Gracefully exiting from conversations

This is a repost blog.

Original posts by Letter Writer #336 at Captain Awkward. Only the original questions/updates are reproduced here - to read Captain Awkward’s advice, click through to the original links.

27 Aug 2012: Gracefully exiting from conversations

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve recently been going to social events where I don’t know anyone (such as MeetUp groups — thankyou for the suggestion BTW — I didn’t know about them until you mentioned them) in order to meet new people and perhaps rebuild some kind of social life, since the one I had kind of disappeared in bits and pieces for all the usual predictable reasons (moved cities, broke up with partner of more than a decade, got busy with work, cut back on a hobby most of my friends were in, never that sociable to begin with etc. etc.).

Anyway, I seem to have a real problem with meeting and then being cornered by conversation hogs. I have no idea if I particularly attract this kind of person, or if everyone else has some secret way of escaping them that I lack, but I often seem to find myself stuck in a one way conversation with someone, while I nod and smile and be polite, unable to get a word in edgewise.

For example, I recently went to a group bike ride with all new people I’d never met before, and when we were stopped for rest breaks, there was a man who would talk non-stop over everyone, to the point of asking me questions and then talking over my answer. When someone else tried to strike up a conversation with me, he talked over both their question and my answer. He stood between other people and me with his back to them, no matter how I moved around, and stood way too close (again no matter how much I moved away — he was a spitter too… ugh). Despite all this conversational overkill, he was really focused on me — he spent the whole time we weren’t actually riding blocking anyone else from speaking to me, or sometimes he was so loud no one could speak at all. Thankfully when we were riding he liked to go as fast as possible, so I could hang back a bit with various other people.

Saddly, this is a pretty common experience for me. At social events I often find myself stuck all night talking to someone like this, or more accurately listening and trying to get away politely.

My question is this — how does one extract oneself from conversations like this politely? I’m trying to meet new people, so I want to escape this type of guy without coming off like a rude bitch to everyone else who might be a potential friend. Actually I don’t want to be rude or nasty at all, since I’m guessing most of the time these people don’t realise what they’re doing, and are probably overcompensating for shyness. I used to talk too much myself, lecturing on some weird topic of interest to me oblivious to the interest level of my victims, so I do sympathise. I just don’t want to feel like I’m responsible for making their social experience a good one at the expense of my own.

Or, perhaps you or your commenters could suggest some things I might be doing wrong that attracts these people and makes me a target for their attentions in the first place? Can they smell my sympathy? It seriously happens a lot. And I’m thinking that social settings where people are all trying to make new friends and anyone can attend are going to have more than their fair share of the conversationally clueless. Doubly so because due to my generally more blokey hobbies I’m often one of the only women.


The woman trapped in the corner nodding and smiling

7 Jan 2017: UPDATE

I’m the person who wrote #336 — Gracefully Exiting From Conversations, more than 4 years ago now! That response, and the responses of the commenters was the start of a whole bunch of social awareness that I hadn’t had before. I’ve realized and internalized (finally) that I can just excuse myself and walk away from people who I don’t want to be talking to. It turns out that I don’t really even use excuses that often — sometimes I just say excuse me and walk off if I’m not into a conversation, although needing to get a new drink or the bathroom or whatever are all good excuses that I sometimes use. It turns out that if you smile and do it assertively and most importantly actually do it while physically moving away that it usually goes pretty smoothly. It also turns out that everyone is entering and leaving conversations all the time so it’s not that weird. I’ve noticed that as soon as a conversation monopolising bore gets really going a whole bunch of people leave — it’s now one of my queues that I should maybe consider if I’m actually interested (sometimes I am, but often not).

Zuzu’s comment with the link to Hugh Jackman demonstrating the George Clooney technique for meeting people he doesn’t want to talk to was actually really helpful. It’s the physical act of keeping on moving that’s the most powerful thing. Most people won’t actually physically wrestle you, and even people who’ve literally cornered you will generally get out of the way if you move with a purpose. And if someone does physically wrestle you? It’s time to make it obvious that’s what’s going on and make an enormous scene, because eek.

Most importantly though, I’ve actually started to become aware of my own feelings, preferences and thoughts in social situations. I still care a lot about what other people think of me, but I’ve realized that I was so focused on what people might think of me that it blotted out all other thoughts. Now I’m able to actually check in with myself about what I think of them, too. Which means instead of standing helplessly and nodding and smiling while people talk at me, and only realizing afterwards that I hated it because I was so focused on my social performance, I now realize during the conversation that I’m not into it and can take action. This has also made me a much better listener — turns out that being entirely focused on how people perceive you isn’t a good strategy for really engaging with people.

These days I still have many friends complain to me about apparently attracting people who trap them in boring one sided conversations, and they’re always intrigued and confused when I tell them the secret is to actually just…leave the conversation. But, that’s really it. The trick is realizing that it’s not unforgivably rude to do so, and to stop being so afraid of how other people will react to it.


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September 25, 2023