4 Oct 2022

Exiting a conversation

There is nothing so unpardonably rude, as a seeming inattention to the person who is speaking to you; though you may meet with it in others, by all means avoid it yourself. Some ill bred people, while others are speaking to them, will, instead of looking at, or attending to them, perhaps fix their eyes on the ceiling, or some picture in the room, look out of the window, play with a dog, their watch chain, or their cane, or probably pick their nails or their noses. Nothing betrays a more trifling mind than this; nor can any thing be a greater affront to the person speaking; it being a tacit declaration, that what he is saying is not worth your attention. Consider with yourself how you would like such treatment, and I am persuaded you will never shew it to others.

Principles of Politeness and of Knowing the World, by the Late Lord Chesterfield, with Additions by The Rev. Dr John Trusler, 1798

This detailed description of the minutiae of conversational ennui will be familiar to many of us. We’ve all been trapped at social events in a conversation that no longer engages us, and overcome by a desperate urge to extricate ourselves. Clearly, making a major performance of our disengagement is, as is pointed out, extremely rude and to be avoided at all costs. Abruptly announcing that you must move on is also offensive. There must be a better way of making a conversational exit.

Our etiquette experts have put their heads together, and recommend the following strategies:

Give Yourself a Task

You need to physically remove yourself from the conversation, so perhaps you could say “I’m going to refresh my drink. Can I get you anything?” If your partner accepts the offer, you can take your time, and only return with a full glass when they are safely ensconced in another conversation.

This will work well at many events, but will not be much use if you’re at a party where you’re being plied with drinks by solicitous waiters. If this is the case, you could cite another obligation, perhaps saying something like “Oh, there’s xxxxx. Please do excuse me, I promised I’d introduce her to xxxxx.”

Nudge the Other Person

At events where you feel you’ve been buttonholed by the host, the birthday boy, the guest of honour, or possibly the bride or groom, and are desperate to make an exit, you can hint that they should move on, by sayings something like “I really mustn’t monopolise you – I’m sure there are other people you need to talk to. I just wanted to say thank you/congratulations.” This will politely impel them to circulate.

Enlist Reinforcements

If you feel that your ear has been well and truly bent, a smart move is to reach out to a passing friend or acquaintance and bring them into the conversational fold. It will help if you can find a shared interest to highlight. You can introduce them to your interlocutor, and perhaps even say something like “we were just talking about Corfu ­– didn’t you spend some time there last year?”

If you can set the conversational ball rolling, you should be able to discreetly pass on the baton. Stick around for a few minutes to make sure that your reinforcement is fully engaged, then quietly slip away with a muttered “Excuse me, I must just say hello to xxxxxx.”

Play the Guilt Card

One very effective way to terminate a conversation is to remind your companion of both your social obligations. It is generally assumed that good guests will circulate at parties, rather than hunkering down for long drawn-out conversations. So if you say something like “Do you think we ought to be mingling?” you may well create a slightly guilty feeling in your conversational partner, who will be reminded that they are not living up to their good guest credentials and feel compelled to move on.

Wind the Conversation Down

This is the most subtle technique of all. It involves discreetly signalling that the conversation is reaching its natural end, and ideally mitigating this by signing off with a compliment or positive approbation. It requires that you take the initiative and say something like “Well, I’ve really enjoyed hearing about your model train collection” or “It’s been fascinating talking to you – I never realised golf could be so interesting!” Phrases like this distinctly convey a sense of an impending ending – once you have laid the groundwork, it’s perfectly polite to say something like “I really must go and talk to xxxxx.” You will have managed to extricate yourself on an upbeat note without revealing that you are feeling bored or trapped.

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