How to Successfully End an Awkward Conversation: 3 Psychology-Approved Tips

For a species that talks so much, we're pretty bad at it.

Uh-oh. Some tall dude named Caleb is talking to you at a party. He hasn’t asked you a single question. He’s talking about his drum set. Great. You try giving him subtle signals that you’re ready to leave this conversation, but, wait, yep, now he’s talking to you about Fleet Foxes. Oh god. How do you escape?

Well, it turns out people are really bad at understanding how a conversation is going and when it’s supposed to end. In a 2018 study out of Cornell University about how people communicate, it was found that nearly everyone rates “having a conversation with a stranger” as one of their least desired activities. Not necessarily because we don’t like people, but because we assume that people aren’t enjoying our company. Nearly every participant attributed any missteps or awkward pauses in a conversation to themselves, instead of their partner.

In ongoing research from Harvard University that hasn’t been published yet, researchers are finding that there was a huge difference in when people wanted to end a conversation and when it actually ended. In the study, researchers put two strangers in a room and told them to have a conversation until they both agreed that the conversation was over. By the end of the study, it was determined that only 15% of people ended the conversation when they really wanted to. The other 85% either found themselves stuck in a conversation that went a little too long, or ended earlier than they would have liked. This was mainly because, the researchers determined, humans are pretty terrible at knowing what other people want.

research has shown that nobody ends conversations when they really want to.
The verdict is in...we suck at having conversations.

This knowledge doesn’t make it any easier to abruptly end a conversation, though. Sociologists and psychologists have pinpointed some specific actions you can start doing to wrap up a conversation without being rude.

1. Physical Clues

Famed sociologist Erving Goffman determined that the ideal distance between two people in a conversation is 1.5 to thee feet. If you incrementally nudge yourself past this range, tall drummer Caleb will begin to notice a figurative and literal gap between you and get the hint.

2. Language Indicators

Talking in the past tense is a good way to indicate that the conversation is a thing that happened and is now ending. “This has been fun” or “It was great catching up” are examples of sentences that will let Caleb know that the main event is now over, and it’s time to go home.

3. Power Dynamics

This is a tricky one, because it’s not always something you can have control over. Social psychology generally dictates that whoever started the conversation generally has more of a priority to end it. Unfortunately, sociologist Kio Stark states that a perceived power, whether it be real or imagined, can strongly dictate who gets to start and end conversations, and it takes real gusto to overthrow that power hierarchy. Acknowledging the agendas of both people can help turn this on its head.

In the end, the research is pretty conclusive: we all think we’re way worse at having a conversation than we think. And nobody knows how to end a conversation anyway. So, give yourself a break next time you just want to tell Caleb that you think all Fleet Foxes songs sound the same, and now you are going to go to the bathroom, thank you very much.