Thank goodness for caller ID. It’s saved me many a time from having to suffer through a three-hour conversation with my aunt Judy (or “Jawdy,” as I call her). Don’t get me wrong; my aunt is a sweetheart, but she does ramble on.
We all have that person in our lives who just can’t seem to get the hint that it’s time to end a conversation. It can be really difficult to avoid feeling rude without spending your entire day chatting it up, but it is possible. With a little social finessing, you can say “hi” and “bye,” and be on your way.
Cut Through the Rambling
Most people don’t know they’re rambling when they speak, or they realize this nervous habit but can’t seem to get themselves back on track. You can help them (and yourself) by directing the conversation. For example, instead of asking something vague like, “How are you?” anticipate their answer by saying, “You look like you’re doing well today.” You can also reflect how he or she sounds back to someone by commenting, “If I understand you correctly, you’re saying ______, is that right?” This keeps the conversation moving in one direction and shows the person speaking whether he or she is being intelligible or not.
If your Chatty Cathy is a work colleague, or someone from whom you need specific information, set the agenda for the conversation at the very beginning and avoid generalizations, as they leave room for rambling. Avoid opening with something like, “I need to talk to you about the doughnuts in the break room,” because that can go in all kinds of directions. Try a specific question, like “Do you prefer the frosted or glazed doughnuts in the break room?” (I hope you have more to talk about at work than doughnuts, by the way. It’s just an example.) Offering an either/or or yes/no setup to your questions also helps to streamline things, so organize yourself with these before you head in to talk.
Signing Off, Short and Sweet
Once you feel you’ve accomplished the purpose of your conversation, or your interest is waning, knowing when and how to cut off talking to someone is one of the primary tools of etiquette. The most important thing is to express to the other person that you’ve enjoyed speaking with her, but that your available time to do so has come to an end. There are two components to a polite and effective sign-off: verbal cues and body language.
Try these stock lines for bringing things to a close. You can use them alone or in combination.
- “Well, I know you’re busy.” Great because it gives the other person the opportunity to opt out, too, and keeps him or her from feeling abandoned.
- “It was nice talking to you.” Was. Past tense.
- “I have to go.” Plain and simple, but still polite. The important thing is not to explain any further, as it might continue the conversation. And you don’t want to start making up excuses because you feel guilty about leaving. (You shouldn’t.)
The above work even better when some simple body language cues are added. Try the following:
- Always smile. You can say anything with a smile and it will sound better than without one. I’ll have a much easier time believing that it was nice talking to me if you’re smiling while you say it.
- Walk. And keep walking. If you hesitate or linger, you give the other person an opportunity to detain you further. It’s much harder to ramble at your backside, and as long as you’ve already declared your intention to depart, it’s not rude.
- Use physical punctuation. Tap the other person’s arm lightly as you say goodbye, or hold out your hand for a handshake. This signals to the other person, more than mere verbal cues, that the conversation is at an end.
When Enough Is Enough
Sometimes, you just need to avoid conversation with a problematic Chatty Cathy altogether. If you’re running late already or you’re especially not in the mood, it’s okay to simply say at the outset, “I can’t talk right now,” or let the answering machine pick up the call. As long as you don’t do this every time, once in a while shouldn’t appear rude. Mention that you’d like to speak with the person at a later date only if you’re willing to follow through with that, and keep your demurral simple and to the point. There’s no need to come up with wild excuses; most people will figure you have a good reason for not staying to chat.
Remember They’re the Rude Ones
Chatty Cathys can pose a real social problem; they’re a time suck, and they can also plague us with guilt for not sitting down to let them ramble on. It’s important to remember that they’re the ones being rude by making excessive demands on your time. Most people will understand that you have more important things to do, and you’re committing no social gaffes by politely excusing yourself to do them. So, the next time you meet a Chatty Cathy, walk away guilt-free.