Friday, September 29, 2006

Exit Strategy

I bumped into an old classmate yesterday while I was wandering around a local bookstore. This girl was the Marion Hawthorne of my elementary school (for you Harriet the Spy fans) – not exceptionally pretty, but tall, smart, and athletic. Within the little world of my grade eight class she wielded enormous power, and not always benevolently. The last time I bumped into her was about six months ago at a demonstration class for the local "Preschool of the Arts." Her five-year-old daughter was in attendance; lanky and confident, she was a reproduction of her mother at that age, moving with great seriousness through the steps of her dance, kerchief waved aloft over her head. Bub, meanwhile, hung back nervously on the outskirts of the circle, unconsciously mimicking my own younger self.

So when "Marion" and I crossed paths this morning we recognized one another easily and stopped for a brief chat. While we made small talk I took stock of my appearance: unwashed hair and glasses (bad); blue jeans and white t-shirt (could be worse); plastic Gerber spoons sticking out of my jacket pocket (didn’t actually notice those until later). By the time this assessment was complete, we had basically exhausted our limited repertoire of topics (her daughter, my son, the bookstore), and the familiar social anxiety kicked in: What is my exit strategy in this situation? How do we signal that it’s time for the conversation to end? We cast about in increasing desperation for new topics, and in the end it went something like this:

Marion: [awkward pause]

Me: [awkward pause, eyes flicking away]

Marion: Well, have fun looking through the store!

Me: [awkward attempt at mildly funny repartee, followed by hasty exit]

It was almost as bad as the worst of all exit-strategy dilemmas: popcorn prayer. For those of you unfamiliar with this ritual of the small-group Bible study, popcorn prayer involves six or seven people sitting, heads bowed, while people randomly pray as they feel so inclined. It’s designed, I think, as an alternative to praying in turn around the circle and is meant to alleviate the pressure on people like myself who feel uncomfortable praying aloud in front of an audience. Most of the time it works – but only if there is someone clearly designated both to begin and end the session. On one memorable occasion, I recall, the designated prayer-ender had to go out and answer the phone. My heart-rate escalated; I started to sweat. My exit strategy had just left the room, and it seemed quite plausible that we would have to stay here, praying aloud, or else sitting in awkward silence while everyone waited for me to take a turn, until it was time to leave for work the following morning.

This anxiety of being without an exit strategy has only been exacerbated by the advent of the electronic age. As an email conversation proceeds back and forth in a flurry of epic-length tomes over the course of a couple of days, my stress-level gradually mounts. How, exactly, do we terminate the conversation? Who will be the one to "kill this thread" as the BabyCenter lingo goes, to send that final, unanswered email? Generally, there seem to be two options: either one person goes abruptly silent (awkward, no matter whether you’re the silencer or the silencee), or else there is that torturous petering out, the brief notes of "Thanks, I’ll have to try that!" and "No problem – good luck!"

So if we’re having a great conversation and I suddenly go silent, don’t worry that I’m offended by something you said. It’s just that I’ve never known how to make a graceful exit.

42 comments:

metro mama said...

I have trouble sometimes at a cocktail party. It may not be that I want to stop talking to the person I'm talking to, but I don't want to monopolize them, or someone who has arrived that I should talk to. I find myself a little abrupt sometimes I think.

bubandpie said...

Exactly. I should clarify that exit-strategy-anxiety has nothing to do with being trapped in a conversation with someone who wants to talk to me and I don't want to talk to them (that's a whole other problem). It's all about the process of detaching once there is a mutual sense that the conversation has nowhere further to go.

ali said...

see that's the thing about moving away...i never have those moments where i bump into someone i haven't seen in 15 years.

i'd love to have that. even if it's all awkward and weird-like.

sunshine scribe said...

Ahhh...such an awkward dance the exit process is. I think most people struggle with it in some way. I think I must have fairly underdeveloped, or oblivious social skills .. because I haven't given it much thought before. Now I am sitting here over-analyzing every "exit" I made the last few days.

Antique Mommy said...

I did not know it was called popcorn prayer. Yes, the exit strategy causes me great anxiety. I start anticipating it right at the beginning of a conversation. And I totally stink at it - that is to say I have no exit strategy.

Pieces said...

Funny--your post instantly called to mind email we exchanged earlier this week and I had that moment of panic. Did I kill it? Did she? Did I not respond when I should have?

The anxiety--it's crazy. And it is always based on what we *think* the other person is thinking about us.

And I'm the one that killed it--abrubtly but not without thought. I just didn't share my thoughts with you. :)

When I have participated in online communities I am always the thread killer--mostly because I'm on the west coast and most of the other people were east coasters.

I'll shut up now.

bubandpie said...

SS - I really isn't a SKILL to spend a whole conversation stressing about the niceties of ending it. I have a theory that introverts tend to make fewer social gaffes than extraverts because they are often hyper-aware of negative social signals. And extraverts are the ones who are so natural and comfortable that they put everyone else at ease precisely because they are NOT noticing the subtle glances and pauses that may or may not mean anything.

Pieces - Hehe. There's the rub - there's no "good" way to end an email conversation - if you don't kill it, then you leave me the burden of doing so. I once lost a friendship because she was SO prompt in returning every single email that it was always up to me to pace the conversation (unless we were going to communicate several times per day). Eventually the guilt was too much for me and stopped writing altogether.

Naomi said...

Oh the awkward dance of conversation! I'm so bad at small talk, too, so I'm never sure wht to do, or how to exit.

Ah well...I always mean well! Sometimes it's just difficult to know what to say, and sometimes it's all we can do to get out of there!

laura said...

I usually use my toddler as an excuse for rushing off. This week I used, "Well, I promised M that we'd look for books on puffins and we still have to find them! Take care, okay?" and in the past, I've said that I was on the way to change a diaper ... that one worked pretty well, even if my kid had a dry bum ...

Julie Pippert said...

I used to like to start with, "All righty then...

Luckily then I gave birth to Two Perfect Exit Strategies: Patience and Persistance, aka practicing to audition for Logan's Run.

So now my tactic is, "Holy SHEE SHAW! Ummm how'd they get that far so fast! Listen, ummm, gotta run...later, have a great day!" flung over my shoulder as I take off at a clip that would do Jackie Joiner proud. ;)

Beck said...

I'm a fan of the chipper "It's been nice talking to you!", followed by a brisk walking away. But the worst is when you're talking to a friend and suddenly realized that the converstational sweetspot ended a while back and now you're just blathering on. Bleh.

nomotherearth said...

I feel your pain about ending an email conversation! I am usually the one to stop it, and hope people aren't offended.

Live conversations are easier, because I usually have The Boy with me. I just say "well, we wer actually off to the park", or "We were on our way home for dinner." The Boy quite obliging adds his two cents in and sings out "buh-bye!" and I say "Oh-oh, that's my cue to go, I guess"

My problem is more in avoiding conversations altogether. Like when I'm on the subway and I see someone I know from work, but I was going to use that time to get some reading done. Or, you see someone you don't like from school. I resent the awkward 20 minutes spent making chit-chat. Do I immerse myself in my book and never look up? Do I switch cars?

I guess I'm more of an introvert than I thought...

christy said...

At least you consider your exit strategy. Much better than my grandma's approach. On the phone, mid-conversation she'll suddenly say, "well, goodbye" and hang up the phone. Something about a timer and watching her long distance minutes, I think.

Babaloo said...

Great post. I never know what to say either. I'm getting good at waiting the other person out until they feel awkward enough to end it. LOL :-)

bubandpie said...

Christy - Your grandma nearly woke up my kids just now by making me snort with laughter (they're asleep in the next room). There's nothing like the direct approach, is there? Like that conversation from Go, Dogs, Go!:

"Do you like me hat?"

"No, I do not like it. Goodbye."

Rock the Cradle said...

I wish I knew why I have such problems with this as well. It would make being social much more relaxing. As it is now, I have to work to reach a sense of ease in myself before I can undertake a conversation. My usual tactic of disengagement is to ask someone else something.

Hmm. Maybe I am innately antisocial?

What do you all think? ;)

Kristen said...

Oh god. I am exit-strategy-challenged. Always have been. I got it from my dad. It's odd, because I'm an introvert, and I'll be sitting there enjoying the conversation but being totally drained by it, and yet simultaneously UNABLE TO STOP. It's a terrible problem.

And I always drag out e-mail conversations. My friends probably hate it. I never kill the thread.

Aliki2006 said...

While I don't seem to have the same problem in real life (I have so little time for "real" conversations/meetings that the kids provide me with my not-so-graceful exits) I have a terrible time with virtual conversations...especially IM, which I only really do with students. It's so hard to say "ok, nice talking with you" in the virtual word without seeming abrupt.

T. said...

I loved the Harriet the Spy. I used to pretend I was here and tote about a little notebook.

I just bought the book for my daughter!

Mommy off the Record said...

I'm horrible at making small talk. Ugh. And more horrible at the graceful exit. I get all nervous and tend to say stupid things. If I don't put my foot in my mouth during my excuse to end the conversation, I count it a success.

jen said...

Absolutely. I never know how to end things in those moments..so often I am tactless and stutter, "well, yeah, we're done then?" or something, and hobble off sounding daft. Hadn't really thought about it in the way that you did before now....nice.

Mary-LUE said...

Well, I'm one of those extraverts who babbles on. Most of the time okay, but I have occasions that still bother me when I said something completely stupid and the agonized over it for hours.

Regarding the popcorn prayer, there HAS to be a designated closer at least. That story though reminded me of a friend from high school. He is an introvert and was new to church and prayer. It was one of those go-around-in-a-circle prayer things. He didn't know that if you just sit quietly eventually the next person will go. He chose, instead, to say PASS when it was his turn. That still makes me laugh to think about it.

Christina said...

Oh, this post really struck a chord with me. I have this same problem - I was a nervous mess at Blogher, surrounded by people to talk to, and then having to find 200 exit strategies while there. Luckily, some people were better at it than me.

Veronica Mitchell said...

Okay, I had never thought about the connection between popcorn prayer and conversation endings before, but you have made things very clear.

As a kid and teenager I was always expected to end those prayers, and I hated it. When I was twenty, I stopped praying in front of people altogether. I did not do anything anyone at church asked me to if I did not feel like it. And it is quite a stumper in bible study if the leader says, "Veronica, will you close us in prayer?" and I look him in the eye and say simply and firmly, "No."

I am one of those itnroverts who can get tied up in guilt and anxiety, and at a certain point I just decided to stop feeling it. At least about some things, including ending a conversation.

So send me your drifting conversations. I'll end 'em.

penelopeto said...

my husband is so uncomfortable with the exit strategy that he actually starts to do a little not-sure-what-to-say-next 'doo, doo, doo...' singsong.

so, feeling like i must pick up the slack, i usually pounce and cut it off somewhat premature. i can usually make a little joke and things go well (well, we better go before bee wakes up; it's almost our curfew), or i say something completely stupid and then walk away totally embarassed (well, better go before bee decides that that lady with the big boobs is her new mommy).

at least i've stopped winking at people.

Lady M said...

Been there too! Email is easier. I just let more time go in between responses, and the last one just says, "Have a good day" or something bland.

Instant Messaging is harder, perhaps because I didn't grow up with it, and either did the folks with whom I work. The best IM-users are the ones who've picked up a few teeny-bopper acronyms like "ttyl" (talk to you later), which wraps up the conversation immediately with understood politeness (well, at least at work.) Otherwise, it can go on forever.

mamatulip said...

I loved the way you described Marion's younger self and your younger self, and how you saw those selves in Bub and in her daughter. The imagery there was fantastic.

I was thinking about this the other day -- how we know which emails to reply to and which ones not to, and also, how we manage to get off of the phone when the conversation clearly died a few minutes earlier.

I was at a party with Dave last night -- his boss had a few people from work over and I, being "the wife", knew nobody. Conversation topics were typical "I don't know you at all and you don't work with me" ones: kids, my job and what's on TV right now. I'd make small talk with someone for a few minutes and then there would be this awkward pause where the person I was talking to would try to casually move on to talk to someone they knew.

Yeah. I had a lot of fun.

bubandpie said...

LOL, Mamatulip. I was thinking last night about the conversational topics I would have introduced based on what really interests me as opposed to what was socially acceptable in that situation. Like, "Has marriage turned out to be everything you thought it would be?" or "Why do you have only one child?" or "What factors determined who was and was not allowed into the 'circle' in grade 8?" (The circle being literal, not metaphorical - the recess circle of girls that sometimes parted to include me and sometimes did not.)

Funny (but not surprising) that so many of us bloggers have no small talk. That's what I love about blogs - we get straight to the real stuff.

And Nomo? In those subway-type situations I always avoid eye contact: as long as our eyes don't meet, no one can prove that we actually saw each other.

Red Rollerskate said...

Oh my gosh! This is EXACTLY why I hate the telephone. I never know how to say goodbye. Unfortunately, my sister is the same way, so we usually spend 3 hours on the phone discussing nothing until one of our family members (like a hungry baby) beckons us away and we have the perfect excuse. I so know what you mean.

Red Rollerskate said...

bub&pie - I think you said you think introverts make more graceful exits because we are hyper aware of what we are saying? I gotta disagree. I think it is exatly my introvertedness that gets me into trouble. It is my introvertedness which makes me nervous, which leads me to talk when silence would be just fine, which makes me add a few more choice words after that just to make sure the awkward silence is truly over. It's a bad, bad scene.

Her Bad Mother said...

Know this problem, too, too well... I usually fall back on 'Well, I should let you go...' which relies upon a sort of contrived humility (they must have better things to do... or do *I* have better things to do?) But this one doesn't work electronically (unless we're talking text messaging...)

(Have just caught up on your last two posts, having been sick all week, and wish that I had a few spare hours to comment at length on both them. I don't have that time, but wanted you to know that I read and felt.)

bubandpie said...

RR - I should clarify. By NO MEANS do I mean that us over-analyzers make the better exits (which would be so clearly untrue). I mean that the people with the worst social skills (those below the fifth percentile, let's say, since I've got percentiles on the mind) are all extraverts - the people who call attention to themselves in all the wrong ways.

Then you've got the introverts with truly no social skills - if forced to speak, they will display their lack of social awareness, but since they choose to avoid social situations most of the time, they're not quite as bad as the awkward extraverts.

In the lower-middle you've got all the socially aware introverts, hyper-aware of all the pitfalls and careful to avoid them.

Finally (at the 60th percentile and up, maybe?) you've got the extraverts who are blissfully unaware of all the pitfalls us introverts are so carefully sidestepping, but they're so warm and natural that they just float right over them.

(Like all my theories, this one is a massive over-generalization, but I figure generalizations are a good place to start, and then I can leave it to people like my husband to cut all the fine distinctions.)

Kyla said...

I'm new here...I keep running into you around all my favorite blogs, so I thought I'd pop in and visit. ;)

I'm awful at making a graceful exit...I'm awful at a bumbling exit, too. Honestly, I think the graceful exit is the stuff of myths.

Mrs. Chicky said...

Sadly I am the same way. With emails, phone calls, and face to face meetings. And don't get me started on small talk because I hate small talk. Sometimes it gets so bad that I won't initiate a conversation because I know I won't have any idea how to end it. Wow, that is really sad. I'm going to hide in the closet with a plate full of cookies and a tub of ice cream now.

crazymumma said...

Life's little moments. I always make an ass of myself at those times.

Jenny said...

Amen. I can so relate to this whole dang post. (Except the bible-study thing.)

And your Harriet the Spy reference? You are so, so my friend.

Momish said...

I just shoo people away with a curt "you're excused". No, seriously, taking a humorous approach always works for me, even in email. I once had a boss that would just end our phone chats with "I'm bored with this conversation now. Bye." I always found myself sharing a good laugh with a dial tone.

Girl con Queso said...

First of all, you should totally ask the questions you mentioned..."Has marriage turned out to be everything you thought it would be?" or "Why do you have only one child?" or "What factors determined who was and was not allowed into the 'circle' in grade 8?" Not only because that would be oh so Oprah of you, but also because it would be funny to see/hear the responses. You'd be entertained just seeing the faces of those you'd asked.

Secondly, exit strategies...I've found that a fake sneeze attack works wonders.

bubandpie said...

GCQ - After I posted that comment I remembered a conversation I once had with a total stranger at a wine-and-cheese party. I mentioned in passing that I was recently separated and she leaned forward with avid interest and said, "Oh! Tell me all about that!" It was so nosy and inappropriate - and it led to such a great conversation. That was probably the most fun I'd ever had at one of those meet-and-greets.

Ruth Dynamite said...

I used to cringe at these types of social scenarios - the mindless chit chat, the awkward buh-byes - but now I kind of like taking charge with a big sigh and saying something like, "Well, uh, you take care now, OK?" Then I dash away. Smiling.

lildb said...

my cheeks are tingling a little, b/c I -- well, yes.

mostly, though, my thoughts on the strategy are this: I am inept at stopping the verbal flow on *my* end, at best. therefore, I generally allow the other person to walk away first, in the email-tome-missives sitch. b/c I'm not offended by that kinda thing. I figure, hey, we've all got crap to do, right? *shrug*

not that you were *necessarily* looking for my personal response to this sort of scenario. because that sort of thing would never have happened b/w us.

never.

(unless, of course, you grew more and more bored with my endless ranting and finally threw up your hands and physically sprinted away from the computer. but, again, that would never be the case with us.)

heh. *clears throat nervously*

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