How to walk away from an awkward conversation

Have you ever been stuck in an awkward conversation?

Of course you have. Who hasn’t bumped into that weirdo at the party who can’t stop talking? Or the chatty “gym guy” who can’t seem to understand that wearing headphones means “leave me alone”? Or the coworker who has to complain about something new every morning in the elevator?

Here’s the good news: The pandemic is almost over. We’re all going to be re-released into the social wilderness. The bad news is that you won’t be able to avoid thorny encounters anymore.

And if there’s a universal form of anxiety, it’s the feeling you get when you desperately want an interaction to end but can’t make it happen. The strange thing is it’s totally unnecessary: If we weren’t so desperate to avoid awkwardness, we could walk away or simply tell people what we want. But most of us don’t.

A study by a group of psychologists published in March throws some light on these dynamics. The researchers monitored more than 900 conversations and asked participants to report how they felt about the interaction, when they wanted it to end, and when they thought the other person wanted it to end. The findings won’t surprise you: Conversations “almost never ended when both conversants wanted them to” and “rarely ended when even one conversant wanted them to.” It turns out that, on average, conversations lasted about twice as long as people desired.

And that’s true not just of random conversations, like those at the gym, but also of interactions with friends, family, and loved ones. Roughly two-thirds of people said they wanted those conversations to end sooner.

I reached out to Adam Mastroianni, a doctoral student at Harvard and the study’s lead researcher, to talk about why our conversations last too long, how we can end them sooner, and why we should be less pessimistic about our interactions — and perhaps lean into the awkwardness.

A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

Why do most of our conversations last longer than we want them to?

Adam Mastroianni

Actually, the question of whether they last longer or shorter than we want them to is pretty complicated. The paper is about how conversations last a different amount of time than we want them to, which is both longer and shorter. I can walk you through the levels, and you can stop me whenever you get bored.

Cool?

Sean Illing

Cool.

Adam Mastroianni

So when you just ask people, “Was there a point at which you felt ready for that conversation to end?” About 70 percent say “yes.” And for the vast majority of those people, they wanted it to end way earlier. So if you just look at that number, it looks like most people want their conversations to end before they do.

Then there’s a minority of people, roughly 30 percent, who wanted the conversation to keep going, and they wanted it to keep going by about as much as the other people wanted it to end sooner. You could look at that and think they cancel each other out, and therefore conversations don’t really end sooner or later than people want them to.

But if you dig a little deeper, you see that these numbers mean something different. If I say I wanted to go five minutes earlier, I’m totally sure about that. But when someone says they wanted to go 20 minutes longer, that’s a prediction. Maybe they would, or maybe they’d change their mind after a few minutes. So we can’t really weigh these numbers against each other.

Sean Illing

I’m starting to get bored …

Adam Mastroianni

Yes, most people wish conversations ended sooner.

Sean Illing

Is this true not just of conversations with random people but also [of conversations] with friends, family, and loved ones? Do those tend to last longer than we want them to?

Adam Mastroianni

Yeah, this was true of every kind of conversation that we studied. In one of our studies, we brought people into the lab who were meeting each other for the first time, and they talked as long as they wanted to. In our other study, we surveyed people about the last conversation that they had. If you think back to the last conversation you had, it’s probably with someone that you know really well and talk to all the time, especially in times like these. And we got the same results in both studies. Very few people say the conversation ended when they wanted it to, and they didn’t think it ended when the other person wanted it to either.

Sean Illing

Confusion is unavoidable, but the one thing we can always do is communicate our preferences to the person we’re talking to. Why don’t we do it?

Adam Mastroianni

Imagine what would happen if you did. If you said, “I want to go,” you could offend me because I wanted to keep going. And now all of a sudden you’re saying that you’re done. If you said, “I want to keep going,” now you might trap me because I wanted to stop. And so instead of taking that risk and offending people one way or the other, we both hide our desires, so maybe nobody gets what they want but we also don’t offend anybody. And so we both leave dissatisfied, but we also leave as friends. This might be one of the prices that we pay for living in a decent society — we don’t all get exactly what we want all the time.

Sean Illing

So you’re saying the price of a decent society is a veneer of bullshit?

Adam Mastroianni

I mean, you could call it bullshit or you could call it politeness.

Sean Illing

Did you find that most people were afraid to offend the other person? Is that the main concern?

Adam Mastroianni

We’re afraid of offending people but also trapping them. If I was talking to you, and you had a little billboard that flipped up on your forehead when you wanted to go, I’d want to go too. I don’t want to talk to somebody who doesn’t want to talk to me. If I knew you wanted to continue, maybe I also would want to continue.

One of the reasons why conversations don’t end when people want them to is that we want different things. And part of the reason we want different things is because we don’t know what the other person wants. And this is a unique situation in which what I want is dependent, at least in part, on what you want.

Sean Illing

Those things — honesty and politeness — are really in conflict, aren’t they?

Adam Mastroianni

Yeah, you can think of politeness as a series of rules. And the whole reason you have rules is because this isn’t what you would do if you did exactly what you want. We don’t need a rule that says you should continue to breathe, or that you should eat a bunch of ice cream. These are things that people would do whether you told them to or not. But we do need rules to govern people’s behavior around things that they might not do automatically.

What we think of as politeness is typically something that we think we do with strangers. But we don’t really think of it as politeness with people we know; we just think of it as kindness. But it’s the same thing: It’s a series of rules that govern your behavior toward another person. If I didn’t want to be kind to my partner or to my mother or to my friends, I would just walk away exactly when I wanted to. But because I care about them, and I don’t want to hurt their feelings and they don’t want to hurt mine, we’re willing to all stick around maybe a little longer than we would otherwise.

Sean Illing

The shitty thing is that we all kind of know when someone has checked out of a conversation. You can see it in their face [and] in their eyes, and yet most of the time we keep on chatting. No one’s willing to acknowledge what both people already know. Are we just stuck with what game theorists call a “coordination problem”?

Adam Mastroianni

There’s actually two problems at play here that create this coordination problem. One is that we might think we know when the other person wants to leave, but when you notice that someone is shifting around, maybe breaking eye contact, looking a little glazed over, maybe that was the first moment they felt ready to leave, or maybe they felt ready to leave 10 minutes ago and you didn’t notice it then, or they didn’t signal it to you then. When we ask people to guess when the other people wanted to leave, they were off by about 60 percent of the length of their conversations. They had no idea when that person wanted to go. So that’s the first problem.

The other problem is that even when we’re pretty sure of what the other person wants, you can’t just end a conversation at any time. You can think of a conversation like driving down the highway. You can’t just exit at any point, or else you’re going to end up in a ditch or in a storefront or running into a tree. I can’t just interrupt a story. There are all these rules that make it pretty clear to both of us when we’re allowed to get out. And those exits have some distance between them.

Sean Illing

I’ve had a couple periods in my life where I really tried to be authentic in my personal interactions, and I learned pretty quickly that people don’t like that. We’re so used to playing this choreographed social game, and radical honesty blows the whole thing up …

Adam Mastroianni

But what is your authentic self? Is it the thing that wants what it wants in the very moment that it wants it? Or is it the part of you that also cares about what the other person thinks? Is your authentic self the one that wants to rip a big fart the second you feel a rumbling in your tummy? Or is it the part that goes, “I don’t want to make other people feel embarrassed or have to smell the noxious fumes coming out of my ass.” Both of those could be some part of your authentic self, and maybe your authentic self is whatever emerges from the conflict between those desires.

Sean Illing

Yeah, I don’t think my authentic self has ever wanted to drop farts on interlocutors, but I did find that if you really listen to people, if you give them your total attention, it can create some awkwardness because it’s not normal. But let me ask you this: Do you think the social benefits of playing the politeness game outweigh the potential benefits of a more honest game?

Adam Mastroianni

I don’t know for sure, and I’d love to know better. All of our studies were on Americans, and you and I are both pretty familiar with the rules that govern conversations in America. They’re not universal rules. In other cultures, the rules are much stricter, and so people might get stuck a lot more often than they do here. In other places, the rules are a lot more loose, and you can just say something like, “I’m done. Goodbye.” And what we don’t yet know is whether people actually enjoy conversations more when they tilt more toward the strict or more toward the loose.

Sean Illing

If it’s true that most conversations last longer than both people want them to, wouldn’t someone be relieved if you’re actually willing to own that and be the one to pull the rip cord? Are we just overthinking this?

Adam Mastroianni

Maybe. We do know that the people who are left wanting more, that 30 percent, enjoy the conversation just as much as people who say it ended exactly [when] they wanted it to end. There’s not many of those people, but those two points are pretty much the same. So it’s definitely better to leave people wanting more than it is to leave people wanting less.

Sean Illing

What’s your best advice to people who want to get better at ending conversations without also being assholes?

Adam Mastroianni

The big tip is that it’s almost always better to go too short than too long. If you’re feeling unsure about whether the other person wants to go but think that you do, that’s a pretty appropriate time to go. Especially if you could always talk to that person again. But the trick is that one of the reasons why conversations are so fraught is that it feels like the very fact of our parting is evidence that something has gone wrong, because if I liked you and you liked me and we were having a nice time, why don’t we keep going? You don’t stop eating ice cream when the ice cream tastes really good. You stop when you’re sick.

I think the best way to end a conversation is to address that problem head-on, to signal to the other person that nothing has gone wrong here — it’s just that sometimes, two people have to stop talking to each other, and this is one of those times. And this is why a main way people end their conversations is by signaling that they have to. You say, “I’d love to keep talking, but I gotta do X.” But another way to do it without lying is just to say, “I had a nice time talking to you, looking forward to doing it again.”

Sean Illing

What do you do when you collide with that person — and we all know this person — who just refuses to notice your signals?

Adam Mastroianni

One of these people sort of inspired the paper. There was a person in our department who will remain nameless and, in fact, isn’t even there anymore. But you knew that if you were walking by this person you should be on the other side of the room or on the phone, because otherwise you’d be talking to them for an hour. How do you get out of a conversation with such a person? Maybe tell them about this study and they’ll get the hint. But otherwise, the nuclear option — besides walking away — is literally to say, “This has been really nice. I have to go.” If they don’t get it at that point, there’s no hope. You should probably walk away.

Sean Illing

Most people are probably more comfortable being honest with friends and family, but do you think we should try to take the same approach to ending conversations with everyone?

Adam Mastroianni

That’s a good question. I think people might feel more comfortable with their families and friends, but the stakes are higher. If we’re chatting because we’re both waiting for a bus, I don’t want to hurt you because you’re another person, but I’m not as worried about what you think about me. But if you’re my partner or my mom, I am more worried. You mean a lot to me, and I don’t want to hurt you. So the relationship means more, and it’s hard to take the same strategy. I mean, who wants to cut off grandma in the middle of her story? I don’t. Sometimes it’s good for us to just sit there and listen.

Sean Illing

I also think most of us are too pessimistic about our interactions. Sometimes conversations die not because we run out of stuff to say but because we’re in our damn heads too much. We’re not present, and that inattentiveness kills momentum.

Adam Mastroianni

That’s totally true. We can see this in our studies. This is a unique domain in which people are more pessimistic than they should be. Usually people are more optimistic than they should be. “I think I might win the lottery,” or “I definitely won’t break my leg,” that’s something that happens to other people. But when it comes to social interactions, people say things like, “Oh, I’m worse than other people at remembering names,” or in our studies, “I think other people liked me less than I liked them.”

Worrying is a huge dead weight on conversations. The best thing we can probably do is relax and just let the conversation run its course. All of these people that we’re trying to get out of conversations with, maybe they’re the ones having the most fun, and we should be doing what they’re doing instead of giving ourselves over to our neurotic thoughts and trying to escape.

Sean Illing

Conversations will always be fraught with uncertainty because we can never know what someone else is thinking. But the anxiety we feel is a choice and a consequence of worrying too much. I’m going to try and do less of that.

Adam Mastroianni

Maybe the best way to think about ending conversations is what happens when you start having thoughts about leaving. Ask yourself: “Is this an anxious thought? Am I running because I’m afraid that I’m being judged? Or do I really need to get back to work (or whatever)”? If it’s the latter, if it’s real, then yeah, that’s a good time to leave. But if it’s fear, then maybe that’s the time to stick it out.

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