How to tell when a conversation is ending, according to science

Ending conversations is a tricky business, no matter which side you’re on.
As the listener, you find yourself daydreaming while the other person drones on. You want nothing more than to run far, far away. Unfortunately, you’re trapped within the jaws of social propriety, afraid to cut the discussion and come off as rude.

As the speaker, you’re not sure if the other person is fully engaged in what you’re saying, or whether you should cut your losses and go elsewhere.

After all, you don’t want to socially embarrass yourself by talking long after the person has lost interest.

There’s a tricky balance between time and courtesy. You want to give enough time so that both of you feel good about the social interaction, but not so much that you feel like you wasted it.

Numerous studies have been done on conversation endings. As in, when they end, how they end, and whether we can judge when the end is coming. Here are three key takeaways from science on the art of bowing out gracefully:

1. People drop hints before finishing off.

Sometimes, people leave obvious cues that it’s time to go. They constantly look away, check their phone, or do something else. People tend to shift their legs to prepare for departure or physically start backing away.

We can usually gather from these hints that it’s time to politely end the conversation. But there are also some not-so-obvious hints that people employ.

In Josephine Bao-Sun Chen’s “Conversational retreat typology” thesis, Chen researched the different types of exit strategies people use when leaving a conversation. It turns out the strategies largely depend on the relationship involved.

When future interaction is expected, there’s a desire to be polite in order to keep future interactions positive. But when someone wishes to cut off future contact, the person employs more direct strategies. For instance, vanishing (or what is known today as “ghosting”) is a common tactic amongst strangers.

Chen mapped out the strategies, measuring both social appropriateness and efficiency. Here are the socially inappropriate signals:

  • Non-responsiveness — Not saying anything nor having any visible expressions.
  • Restlessness — Constantly fidgeting and looking elsewhere.
  • Vanishing — Avoiding the person or moving away.
  • Rudeness — “Go away!”

Out of the socially inappropriate signals, rudeness is the most direct, while vanishing and restlessness are less efficient. Being nonresponsive is the least efficient.

Socially appropriate signals include:

  • Changing subjects — “Did you just see what happened there?”
  • Polite hinting — “Thanks for your time today.”
  • Excuses — “My cat needs feeding at home.”
  • Getting third party help — Signaling for your friend to rescue you.
  • Closing statements — “Let’s wrap this up.”

On the socially appropriate side, changing subjects is the least effective. Polite hinting is the most polite, yet moderate in effectiveness. Bringing in a third party and creating excuses are less socially appropriate, yet somewhat effective.

If you want to be both effective and polite, try making closing statements, such as “I have to head off now.”

2. Patterns re-emerge time and time again.

Despite what we think about ourselves, our behaviors aren’t quite as unique as we may believe. Like in other aspects of life, we have universal traits when it comes to communication. There are certain behaviors that come up repeatedly to signal that a conversation is nearing its end.

In a Purdue University study, 80 participants were paired up, and one member of each pair was told to end the discussion after obtaining information from their partner. Afterward, the researchers analyzed the final 45 seconds of the conversation and recorded the most common behaviors. As predicted, certain types of behaviors emerged throughout.

When the conversation neared its end, there were three stages that took place. The first was reinforcement, where one person would give brief words of agreement such as “yeah” and “uh huh” to their partner. The next step was buffing, which involved using transition words such as “well” to create space in the conversation. And the final stage was a firm ending, such as “It was great chatting!” or “I have to run now.”

Through the use of reinforcement and buffing, we give the person a bit of time to finish off what they were saying, while contributing less to the conversation. This way, we create distance between ourselves and the person we wish to stop speaking to before making the final break.

These re-emerging patterns point to the fact that people have similar perceptions about conversation endings. Breaking off a conversation is usually perceived as slightly negative, so we give the person a subtle head’s up. We don’t like to spring bad surprises on people.

Instead, we preface our conclusions with small warning signs. We sometimes also soften the blow by ending the conversation on a high and positive note.

3. You’re not as good as you think you are.

Here’s a question: How good are you at telling when a conversation is nearing the end?

In Chen’s study earlier, there was a noted difference between a conversation end and a conversation retreat. A conversation end happens when both participants feel that everything has been said. It’s mutual and feels natural.

A conversation retreat happens when one participant feels it’s time to get out of a conversation early. The retreater might be bored, tired, or has someplace else to go.

Surprisingly, research has found that 45 percent of participants felt that they had to retreat from a conversation — that’s nearly half of the participants! The other person, though, didn’t feel this need and was in fact eager to keep the fire burning.

So the next time you’re in a conversation, observe the other person’s body language and think about whether the person would be interested in a topic.

Navigating Conversation Endings

Most of the time, people don’t make their intentions distinctly clear. You have to read the signals to figure out what’s happening. Knowing what to look for involves a mixture of instinct, observation, and understanding.

I once saw a show in which restaurant servers shared how they recognized when patrons needed service, when it was time for the bill, and when to stand back. They saw subtle cues in body language and facial expressions that most people would have missed.

The main reason why servers can more easily read other people’s needs and wants isn’t that they’re naturally gifted. It’s because they’ve seen it so many times, they’ve learned what to look for and how to respond accordingly.

The good news is that you, too, can acquire this knowledge with enough experience. Now you know the signs. The next step is to put it into practice.
The next time you talk to someone, pay attention to the signals the person gives before the conversation ends. Eventually, you’ll spot similar patterns happening again and again…patterns that you would have missed if you weren’t looking for them.

Until next time, then!

Melissa Chu writes about creating great work and successful habits at To transform your goals into reality, you can grab the guide How to Get Anything You Want.

This article originally appeared on Medium.