Bailing gracefully — the overlooked awkwardness of ending a conversation

Saying 'hello' is usually seen as the hardest part of a conversation, but what about saying 'goodbye?'


When I first came to the University, nothing was more awkward than starting conversations with new people. Now, however, after making friends that I speak with regularly, the most awkward part of a conversation has become — ironically — ending them.

I first noticed my fear of ending conversations when I ran into a friend outside of Bryan Hall about a month ago. We both said hello and admitted that we needed to hurry to our classes but decided to stay and talk for a minute anyways. Unfortunately, one minute soon stretched into two, which stretched into five — making both of us eager to say goodbye. Although we both knew that the other person had things to get to and that it was time for the conversation to end, neither of us felt comfortable being the one to end it. Eventually, I blurted out that I was going to be late and rushed off in the direction of my class, feeling like I had done something rude.

My awkward conversation outside of Bryan Hall might have been strange and paradoxical, but I’ve come to realize that situations like this are fairly common. Think about how many times you’ve talked to someone for too long because neither of you wanted to be the person who said goodbye first. Nobody even has to be in hurry to reach the frustrating point where all parties recognize that it’s time to say goodbye, but nobody leaves.

Why does this happen?

I think that the origin of this weird, illogical conversation limbo we often find ourselves in has to do with our fear of being offensive. We have all been taught — either directly or indirectly — that by bailing on a conversation we are in some way being impolite and will hurt the other person’s feelings. By saying “goodbye,” we worry that we are implying, “I don’t like talking to you.”

Getting past this way of thinking isn’t easy. Even after I realizing how often I find myself trapped in a sort of polite purgatory, I still had a lot of trouble initiating the conclusion of conversations without feeling awkward. After doing some research, however, I have learned a few strategies that have helped me diminish the extent of this awkwardness.

One small strategy that can help us say goodbye when we need to is simply remembering that the other person is probably just as nervous about ending the conversation. Saying goodbye might feel rude, but it might also be a relief to them, especially if you both have somewhere else to get to. It is also true that the way you say goodbye can help you feel less like you are being rude or impatient. Admitting to the other person how important it is for you to make it to your next destination or expressing how excited you are to see them again are both good ways to end things more indirectly.

Finally, I think it’s important to keep in mind just because a conversation is reaching its natural conclusion doesn’t reflect poorly on the conversation itself. Even when you are having a great time talking to someone, you will always reach the point where you both need to move on. Don’t get caught up in the idea that wanting to saying goodbye means you didn’t enjoy yourself. 

I still dislike ending conversations, but I’ve learned that the awkwardness I feel in saying goodbye doesn’t really mean anything. In fact, maybe the universal nervousness we feel when leaving a friend isn’t such a bad thing. After all, we only feel uneasy because we are worried about being rude to others, which shows, to me, that we’re all trying our best. And in a world where the simple act of communicating with each other can be a harrowing experience, what else can we do?

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