Dear Bitter Butch:
Thank you for your advice about smalltalk. I have a follow-up question.
How do you politely disengage from small talk? I don’t mind chatting with a random stranger for a minute or two, but I don’t want to get stuck awkwardly trying to keep up a conversation with them for half an hour. And I have.
It’s easier at parties because you can use standard excuses like “I’m gonna go refill my drink” or “Which way is the bathroom?” But even so, those feel like excuses. And blunter remarks like “I’m gonna go circulate some more” feel dismissive if the other person seems to want to keep talking. And sometimes even getting a word in edgewise into the other person’s monologue can be hard.
And it’s harder in situations where you can’t physically disengage. On airplanes, for example, I would often be happy to say hello to the person sitting next to me, but the risk that I’ll have to spend the next several hours talking with them seems too high. I’ve had flights where the person next to me wants to talk much more than I do, and I’ve heard people spend entire plane flights talking to their previously-unknown-to-them seatmate.
So what’s a polite and socially acceptable way to say “I don’t want to keep talking with you”?
Dear Disengaging Conversationalist,
There are so many ways to get out of a conversation.
You can use body language: step back out of “conversation zone” and look around the room while at a party, smile dismissively and pick up a book on an airplane, stand up when you were previously seated and talking, nodding in a goodbye sort of way as you go. If someone on a plane is particularly persistent, you put in earbuds and refuse to lift your eyes from your book. If all else fails, pretend to fall asleep.
You can also, of course, use common words indicating that conversations are now over in combination with these body signals: “. . . well, then. Enjoy the party!” Or: “It was very nice to meet you! I hope you have a terrific time in Boise!” or: “Well. It was great talking to you. Have a safe flight.”
I suggest all of these things, without any of the “excuses” that you say seem feeble. Because here’s the thing: you do not owe anyone your time and attention. You do not need an excuse. Excuses are for people doing things that are wrong or lazy or immoral. Moving on to continue your day, enjoy your flight in peace, or meet other people at a party is none of those things. You gave them some of your time and attention, and you are done now. There’s nothing to apologize for.
I think a lot of times, people confuse politeness with unendingly and uncomplainingly allowing people to be rude to you. This is not politeness! This is merely Experiencing Rudeness, and there is nothing particularly polite about it.
Do not cower, do not apologize, do not equivocate. You need to give someone else your time and attention now (even if that someone else is you). This is life. This is perfectly polite.
You seem like a very kind person who is concerned about people’s feelings (why are the lecturers never concerned with the comfort of their audience, I wonder?). So if it helps, consider yourself an educator to those holding forth. If enough people interrupt them mid-word to say: “It was nice to meet you!” as they walk briskly away, they might — just might — get the message, and learn how to be better conversationalists and listeners.
BITTER BUTCH aka Haddayr Copley-Woods is a queer, a cripple, a nerd, a mom to two kids with neurological differences, and has a truckload of opinions on everything including sex and relationships, parenting, disability issues, family relationships, work dynamics, gender/sexuality issues, and etiquette. You can reach her with all your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
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