“Hey man, I really need to be somewhere. I’ll talk to you later!”
“No you don’t. You Americans need an excuse for everything. Why don’t you just say, ‘I’m done with this conversation’? Why do you need to give me an excuse to be done talking?”
This was the uplifting conversation my friend Isaac had with a Brazilian exchange student recently. From our American perspective, this Brazilian seems pretty rude. But maybe Isaac was the one being rude.
Think about his experiences as an exchange student. After two years in America with a limited grasp on our language, every conversation has ended with an excuse. Many of them were true. Most of them were mumbled too fast to understand. But over time he got the point. Americans don’t have the courage to be honest. They aren’t willing to say that they’d rather be talking to someone else. They would rather blame their circumstances than end a conversation respectfully and graciously. They would rather drag out a conversation until they have an “out” than just end it. They do anything to be “polite.”
I don’t think that Isaac was being rude, but I do think that our culture ends conversations poorly. A lot of that is due to the fact that ending a conversation is already very hard. Maybe saying, “I’m done with this conversation,” isn’t the best solution, but there are better ways to end a conversation.
Why We (Think We) Need Excuses
“Well, the Jerk Store called. And they’re running out of you!”
—George Costanza, Seinfeld
Every conversation leaves an impression. While the details and the facial expressions and the punchlines fade from memory, the impressions stick with us. We might not remember the joke that made us think that guy from work is funny, but we still think he’s funny. We might not remember what our ex-girlfriend said to prove she is crazy, but we have no doubt that she is crazy. We can’t put into words why that Michael Bay movie sucked, but it just sucked.
Details fade. Impressions remain.
We use excuses to exit conversations because we care a lot about the impression we make. No one wants to be remembered as a jerk. No one wants to be misinterpreted as a butt-head. So we use excuses to leave a good impression. The impression we hope to leave is: “I like talking to you so much. You are so cool. If only I didn’t have this thing to do, I could continue basking in your presence. Darn, this other thing!”
But is that ever the case? Have you ever ended a conversation at a point where there was so much more to be said? No. By the time you end a conversation you are more than ready to be done. And so is the other person. By using an excuse you’re just trying to leave a false impression. You want to be remembered as that super-likable guy. The one who has interesting things to say for hours. The Cinderella that left the ball too early. The one who got away.
But are conversations with you actually that interesting? No. No they are not. If you want to leave a good impression, exiting a conversation with an excuse is not your move. Your move is to end the conversation on a high note. And to do that, you need to learn how to exit conversations at the proper time without being a jerk or using some lame excuse.
Principles For Exiting A Conversation
Don’t Use Excuses
I know that we just talked about this, but I want to clarify that the best way to end a conversation is not to blame a circumstance that is out of your control. You don’t need to appeal to your unfinished homework. You don’t need your wingman to bail you out. You don’t need to “be somewhere.” You don’t need to go to the bathroom (unless you need to go to the bathroom).
Leave On A High Note
If you want to leave a good impression after a conversation, let it be because you were remembered as an interesting conversationalist. Since we tend to remember the first and last things we hear/read, make sure the most interesting stuff is at the end—not the middle—of your conversations.
To do this, you need to have the guts to exit a conversation at its height, not after it has fizzled. End conversations on a high note. Be remembered as super-interesting–not because you are exceptionally interesting–but because you have the smarts to end conversations after the best part.
Always leave them wanting more.
Engage To Disengage
Campfires are at their best when the flames are high and bright. Dark campfires are sleepy and boring. So if you’re trying to go to bed, the best way to end a happy campfire is to stop adding fuel. The fire will slowly cool to darkness and everyone will be done with it. This is how we prefer to end conversations. By disengaging and letting the conversation cool down to embers, we hope that the other person will just walk away and go to bed.
But that is a terrible idea. Conversations are not campfires. And if they were, you would want to walk away at their brightest.
The best way to end a conversation is not to let it die down to embers, but rather to guide it toward an end. This is when you should be most actively engaged. If you are ready to end a conversation, take control and move it toward the off-ramp.
The best way to disengage from a conversation is to engage.
Control The Conversation With Future-Oriented Questions
The conversations you’ll want to end the most are the ones where you are not an active participant. These are the conversations that have devolved into life-sucking monologues. It is in the midst of these conversations that we are most tempted to disengage and pray for rescue. But it is precisely these conversations when you should be the most active participant. If you do not like the topic or pace of a conversation, it is your job to move it to a better topic or to an end.
To do that, ask future-oriented questions. These questions aren’t open-ended. They require very short answers. They show that you are interested. And most of them allow you to exit the conversation with, “maybe I’ll see you there” or “tell me all about it next time I see you.”
Here are some examples.
- Do you have any plans for the weekend?
- What are you doing later today?
- Will I see you at _______ ?
Future-oriented questions are an effective “off-ramp” to a conversation.
Use Body Language
Body language is a great way to signal the end of a conversation, but never a substitute for a clear ending. Do not pull out your phone in hopes that they will “get the message.” Do not stare off into space. Do not keep looking at your watch. Do not put on headphones. Do not go to the bathroom without closure. (That was a weird sentence.)
Instead, turn to the side a little so that you are no longer face-to-face. Or pull out your business cards. Or stand up. Or stretch your arms a little. This will make it easier to shift the conversation toward a natural end without being rude.
A change in body language is another effective “off-ramp” to a conversation, but never a substitute for a clear and polite ending.
In the Christian subculture to which I belong, there are a lot of hugs. Most things begin and end with a hug, even for the dudes. Yes, it creeps me out a little bit, but it’s a good thing. Not only does it communicate affection, but it signals a clear end to a conversation. Friends don’t want to make eye contact after their genitals get that close.
My point is this: Touch is a common way to politely signal the end of a conversation. And it doesn’t have to be a hug. Initiate a high-five. A handshake. A pat on the back. A touch of the shoulder. A smack on the buttocks. Whatever is appropriate.
Initiating some sort of touch is another effective “off-ramp” to a conversation.
Just End It
Some conversations just won’t end. Most people get the message, but some don’t. The key here is to be honest and clear that you are done talking. If you’ve tried all of the “off-ramps” and are still on the freeway of conversation, there comes a point where you just need to jerk the wheel and be done.
Don’t let the fear of ending a conversation prevent you from having a memorable one. Remember that excuses are a poor way to end a conversation. Instead, actively steer conversations toward an ending by using future-oriented questions, a change in body language, and touch. And make sure to do this at a high-point in the conversation so that your conversation is memorable, leaving them wanting more.
I’m done with this conversation,