A reader wrote about increasing their confidence to get into a social conversation:
“If you end up in a conversation that is obviously not going well (the other person is giving terse, one-word answers, for example), then what is an easy, never-fail way to gracefully leave the conversation with your dignity intact?”
There’s no “never fail” guarantee for any social skill. Even if you do end up in an ungraceful conversation, that is totally normal. Human interaction does not go as smoothly as in the movies (for which the actors rehearse and do multiple takes). But every time we interact with a person, we practice our social skills, just like rehearsing.
I’ve been to many parties and events where people drift into conversations and drift back out again a few minutes later. It used to be scary and awkward but this is a social skill I’ve practised a lot.
So here are my approaches for socializing with large groups of adults at organized events where it’s normal to introduce yourself to a stranger, and there are multiple things to see & do in various parts of the space. (Small gatherings with longer conversations are another matter.)
It doesn’t matter whether the people at the event are sexually attractive, or potential friends, or fellow students, or professional colleagues, or my friend’s grandfather’s neighbour’s fishing buddy. At a big party, the goals for each conversation are: Make it a little interesting, make it brief, and make the other person feel good.
Sometimes you’ll get into a really interesting conversation at a party, where both of you have a lot to say, or you really enjoy listening to your conversation partner. Showing genuine curiosity makes the chat interesting, but it’s still good to keep the conversation brief. You might suggest “I’m really enjoying chatting with you, but I don’t want to keep you from meeting other people tonight.” If it’s a long party, you will likely have another chance to chat with this person, as groups of people mingle. When ending your conversation, or when they are getting ready to leave, you can offer: “If you’d like to chat again, here’s my name and number,” or ask them if they would like to connect on the appropriate social network (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.)
If you and your conversation partner are both running out of things to talk about, it’s no longer interesting so let’s make it brief. If they haven’t ended the conversation yet, it’s time for you to make an excuse: you need to get food or drink, or go to the washroom, or check out the activities in the other room. (I use a small glass of water so it often needs refilling.) Be sure to add a few words that make them feel good – see below!
If the other person is giving terse responses to what you are saying, pause for breath. If they are interested, they might need a chance to compose a response. If they’re not interested, they might make an excuse to end the conversation. If they don’t, you can wrap up – even if you were in the middle of a long explanation, remember that they can’t follow every detail at a noisy party. “It’s been great talking to you about cypress trees. How about we go check out the food/art/music?” Or make one of the excuses above. If the person is really interested in your trip to Louisiana, they will ask to follow up with you for a longer, more in-depth talk.
One of my new exit strategies is to pull in a third person and introduce them to my first conversation partner. The new person might be someone I know, or a stranger who is drifting around looking for someone to talk to. A variation is to ask my conversation partner to introduce me to someone – “Do you know anyone here?” or “Have you met anyone interesting tonight?”. Maybe the new person will refresh the conversation topic and make it more interesting for all of us. Maybe the two people I’ve introduced will get engaged in conversation about something I’m not interested in, and I can drift away after a respectable minute or two. Sometimes the new conversation is also stultifying, so I will make an excuse to exit, which may cue the other two to also stop talking, and everyone will be grateful.
When exiting a conversation, whether excellent or awkward, it’s often appropriate to thank the person for chatting, or say “good to meet you”. If it’s near the end time of the event, you can wish them a good evening, or good luck with whatever is going on in their life, because it’s understood that you won’t get back into conversation again this evening. These wishes can be delivered with your exit excuse: “I need to refill my drink, but it was so lovely to chat with you and I hope your interview next week goes well!” (If you show that you paid attention to them, it makes people feel really good.)
Most people have been in many boring conversations, and they probably won’t even remember the awkwardness a day later. So as long as you don’t say something disrespectful or discriminatory, your dignity will be intact. Remember: being interesting is good, being brief is better, and making people feel good is the best!