People rarely leave conversations when they want to — here’s how to change it
You’ve been chatting with someone for 20 minutes, but the conversation grew stale halfway through.
You look around the room, desperate to find an escape from this tedious monologue but can’t come up with a polite way to leave. Sigh. You stay put, choosing to endure the conversation rather than be impolite and leave.
You already may have had more than a sneaking suspicion this was true, but now it’s backed by research: Conversations rarely end when people want them to, a new study has found.
Only about 2% of conversations end when both participants want them to, according to a study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America journal.
Researchers conducted two smaller studies to learn the differences between how long conversations are between two people versus how long each participant wanted them to go.
The studies were inspired by parties that study author Adam Mastroianni attended while at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Now a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard University, he said he was dreading going to another party because he might get stuck in a conversation with someone and not have a polite way to end it.
Then he thought, “What if we’re both stuck in this conversation because we mistakenly think the other person wants to continue?”
It turns out Mastroianni was onto something.
The first study asked 806 participants to recall their most recent conversation with someone. Almost 80% of the conversations were between a romantic partner, friend or family member.
Over 66% of participants reported there was a point during their conversation when they felt it should have ended.
And they enjoy their conversations less, the study found. Participants who said there was a point when they wanted the conversation to end enjoyed the conversation less than those who said time’s up (4.7 out of 7 on a 7-point scale versus those who said no averaging 5.66 out of 7).
The second study brought 252 strangers into a lab to have their conversations observed by the researchers. The pairs were asked to speak between one to 45 minutes, then they were brought to separate rooms for interviews.
The results were nearly identical to the first study, with over 68% of participants reporting there was a point during the conversation when they wished it had ended. That group also enjoyed their conversations less.
This part of the study allowed the researchers to hear both sides of the story, so they gathered more data on what each participant assumed about the other in terms of the desired length of the conversation.
Researchers found participants incorrectly estimated their partner’s desired conversation length by over 63%, which shows they had almost no idea what their partner’s desires were, Mastroianni said.
Being socially polite can prevent people from leaving conversations when they want to, Mastroianni said. Talking to someone is like driving a car on the freeway, he said. People can get off at any exit, but people can’t pull over the moment they want to because they could hit other cars or walls.
“You have to wait for the appropriate time to exit, and it turns out that the distance between those exits can sometimes be quite long,” Mastroianni said.
How to gracefully end a conversation
The study brings up important points on having conversations with others and opens the door to learning about how to engage in better discussions, said Linda Sapadin, a psychologist of over 35 years who specializes in communication in Long Island, New York. She was not involved in the study.
If you want a conversation to end, Sapadin recommended telling the other person you have to leave and say something positive about your shared interaction.
If someone was complaining about some area of their life, she advised commenting that you hope things will get better for them.
While the majority of the participants in both studies felt there was a point in the conversation when they wish it had ended, some wanted the conversation to go on longer. If you tend to fall in that category, Sapadin recommended paying close attention to your partner’s body language to pick up on hints they’re ready to end the discussion.
If they are rolling their eyes, not making much eye contact with you or not responding to what you’re saying, it might be time to end the conversation, she said.
People who wanted the conversation to continue longer enjoyed it just as much as people who said the conversation ended exactly when they wanted it to, Mastroianni found.
“In my own conversations, I try to err on the side of leaving a little bit sooner with the understanding that you can talk to somebody again,” he said.
In the future, Mastroianni said he’s interested in researching when it’s socially acceptable for people to leave a conversation and how conversations work in groups of more than two people.