Why is it so hard to say goodbye?

Researcher Adam Mastroianni has found that conversations tend to last a length of time that makes no one happy. He says it’s ok to say to goodbye when you want a conversation to end — but why does that feel so difficult to admit?

Conversations almost never end when we want them to, even when all participants want to leave

Two young women chat over coffee at Bonanza in pre-pandemic Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Originally aired June 13, 2021.

Somewhere between the third and fourth attempts at a goodbye, you might have the sense that you really would have preferred the conversation ended ten minutes ago. 

Perhaps more surprising, however, is that the other person in the conversation might be feeling the same way.

Adam Mastroianni, a PhD candidate in psychology at Harvard University, was one of the authors of a study that examined how frequently conversations ended when both participants wanted them to. 

With more than 900 conversations logged, they found that essentially, very few conversations ended when people wanted them to. About two thirds of participants wanted them to end sooner rather than later, with roughly another third wishing the conversation went longer. 

One notable finding was that in many of those conversations, both participants wished they could leave earlier, and seemingly held on out of politeness. 

"It's as if we were trying to choose a place for lunch and I wanted pizza and you wanted pizza. But instead we went and ate liverwurst sandwiches," Mastroianni told Tapestry's Mary Hynes. 

Poor judgment

Another issue is that most people have a hard time judging what their partner in the conversation actually wants. 

When asked how long a person thought their conversation partner wanted to talk, they were often wrong by roughly 60 per cent. So if they were to guess the other person wanted a 20 minute conversation, they were likely 12 minutes off. 

Part of the struggle is that most human beings are much worse at detecting cues than they think they are, and there's often a lag between a person's desire and their cue. 

"They might think they picked up on the first [cue], when in fact, maybe it was the tenth cue that you gave. And by the way, what if the other person has been giving clues the whole time and you haven't been paying attention to that?" said Mastroianni.

Despite this mismatch in what we actually want and what actually happens, this actually might be a good thing. 

Adam Mastroianni is a PhD candidate in psychology at Harvard University who studies conversations and how people understand change. (Submitted by Adam Mastroianni)

There's a surprising amount of care that goes into each conversation, which often happens automatically. People take turns when talking, even in an argument. They try to anticipate what the other person is going to say so they sound present. 

In a world where people simply left when they'd had enough, it would be one person always left disappointed. 

"The fact that that doesn't happen means that we do care," said Mastroianni. 

"We're trying to triangulate what the other person wants and what we want and, and what we think they want, versus what they actually want."

Pulling the ripcord

That said, if you are aching to pull the ripcord from a conversation gone far too long, he does have some advice for you: Just be honest.

That might sound overly simple, but Mastroianni adds that saying goodbye is a fraught concept. A farewell indicates a person is choosing to end what was hopefully a positive encounter, and if really was great to catch-up, why would a person choose to end it?

That tension is at the heart of why we struggle to end conversations when we want them to. 

"I think successful endings of conversations, take that into account and signal to the other person that things are okay, nothing has gone wrong, even if maybe secretly a little bit of gone wrong," said Mastroianni. 

"That's why I like to say, 'It's been really great talking to you.' And if I intend to talk to the person again, I say I'm looking forward to chatting again, 'I have to take off and I'll talk to you soon.'"

Written and produced by Arman Aghbali.


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