Kio Stark loves to talk to strangers, but he knows that every exchange started is one that must end. Here, he shares the way to go out gracefully.
I spent most of the last decade studying (and doing) conversations and teaching people how to understand their exchanges. And I've found out that exits can be the most embarrassing of all moments in an interaction with another person, particularly with a stranger. How do you finish a conversation? Who has the right to end it?
The goal is to end an interaction at will, but without offending the person you are moving away from. Whether we are aware of it or not, we use physical and conversational signals. When our signals are not noticed or listened, it becomes quite fast.
Once it starts, an interaction in an open space has a diameter. In the study of the sociologist Erving Goffman, the range in the United States was no closer than a foot and a half and no more than three feet or so. Too close and it's hard to talk directly to each other, it's hard to know where to look or gesticulate, and it might feel so uncomfortable that it gets people away. Too far and you are not physically engaged in being in the interaction. In a larger group, people may have to lean to feel or be on the fringes of interaction and their attention can easily wander or change fire.
Losing eye contact is a signal that you want to end a conversation, but it is more obvious and intentional.
If you want to make an exit, you can use your body as a signal. Beginning with small increments, you can advance or move outside of that interaction zone. The loss of eye contact is a signal, but more obvious and intentional. Unconsciously, you could become a little nervous, and this is also a signal. Once reported, hope your partner receives the message and will interrupt the interaction or get ready when you do. The sending and receiving of the message can also happen quickly enough to create an illusion of reciprocity.
Words also work. Often, all you need is a reason or a friendly separation line. "I must run"; "I need to get another drink"; "Do you know where the bathroom is?"; "I have to check my friend"; "Hey, it was nice talking to you"; or looking at the phone and saying "my friend (or my partner, or baby-sitter) is sending me messages", things like that. These are reasonable requirements that require the end of an interaction. Any of these things can be true, but they also work as excuses. So it's nice to be honest and friendly, if you can.
Power counts – the most serious person has the right to end interaction and can choose to do it kindly or not.
To exit cleanly, you must also struggle with the person who has the strongest right to "leave the rights" in the conversation. In general, the person who initiated the interaction has the priority to terminate it. It is a question, to a certain extent, of courtesy. The person who started the conversation had a reason. It could have been only curiosity or cordiality, which give only a limited priority in ending the interaction, but if the person who started the conversation had a need or a specific agenda, it is in theory their closure . There is a tacit understanding that you have to make sure that the person who started the conversation got what they needed.
However, this can be abused – and you end up being forced to be rude to get out. Even power matters. When there is a real or perceived difference in power or status, the most serious person has the right to end the interaction and may choose to do so kindly or not.
Much of this, almost everything, takes place below the level of logic and reason. It is all instinct, instinct, sensory information and imaginatively subtle cues. Of course, we can get out of a conversation without satisfying the person who started it. It's rude, but it can be tempered with a wave and a smile as one walks away.
All these implicit rules, bodily expressions and words that do and do not come out of our mouth – all these are things we are only vaguely aware of. Learning to see them brings the thrill of secret knowledge. It is also practical knowledge. It helps you to understand when you feel graceful and when you feel uncomfortable while sharing spaces and moments with people. It helps you to enter a transformed social landscape, open and full of surprising and affirmative connections. And using this precious and practical knowledge can lead us all towards a more intriguing, respectful and tolerant world.
Excerpt from the new book When strangers meet: how people you do not know can transform you of Kio Stark. Reprinted with permission from TED Books / Simon & Schuster. © 2016 Kio Stark.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kio Stark he writes, teaches and talks about foreign interactions, independent learning and how people relate to technology. She is the author of the TED Book, "When Strangers Meet." This piece has been adapted for TED-Ed from this article of ideas.
Art credit: Stocksy