I’m slowly starting to get a handle on how humans make small talk. (It turns out it’s with their mouths! Boy, was I doing it wrong.) I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve been to two whole parties since I wrote that post on small talk skills and I only panicked and hid on the host’s basement stairs once.
But since I’ve been facing this fear, I’ve discovered that small talk is not the scariest thing out there.
That honor belongs to the solitary folding chair that was sitting upright in the center of a dark, empty room underneath the steps I was hiding on at that party. A derelict room, where a torn bed sheet dangled over a sooty window. The chair was there the whole time I was on the stairs. Watching. Waiting. What was it doing down there? If the owner didn’t set it up that way, as he claims, who did? Why is it still showing up in my nightmares?
Small talk obviously has nothing on that chair in terms of sheer, soul-sucking horror. But on the scale of things to fear, it falls behind another, more surprising thing. The only thing worse than initiating a conversation with a stranger? Trying to leave one.
Why Can’t I Get Out of This?
- I’m not much of a talker, so I try to make up for it by listening — or at least acting like I’m listening. It’s a habit that’s so deeply ingrained that I have trouble stopping. There I am: nodding, smiling, and asking questions long after I want to leave.
- I don’t want to seem rude. You can’t just walk away when someone is talking! You can’t just walk away when someone is pausing between sentences! You can’t just walk away when someone is staring at you and wondering why you haven’t left them alone yet! (Oh, you can? I must have missed their cue because…)
- …I’m not great at picking up social signals. People want to get out of conversations with me sometimes, too, but a lot of the time I’m too socially inept to notice until way later. And then my idiocy haunts me for the rest of my life.
- Even when you have a legitimate excuse to leave a conversation, it’s hard to do it gracefully. If you time it badly or you say the wrong thing, you end up looking like an awkward liar.
- I keep finding egregious small-talkers who can’t or won’t take a hint. What am I supposed to do with these people? Stand there talking to them until I die? That sounds right.
- Occasionally I find someone who’s really good at escaping small talk. What am I supposed to do with those people? Defeat them in mortal combat and absorb their powers? That also sounds right.
I get so hung up on how weird it is to try to leave a conversation that I sometimes spend up to 50% of an interaction worrying about how I’ll leave it. It’s not a great way to talk to people.
Humanity needs to make a list of conversational exit strategies and then we all need to agree that when these maneuvers are executed, we will all understand what’s happening, not be offended and go our separate ways peaceably. I volunteer to make this list. Look, I already started.
Some Possible Conversational Exit Strategies for Humanity
- Develop a secret code (a series of four long blinks, maybe?) which indicates that you’d like the conversation to end. I considered a verbal code, like saying the names of three mammals in a row (“Orangutan, chinchilla, wallaby!”), but I realized that this could get confusing for people who don’t know their mammals or who are having a bad conversation while at the zoo.
- Carry a microphone everywhere so you can drop it when you’re done talking and walk away.
- Hire someone to yank you out of conversations with one of those long vaudeville hooks. Bonus points if you start wearing a boater hat and a striped blazer everywhere, just in case.
- Silently reach up and place your finger on the lips of the person who’s still talking. This might end badly, because I’m pretty sure I’ve seen movies where one character does this to another right before they kiss.
- Kiss the person who’s still talking.
I’m pretty sure these will work, but the dumb ol’ internet thinks it knows better.
How to Exit a Conversation, as Told by the Internet
- Say, “Excuse me” and leave.
- Tell them you need to run an errand.
- Introduce the person you can’t escape to someone else. Preferably someone you don’t like, because you’re about to abandon them. Your next move is to sort of fade out like Marty McFly’s siblings in Back to the Future.
- Say you need a break to run to the bathroom/refresh your drink/stare at a wall.
- Pretend your friend across the room needs your help.
- Wait for a conversational lull and say something like, “Well. It was great catching up with you.”
Those ideas aren’t quite as good as mine, but they might work. Maybe consider using them in your next uncomfortable social interaction.
It was great catching up with you.
If you’ll excuse me, I have to go try not to think about a certain folding chair in a certain basement room with a certain tattered bed sheet over the window.
Meerkat. Okapi. Walrus.