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When should you end a conversation? Probably sooner than you think

While studying for his master’s degree at the University of Oxford, Adam Mastroianni confronted a fear common to many party goers: Would he get stuck in a conversation with no polite way out?

Then, Mastroianni had another thought: Perhaps his future conversation partner had the same concern. “What if we’re all trapped in conversations because we mistakenly think the other person wants to continue?” he says.

Now, 5 years and one scientific publication later, Mastroianni has discovered both fears are well-founded: Most conversations don’t end when people want them to.

To get a clear picture of how people really felt when engaged in conversation, Mastroianni—now a Ph.D. student in psychology at Harvard University—and his colleagues invited 252 strangers into their lab. They paired them up to chat for as long as they wanted, up to 45 minutes. The volunteers were told whatever time they didn’t spend on conversation would be spent on other experimental tasks—so there was no motivation to end the discussion early.

Most of the pairs engaged in idle chitchat: asking where someone grew up, or what they were studying. A lot of the conversations were so boring, Mastroianni says, it was “hard to watch them.”

Next, the researchers asked participants how they gauged their own experience. Of 126 conversations, only 2% ended when both participants wanted them to, they report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some extraverted souls had wanted to chat longer, but 69% of the participants said they wanted the conversation to end before it did. On average, people wanted their conversations to be 50% longer or shorter.

The difference seems to stem from people hiding their true desires, Mastroianni says. Because individuals worry that ending a conversation could be rude or offensive, they purposefully don’t signal to others when they want out. That makes it difficult to guess what a conversational partner wants, he says.

To see how good people were at intuiting their partners’ preferences, the researchers asked participants to guess what they thought their conversation partners had wanted, and found that their estimates were far from reality: Some underestimated and others overestimated how long their partners wanted to speak; on the whole, their guesses were about 64% off (in both directions). About 60% of the time, both partners were in accord: They both wanted the chat to end earlier—or later. Only in a minority of cases did one partner want to yammer on whereas the other wished to cut things off.

The new study is the first to put numbers on how difficult it is for people to balance their own goals with what their conversational partners want, says University of Glasgow psychologist Dale Barr, who was not involved in the study. The disconnect between what people wanted, and what their partners thought they wanted, is an important finding, he says. The work, Barr says, gels with other research that suggests people are generally less skilled than we might imagine at working out what others think.

Mastroianni and his colleagues also surveyed 806 people on the online crowdsourcing platform Mechanical Turk, asking them to describe a recent in-person conversation—and how long they actually wished it had lasted. Similar to the lab results, 67% of people reported they wanted out before the conversation was done—and most wished their conversation had been 50% longer or shorter than the actual chat.

That’s surprising, because most of these chats were with friends and family, Mastroianni says. But, “Just like you wouldn’t cut off a stranger and walk away, you also wouldn’t do the same thing to your mother.”

The research is an excellent example of how little is known about how conversation works, says Tanya Stivers, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the research. The fact that the two studies found similar results serves as good confirmation of the findings, she says.

The take-home point? The next time you’re talking to someone at a party, don’t try to guess whether your partner wants to end or continue the chat, Mastroianni says. “You really have no idea when the other person wants to go,” he says. “So maybe, stop trying and just relax and enjoy the conversation.”