Ah yes, the old nod-and-smile. You may have read articles on great conversation starters and mastering in-person networking situations, but what about dealing with those conversations you desperately want to leave?
Whether at a conference or a party, we can all relate to that heavy discomfort that arrives when a conversation loses steam, or the sinking feeling you get when you realize you're listening to a person's life story. Until teleportation is a thing, you're either going to have to stick it out or find a way to make a swift, graceful exit.
Don't worry, there are a few ways to excuse yourself from these uninteresting conversations without looking like a jerk, and all it takes are a few words. Try out the one-liners below.
"Did you see the restroom anywhere?"
As a less-forward variation on the tried-and-true "I have to go to the bathroom," this one works every time. If you've got a talker on your hands, wait for a natural break in conversation so you aren't expected to pick up where you left off later on. Also be wary that a conversation partner of the same gender may decide to come with you.
"I think I left my [laptop/bag/phone] in the other room. I'd better go grab it before it disappears."
Hey, you can't argue with that. This is a totally valid way to leave a conversation suddenly -- who could blame you for being concerned about expensive belongings? Just make sure the item you mentioned isn't readily visible. That would be awkward.
"I need another drink, what about you?"
You may need to chug your drink a little bit to make this one-liner work, but once your glass is empty, invite your conversation partner to head over to the bar with you. If they say no, then you're free to leave and do your thing. If they want to come with, then at least you have the chance to meet up with some other people en route who will help liven things up.
"You love XYZ? You should meet Joe, he loves XYZ too!"
Introducing your conversation partner to someone else is the ultimate getaway trick. Instead of looking like a jerk, or even looking neutral, you actually come off as kind of a hero. You're ever-so-thoughtfully helping them expand their network! I knew this tip was genius as soon as I heard it (thanks, Ginny). Take your conversation partner with you to look for the person together, then introduce them and say, "I'll let you guys chat."
"Do you know anyone else here who has experience with/is interested in/could help with X?"
Another option is to flip it around and have them introduce you to someone else. If they do know someone, then ask them to walk you over to that person and introduce you. But if they say no, you could be stuck.
A simple "excuse me" coupled with a non-disruptive slip-away works well when there's more than one person left in the conversation.
"I have a question I wanted to ask the speaker before s/he leaves."
Many conference-goers would love the opportunity to meet the event speakers, so your conversation partner will understand. Wait until a natural break in conversation, then politely excuse yourself so you can go gain some knowledge.
"Anyway, I don't want to monopolize all your time."
Every savvy networker knows that conferences are like speed dating -- most attendees want to meet a wide variety of people instead of spending 45 minutes talking to just one. Emphasize how much you enjoyed talking with them, exchange cards, and be on your merry way.
"All right, I need to go check in with my team. It's been great chatting."
Use this line for a quick getaway when you reach a natural lull in conversation. If you are the only member of your team at the event, just make sure you never mentioned to them that you came alone.
"So, listen, it's been great catching up with you. Let's exchange cards?"
The key to this line is saying "So" with an upbeat tone of voice. Tell them you enjoyed the conversation and you hope you see each other again before the end of the event.
"Hold on, I've got to take this."
The phantom phone call is a tough one to execute without giving yourself away, so proceed with caution. You can pretend you got a text (so it's not suspicious when your phone doesn't ring or continuously vibrate), look concerned when you read your phone screen, shoot your conversation partner an apologetic look, and say, "hold on, I've got to take this."
If all else fails, join me on the waiting list for the Tickle app for iPhone, which generates a fake phone call if you "tickle" your phone. (Seriously, can't wait for this.)
What tips do you have for leaving an awkward conversation without looking like a jerk?