2 science-backed ways to politely end a conversation

"Most conversations appear to end when no one wants them to."

two men talking
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As he tied his bowtie and prepared to go to an evening party in Oxford, Adam Mastroianni was struck by an all-too-recognizable thought: He did not want to go.

"I thought to myself 'Man, I don't want to go to this party, because inevitably, at some point, I'll be talking to someone and I'll want to stop, but there won't be any polite way of doing so,'" Mastroianni tells Inverse.

His mind started to spin. What made him so special? What if the person he made chit-chat with felt the exact same way? What if we're all just trapped in conversations we want to end?

This chain of thought spiraled into research. On Monday, Mastroianni, now a Ph.D. student at Harvard University, and his colleagues published the aptly titled study "Do conversations end when people want them to?"

The answer, in short, is no.

What's new — The team analyzed data from two experiments consisting of 932 conversations in all. In the first study, people were asked about a recent conversation with a person they knew, like a friend or family member. In the second, a different set of people were paired with a stranger and told they could talk about anything, as long as they chatted between 1 and 45 minutes.

All participants were asked to report when they wanted their conversation to end, and to estimate when their partner wanted the exchange to stop.

Across the board, the results suggest conversations almost never end when both participants want them to stop.

The average discrepancy between desired and actual durations, the researchers write, "was roughly half the duration of the conversation." People were terrible at estimating when their partners wanted to wrap it up — they weren't great at pinpointing when they wanted the conversation to stop, either.

"... what we found is getting trapped in a conversation is quite common, but it's not ubiquitous."

When the participants in the first study were asked whether or not they knew there was a point they wanted the conversation to end, 66.5 percent answered yes and 34.5 percent answered no. In study two, the numbers were nearly identical: 68.7 percent said yes and 31.2 percent said no.

They were far worse at acting upon these urges: In the first study, in which people talked with someone they knew, 80.9 percent reported there was a moment in the conversation they wanted it to end, and 90.5 percent of that group continued to feel that way for the remainder of the conversation.

This, however, doesn't mean everyone is gritting their teeth in anticipation of a sweet release to solitude.

"To be clear, though, what we found is getting trapped in a conversation is quite common, but it's not ubiquitous," Mastroianni says.

"In 10 percent of the conversations, people wanted to keep going, but they stop! And 32 percent of people in study two said they would have preferred to keep going."

What does this mean? — Mastroianni and his colleagues suggest the difficulty in ending conversations may be a "coordination problem." Humans are bad at solving the problem because to do so requires information we tend to keep secret. It's hard to tell your grandma you want to get off the phone just because you want the conversation to be over, for example.

"Most conversations appear to end when no one wants them to," the researchers write. But it's possible that, at times, this entrapment isn't necessarily a bad thing. People need social connections, and conversation is a good way to make these connections happen.

"Even though conversations are one big coordination failure, they're really fun," Mastroianni says.

"People enjoy them more than they think they will. So rather than scheming and strategizing about how to get out of them, maybe just sit back and enjoy them."

In some ways, "all of this coordination failure may be in service of relationship success," he adds. We may not leave the conversation when we want, but at least we part as friends. This is something the team would like to explore in future studies.

How do you end a conversation?

Despite social niceties, there are actionable takeaways for those who are fans of the so-called Irish goodbye.

Mastroianni tells Inverse he has two tricks and one tip based on his research.

The tip is ideal for people anxious about the logistics of ending the chat: It's better to leave people wanting more than wanting less.

"In our studies, people who said they would have preferred to talk longer were just as happy as the people who said the conversation ended exactly when they wanted to," he says.

"It was only the people who said they wanted to go sooner who had a worse time."

If you want to be better at ending conversations, Mastroianni advises you should:

  • Remember conversations don't end because people don't know when the other person wants to go.

"You can possibly solve both problems by being clear about how long a conversation is going to last beforehand, either by scheduling or by attaching your conversation to an activity that has a fairly clear time course," he explains. Saying you only have a certain amount of time to talk at the start of the chat is a good place to start.

  • Make your partner feel good about the end of the conversation by "clearly communicating that you had a nice time and would like to talk again."

Swap out "gotta run" and swap in "hey, it's been great to talk with you — I should get going, but let's talk more soon," for example.

Mastroianni takes some solace in knowing he has no idea when his conversation partners want to leave. When it's time for him to go, he makes sure they know he had a nice time talking and then skedaddles. This is an especially useful technique during the pandemic. It's harder to get out of conversations now there are fewer reasonable excuses.

Ultimately, it's important to establish boundaries with your time, but "so that you can bring people in, not keep them out," Mastroianni says.

Lingering conversations and long phone calls are "the stuff of life," as he puts it. There's just a chance you'll be lingering far later than you want to.

Abstract: Do conversations end when people want them to? Surprisingly, behavioral science provides no answer to this fundamental question about the most ubiquitous of all human social activities. In two studies of 932 conversations, we asked conversants to report when they had wanted a conversation to end and to estimate when their partner (who was an intimate in Study 1 and a stranger in Study 2) had wanted it to end. Results showed that conversations almost never ended when both conversants wanted them to and rarely ended when even one conversant wanted them to and that the average discrepancy between desired and actual durations was roughly half the duration of the conversation. Conversants had little idea when their partners wanted to end and underestimated how discrepant their partners’ desires were from their own. These studies suggest that ending conversations is a classic “coordination problem” that humans are unable to solve because doing so requires information that they normally keep from each other. As a result, most conversations appear to end when no one wants them to.
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