays off?
posted by zardoz at 5:07 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

See now, the main person I have this problem with is my father. Because you could be talking to the guy for a half hour & he'll say nothing really... but the SECOND you say you have to go, suddenly he thinks of all of these things he immediately needs to ask you that he suddenly has decided are of great importance. When I have time, I'm going to go through all of these answers and see if ANY of them help. This was a great question.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:02 PM on September 12, 2007

"I have to return some videotapes."
posted by Demogorgon at 6:45 PM on September 12, 2007

Oops, missed boredrusty's comment.
posted by Demogorgon at 6:47 PM on September 12, 2007

...boreddusty. It's been a long day.
posted by Demogorgon at 6:48 PM on September 12, 2007

If the person comes into your office and you don't want to talk to them long, stand up and remain standing. Chances are, they won't sit either, and your body language will indicate that it will be a short conversation. Begin to walk towards the door in a way that invites them to follow if you must.

At a party, try to always have a half-full glass and when the conversation needs to end say, "Excuse me, I need to go fill my glass."

Then there is always what I have heard Bono (who I have always heard is extremely polite) says: "Well, I gotta run."
posted by 4ster at 7:50 PM on September 12, 2007

"Would you excuse me. I cut my foot before and my shoe is filling up with blood."
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:39 PM on September 12, 2007

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