A Gentleman’s Guide to Getting out of a Conversation

Because telling someone to shut up isn’t ‘gentlemanly’ or ‘civilized’ or ‘appropriate for a 5-year-old’s birthday party, Brian, geez.’

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“Shut up.”

“Please shut up.”

“Shut your giant flapping mouth-hole before I blow my brains out all over this restaurant you waste of time and oxygen!”

These, of course, are the things you want to say when you’re locked in a seemingly endless conversation with that annoying neighbor, that chatty dude at the gym or a relative with no sense of what a reciprocal conversation is. But unless you’re willing to burn a bridge with this person or — even worse — risk having an even more uncomfortable conversation, you’d better find a polite way to cut things short.

Before we get started, are there any special considerations for ending a conversation with either a man or a woman?
Catherine Blyth, author of The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure, says that ending a conversation depends less on gender and more on style. “Some people are formal, while others are jokey,” Blyth explains, so when you’re bailing on the conversation, try to mimic their style. By doing so, they’ll better identify with you as a person and they’ll feel less snubbed by your exit.

Got it. So how do I end it with the boring guy at the party who wants to tell me all about his mortgage refinancing?
Meeting new people at parties is great, but when you’ve found that guy who just latches onto you with their boring stuff, you’ve got to find a way to end things. In this situation — where you’ve met someone new, but don’t want to be rude — I got some advice from Geoffrey Greif, author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. Greif says to go with the old, “I’ve got to find my wife,” to cut off things. If you don’t have a wife, friend or whoever else at the party with you, finish up that drink of yours — without gulping it down — and say that you’ve got to get a new drink.

The key with conversations like this — and many others listed here — is to begin to place the conversation in the past tense, explains Blyth. So you want to say things like “so glad we’ve met” and “it was great talking with you.” That way, they should start to get the hint that the conversation is over and you’ve already moved on from it.

What about the weirdo who seems to only be able to tell random anecdotes about himself, without ever actually having a real conversation?
In cases where it’s someone who just doesn’t understand social cues and may not even allow for you to talk at all, Greif says that you may have to pawn them off. So basically, find someone else to introduce them to and say to that unsuspecting victim, “Hey Rod! Have you met Jerry? He’s got some great stories about his model train collection!” Then get out of there. Sure, it’s a dirty play, but sometimes you’ve got no choice.

Does that work for the person who won’t shut up about their kids?
This is a bit more delicate, as it’s hard to give someone the old heave-ho when they bring out the baby pictures. Greif says that you may have to stick this one out, but there are ways to make it more entertaining for yourself. “My wife and I have this joke between the two of us where we say, ‘You must be so proud’ whenever someone goes on about their children. So whenever one of us says this, it’s like a private joke between us. I even say it when my wife’s not there because I think to myself that she’d enjoy it,” Greif explains.

You can even go a bit further and make a game out of it. “The other thing you can do — while it sounds counterintuitive — is to say, ‘Show me more pictures,’ and just keep saying that every time they show you one,” Grief explains. So instead of being victimized by their endless droning, you can play a game in your head of trying to see how many pictures they’ll show you before they run out of steam.

I have a dear old buddy who just talks a bit too much sometimes. What do I do about him?
While you might think that you can be more honest with a long-term friend, Grief says that there’s no relationship that’s going to function well if you’re telling people to shut up or if you ask them to stop talking all the time. People get sensitive about that stuff, and if someone is your good friend, it probably means that you’ve dealt with years of their yammering. In these situations, it’s probably not going to hurt you to hear a bit more of your friend’s boring stuff, especially if they’re someone really close.

How about on a bad date?
If you’re in a new relationship and you already want the person across the table from you to put a sock in it, there’s a good chance that this isn’t your soulmate. But if the conversation turns to something that makes you feel uncomfortable, the best thing to do is artfully redirect it. Dating coach Harris “Dr. Nerdlove” O’Malley says, “You can say, ‘Oh! That reminds me,’ and then shift the conversation to whatever you want. It doesn’t necessarily have to make logical sense, because we’ve all had those moments where we can’t quite explain how our brains work.” (Just be wary of looking like this if you try that technique.)

If that fails or the person keeps steering the conversation back to whatever made you uncomfortable, O’Malley says you eventually may need to level with them and say, “Sorry, I don’t have anything to say about that,” and hopefully they let it go.

I’m guessing that’s not going to work with my long-term significant other?
Think of it like this: Is it really worth getting into a fight with your wife just because you don’t want to hear her talk about that dream she had last night? No, it’s not, so just shut up and sit through it, “Especially if it’s not going to cost you anything,” says O’Malley.

If you insist on changing the subject, though, O’Malley says that you should just level with your spouse and tell them that whatever they’re talking about makes you uncomfortable for whatever reason. This only shifts the conversation, though — probably to a fight, let’s be honest.

Speaking of spouses, how about that in-law who’s just itching for a political argument over thanksgiving dinner?
Greif says to make sure that you’re thinking first about your significant other and not about yourself, so try to change the subject with new in-laws who may be trying to probe you for your political beliefs, or look to your date to bail you out.

If it’s a father-in-law who just wants to take digs at his politically opposite son-in-law, Greif says to go for a “let’s agree to disagree” and try to move on. The only time you’ll want to engage in this kind of debate is if you’re standing up for your significant other and somehow it’d be more beneficial for them for you to support their beliefs versus their father’s.

Moving back to strangers, what’s the best approach for shutting down the gym bro who won’t shut up about “what worked for him?”
Sean Salazar, a personal trainer and the owner of Anywhere Gym, says that guys like this usually need a direct approach, so as soon as you can, cut them off and say, “That’s great, but my goals are a bit different,” and then proceed to tell them a little bit about your workout goals (even if it’s a lie). The reason you don’t want to just blow off this dude is because if he’s on the same workout schedule as you, you’ll likely be dodging this meathead forever, whereas if you say that your workout goals are completely different than his, he’ll likely back off and find a new victim to brag about his monster pecs to.

And the chatty old dude in the locker room with his peen out?
Except for the shower, your headphones should be in your ears every second you’re in the locker room. That’s to guard against Talky McTalkerson who just loves to talk to you with his wang on display. If you weren’t prepared, however, Salazar says that guys like this never get the hint, so the way out is to announce that you’ve got to get to your workout. Or if you’ve just finished your workout, you may have to be a little bit more blunt and say, “Sorry, I’m really uncomfortable talking like this, catch up with you later,” and then hurry out of there.

How about my insufferable neighbor who makes me want to stay indoors?
In addition to being a personal trainer, Salazar has a neighbor who just never gets the hint. “My neighbor is a guy that just talks nonstop to the point where if I had something to do in my front yard, I’d look to see if he was out there first. If so, I wouldn’t go out; instead, I’d wait 10 minutes to see if he’d gone inside yet.”

But, tired of being a prisoner in his own home, Salazar figured out a trick that ended up working like a charm. “I realized that when I get stuck in these conversations, I just need to walk away. I figured that, his entire life, my neighbor has had people just walk away from him mid-sentence, because he doesn’t have normal conversations; he just wants to talk and teach something. He doesn’t want to listen. So I assumed that his parents, his siblings, his friends, whatever, must have just walked away from him. And you know what? It works perfectly. I just say, ‘Hey, I appreciate that! I’ll talk to you later!’ and I leave. He doesn’t even question it! He doesn’t think I’m a jerk because of it or anything, he just thinks that’s how conversations end.”

How do you end an endless phone conversation?
Etiquette teacher Candace Smith says to wait for a pause in the conversation and let them know that you’ve got to go. Strike quickly though, because you never know when your next chance will come. Always end the phone conversation with the appropriate “Thank you,” “Catch you later,” or “I love you,” depending upon who’s on the other end of the line, but avoid re-engaging by not saying anything other than those pleasantries.

Any advice for dealing with my chatty colleague who’s droning on and on and on and on and on about his weekend?
You’re at work, so work is your ticket out of this conversation. Executive coach Joshua Miller says to say something like, “Sorry, I’ve got to run,” “I’m in the middle of a project with a tight deadline” or “I’m late for a meeting.” Any of those should do the trick. Miller adds that if you know who that talkative dude at work is, do your best to avoid him and guard your time. Don’t get stuck in a conversation that you have to bail out of later — instead, try to avoid engaging him at all.

Regarding work, what about the co-worker who can’t get to the point and goes off on multiple tangents, turning a five-minute catch-up into an hour-plus baring of the soul?
Polite interjections — or even interruptions — are the way to go here. Miller says to listen to just enough to get the gist of their point, then politely interject by saying something like, “I’m hearing that you’ve got an issue with your paycheck. Have you talked to payroll?” This works really well with cutting out all the extraneous information, and it also deters against people asking you for stuff merely because of proximity — there’s always that guy who asks you because you sit five feet from him, not because they’ve actually thought about who their question should be directed at.

If whatever they’re talking about does pertain to you, Miller says to still interject “as quickly and as often as possible,” to get the point while maintaining a level of professional politeness. Also, never tell somebody, “No,” Miller warns, just say, “Not now.” Whatever it is, a “no” will make you look like a jerk, and that can screw you now, or a year from now when that annoying coworker becomes your boss, so the way to deter someone from dumping their work on you is to go with “not now.”

And the boss who won’t shut up about his stupid fishing trip?
“Stick it out,” says Miller. The only time you can interrupt a conversation with a boss or superior is if you actually have to get back to work, and even then, it’s got to be work that they’re aware of. So, you can say something like, “Hey, sorry, I’ve got to get back to working on that Penske file, but that sounds like a big bass!”

Here’s the thing, though: Miller says you’ve got to strike early. If you don’t pull the ripcord on this within the first 30 seconds to a minute of the conversation, it doesn’t look like you’ve got to get back to work, it looks like you can’t stand to hear another story about your boss’ boring-as-heck fishing trip. So do it quickly, otherwise you’ll be spending the next 20 minutes out on the lake with him, hoping desperately that  someone with throw you a life preserver.

Anything for the guy at the professional networking event who only wants to network with me, his new best buddy?
Greif says that honesty should work here just fine. You can say, “It’s been nice networking with you, but there are some other people I want to touch base with as well.” Because that’s literally the reason why you’re there, so being straightforward but professional shouldn’t really be offensive.

What about the pushy salesman who doesn’t seem to get that I have no interest in saving money on my cable bill because that’s impossible because they’re just going to end up charging me more and more and there’s nothing I can do about it because it’s a freaking monopoly?
For me, I look at salespeople as an excuse to let out my inner rage. Much to the embarrassment of my wife, I’ve told people who work for our cable company, “I hate your company, it sucks,” and once got into a yelling match at a furniture store when a guy kept trying to upsell me on a couch. But assuming you want to treat this sort of salesperson like a human being, Miller says that polite firmness is the key. So go with something like, “I really appreciate you coming here, but with all due respect, whatever it is you’re selling, I’m not interested.” If they continue to push, Miller says to interject quickly, and say, “Again, I really appreciate what you’re doing. I understand you’ve got a job to do, but I’m not interested. This isn’t going to happen.” Also, maintain eye contact so that they know you mean business.

This may be a bit harder for the more polite among us, but with salespeople, you’ve got to be firm, because if you humor them out of politeness, they may misread the signs and assume there’s a chance you’ll go for whatever it is they’re selling.

As for telemarketers, screw them. You can totally hang up on them.

Any tips for the acquaintance I just ran into at the grocery store?
“Avoid rudeness by acknowledging others when you’re out and about, but there’s nothing wrong with keeping your encounter brief,” says Smith. Try to say something like, “Hey, good to see you,” as you pass by, but don’t stop. Stopping is how they rope you in.

And the cashier who loves to talk?
Blyth says that a well-placed glance at a wristwatch or phone ought to do it, and perhaps even couple that with an, “Is that the time? So glad we got to talk.” Again, put the conversation in the past tense.

Please help me with the waiter who won’t shut up and take my order. “Feed me! Stop telling me about how busy it’s been today!”
Smith says to keep your answers to polite, one-word replies like, “Hmm,” or “Interesting.” Hopefully, you have a buddy at the table who you can intervene and disrupt the conversation flow, but if you’re flying solo, you probably should wait out the conversation, lest you risk getting bodily fluids in your food.

Worse than the waiter, how about the cab driver who clearly needs a friend, but all he has is me, who will be his prisoner for the next nine minutes?
Your phone has got to come to your rescue on this one. I reached out to a bunch of friends who take a number of cabs, and all of them said the phone is the go-to move. My friend Todd says to put the phone up to your ear for a mock-call, while Jeremey says to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to cut you off, but I’m really trying to focus on this conversation I’m having via text. It’s very important.” My buddy Matthew suggests setting a fake alarm on your phone and then pretend to answer the call. If your phone is dead, you’re screwed, because a rideshare passenger is the epitome of a captive audience.

Finally, what to do about the jerk who doesn’t understand that no talking ever need take place at the urinal?
Quinn Myers, a writer who’s something of an expert on bathroom talkers, says that — once again — if you’ve got headphones, use them, but if you don’t have them, he explains, “some bathroom talkers feel pressured to acknowledge your existence,” so it’s more about filling the awkward silence than actually wanting to talk. So if you’re stuck at a urinal and someone begins to chat you up, Myers says to, “Make it clear you’re prioritizing the bathroom procedure more than their small talk. Don’t hesitate to flush, wash your hands or run the dryer as they’re talking.” If you don’t want to be a total jerk about it, you may want to shoot a quick “sorry” while you’re drying your hands, but that’s about it. Myers explains that this is all expected behavior in a men’s room, so it likely won’t come off as rude.

Actually, one last thing: How can I be sure that I’m not the jerk who people are trying to end a conversation with?
In case you’re worried that you might be the one who has the problem, and that you’re the one trapping people in circular conversations and droning on about your kids, the way to be sure is to take a look at the body language of the people you’re talking to. Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma, explains that the tell-tale signs that people want to exit a conversation with you are: breaking eye contact; leaning forward as if they’re leaving; pointing their feet toward the door as if they’re heading that way; and nodding too quickly. So if you feel yourself starting to drone on during a conversation and people start to signal at least a couple of these cues, it’s time to shut up and find someone else to latch onto. Weirdo.