HELP! I'm an Awkward Exiter

I know how to banter at a party -- I just don't know how to make a break for it.
Publish date:
April 10, 2012
etiquette, parties, conversation, other assorted forms of awkwardness, politeness

Look how comfortable I look!

I just spent the last couple of weeks in another country, and while I loved meeting all new people, every night, it reminded how award-winningly bad I am at conversations with strangers.

Really bad. Like a small woodland animal cornered in a barn by a bunch of barking dogs bad.

Specifically, ENDING a conversation. Please understand, I am not a socially awkward person. I actually think that I'm pretty good at meeting people, and making initial small talk, and being clever and witty for a few beats. What I always fail to take into account is an exit strategy, leaving with that clever wittiness inacts, instead of spilling it on the floor in front of the stranger until it's all gone.Here's a pretty typical example of how meeting me goes.

Mutual friend: Dana, this is Emily.Dana: Hi!Me: Hi, nice to meet you!Mutual friend: [some statement about what we have in common, or who I am, or who Dana is]Me: [something witty about that previous statement]Dana: [something witty in response]Me: [a comment about Dana's appearance that is sincere and flattering, but not emptily so]Me: ...Me: ...At this point, part of me is enjoying this banter, and the other part of me is feeling a tiny, slow sense of dread. What I'm dreading, of course, is the moment when you both run out of things to say, you both look at your drinks or your phone, and there's a silence. The Moment of Silence. Maybe someone clears their throat, signaling that this conversation avenue has come to an end. The Hairpin recently ran a cartoon that detailed this moment perfectly. For a while I tried to embrace this silence, but it's just so damned loud to me. And it's not like I'm not enjoying myself -- I love meeting new people. I'm just acutely aware of conversations that feel stilted and forced, and I try to avoid them.

A few years ago, I made a conscious decision to not have any more "filler" conversations -- every chat, no matter who or when or the circumstances, would be about something a bit more than the weather or the person who introduced us.

I'm not saying that every conversation has to be deep or insightful, but I am saying that I would rather talk about the fact that duck quacks don't echo or about serial killers than about the weather. (It's a fun challenge for yourself -- I highly recommend it, despite this current post.) So when this silence hits, I usually go with one of three options.Option #1- I ask another question, a bit more personal than before, that leads to another conversation. This is a perfectly fine route, except that this option doesn't make it any easier to gracefully exit a conversation with a stranger, so the questions get more and more intimate until this stranger and I are crying at a bar and talking about dead family members. I'm a former therapist, so this is actually fairly comfortable for me, but I end up making really close friends accidentally this way. Again, not a terrible thing, but this can't be my only option.Option #2- Make up an excuse to walk away, including but not limited to getting another drink, going to the bathroom, or making a phone call. Then it's me going to the bathroom and trying to pee to justify my behavior. I am so aware of The Moment of Silence that I have, on occasion, preemptively used Option #2 in order to avoid the Moment, thereby leaving a conversation way too early. That's a weird thing to do, I know. Option #3- Attempt to involve a third party in the conversation as to take the burden off of the two of us. Which leads me to the other good point that's been made -- why on earth do I think the burden of conversation is on me? I'm clearly not the only person who can helm the good ship Conversation. None of these options are perfect, and none of them are gracefully and chummily saying "It was so cool to meet you, I'm going to duck out and chat with other folk!", so what I'm looking for now are other options.

What do you do when it's time to gracefully exit a conversation? What words do you say? Are you just as bad at it as me? It's in your best interest to clue me in on any tricks you've learned, lest we end up accidental best friends at a party sometime.