November 1, 2009

Having an exit strategy is important. Particularly when it comes to getting out of situations you don't want to be in and even more so when those situations involve being stuck talking to someone you don't want to talk to. There are people who know exactly the right thing to say to get out of an uncomfortable or boring conversation. I am not one of those people.

I have yet to figure out the right thing to say but I know exactly what not to say. For instance, "I don't want to talk to you." Nobody wants to hear that. Because as much as people say they appreciate honesty, they don't.

Being stuck in a conversation with someone over the phone is easy. There are plenty of viable reasons you might have to go. Someone could be at the door. Or if you're at work, you've just been called to an urgent meeting. I've lost track of how many times friends have told me they're being called to a meeting. Only after they've hung up it hits me: they're at home. And it's 10pm.

Talking to someone from a mobile - the exit strategies are plentiful as well. The battery is dying. Or it's too windy. Or, whoops - the signal was just dropped. I get that one all the time. I'll be talking to someone and suddenly the line goes dead. The other day someone said, "Sorry, my cheek hit the mute button." Of course it did.

But when you're at a party it's entirely different. It's not like you can say, "I have to get the other line." Excuses are tricky because people can actually see you.

All you can do is hope that your phone rings and then say you have to take the call. Usually though, parties are loud. Most of the time you can't hear your phone ring unless you're holding it in your hand or holding your purse up to your ear.

One time, I said my phone was ringing even though it wasn't. I said it was on vibrate, reached into my purse, and then pretended to take a call. Then I said it was a private call, and left the room. I thought I was free right up until the minute I saw the person I'd been talking to had followed me out into the hall and was lurking nearby. Patiently waiting to resume where we left off. Who does that?

When I ended my fake phone call they asked if everything was okay and I said not really, I had to go. I ended up leaving the party in order to commit to the lie. There's got to be a better way to get out of a conversation.

I asked my friend Audrey what her in-person exit strategy is. She told me she says, "Sorry to interrupt but there's someone over there I need to speak to."

That's fine if there really IS someone else you need to speak to. But whenever I've tried that I end up walking across the room and standing around by myself. Then I have to look confused - 'Where'd they go?' It's a lot of work.

The problem is, I'm not good at managing the guilt. When I want to get out of speaking to someone, I don't want to the person to feel bad.

Sometimes I'll say I need to use the Ladies room but then I make a crucial mistake and add, "I'll be back in a minute."

If they're an intuitive person, they'll know "I'll be back in a minute" really means "I'm moving on." But the likelihood of that is slim because if they were that intuitive, you wouldn't feel a need to say it in the first place. Plus, the whole point of a good exit strategy is to exit. Not to set up the expectation for a return.

I asked Liza what she does when she's stuck talking to people. "I'm always stuck talking to people," she said. "Be specific." I clarified: talking to people who are dull. She told me when that happens she tries to make eye contact with someone else nearby so she can bring them into the conversation. "Why should I be the only one suffering?"

She asked.

I've been trying to come up with something definitive I can say that is forthright but doesn't sound rude. Then the other night I was out to dinner with a group of people. At the end of the meal, the man seated next to me said the perfect thing. In an assertive and firm manner he stated: "I'm ready to go." It was a moment of pure admiration.

If only he hadn't been talking to me when he said it.