Party conversations should ideally be like cotillions, those 18th-century European dances that involve four couples in interlocking patterns before disassembling gracefully and possibly catching some kind of plague. Most actual party conversations, however, are more like lap dances at sloppy strip clubs — weird to do in public, and one person is clearly way more into it than the other. An awkward chat at a party could hypothetically go on for the entire night, not just the length of the next three songs chosen by a Champagne-room DJ named Big Rick.
What’s far more likely, though, is that somebody says or does something to force the other person’s hand, making them search for a way to make an elegant escape — possibly cartwheeling away into the night beneath the cover of smoke bombs. Before you know it, you could be the one left with your now aptly named Solo cup, as exposed as an unshelled turtle. It always happens to someone, and it might just be your turn. Party conversations are a zero-sum game that way. According to legend, there was once a conversation that ended with a spontaneous mutual handshake and both people ejecting seamlessly back into the party population at large. This is too much to hope for. One person will leave, and by doing so: win. You want to be that person. Here’s how to do it.
The simplest but most challenging way to exit a conversation is simply to leave. No vague mention of a trip to the bar or snack table (to which an undesirable companion could easily accompany you), no using loud music as a cover for pretending the other person has ended the conversation (which is confusing and just as likely to lead to a more intimate conversation). Look the friend/stranger/relative/ex-lover right in the eye and say: “Great talking to you. I’ll see you soon.” You can just do that. Just imagine how Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would leave a family he just saved from an earthquake. A firm but platonic hug. Strong eye contact. A tender but final good-bye. And just like that, he’s gone.
If you lack the will to simply walk away, it’s important to remember that there is probably a way better conversation happening right next to you. A stray line of dialogue you overhear is the vine that lets you Tarzan-swing out of an undesirable interaction. There you are, stuck rehashing what Donald Trump said this week, with your high-school friend’s dweeby new boyfriend, while literally four feet away, three actual friends are ranking the all-time greatest horror-movie kills. Instead of waiting for a moment to tactfully make an exit, simply yell “Eyeball scene in Suspiria!” and jump into the preferred conversation the way Jason Statham might leap out of a helicopter onto a moving train.
In some cases, though, a conversation is so bad that you are willing to take the loss of letting the other person abandon you by proving yourself an unfit acquaintance. Interrupting tends to do the trick.
But perhaps the quickest way to let the air out of a conversation’s tires is to go post-modern. Not a single person in the world wants to talk about the conversation they’re having as they’re having it. This principle goes beyond someone unhelpfully saying “Awk-ward” when they’ve decided what was just said was awkward, although that is indeed its own separate nightmare. Even complimenting the conversation — “I’m so glad we’re getting a chance to catch up!” — takes everybody out of the moment and into a purgatorial party zone where they become aware of the need to fill a vacuum with words. Now you’re in an existential tailspin, visualizing all the other conversations you’ll have at all tomorrow’s parties and the rotating cast that will populate them as people move in and out of your life until you finally join the big party conversation in the sky and start boring the halos clean off the heads of angels.
The upshot is that every conversation that ends badly at a party — and these will be legion pretty much no matter what — the opportunity immediately arises to start from scratch, evolve your talking game, and not blow it this time. Because nothing motivates you to strike up a new conversation fast like avoiding the people who jailbroke themselves from you moments ago but are still standing two feet away.
Adapted from YOU BLEW IT!: An Awkward Look at the Many Ways in Which You’ve Already Ruined Your Life by Josh Gondelman and Joe Berkowitz. Reprinted by arrangement with Plume, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright ©2015 by Josh Gondelman and Joe Berkowitz.