Small Talk

How and When to End a Conversation

Knowing when to change the topic and how to end a conversation are as important as knowing how to start a conversation and make small talk.

Each speaker must be attentive to verbal and non-verbal cues from the other which indicate that:

  • the conversation can be continued
  • the subject should be changed
  • the conversation should end

Small talk at the office between two people who do not know each other well may center around the upcoming weekend, length of time worked there, the commute, new equipment, cafeteria food, etc.

Suppose one speaker enthusiastically says to another, “Looking forward to the weekend?”, assuming the other is tired and needs some time away.  Instead, the second speaker says something like, “No, I’m not.  I’d rather stay and finish my report.”

Likewise, saying “I can’t believe how bad the coffee is here!” may elicit a shrug, shake of the head or silence if the other person likes it.

In both cases, the other person’s response is a cue for the first speaker to change the subject and try to find something they have in common if they want to continue.

At business social events and conferences, people are expected to walk around and talk to a number of people they don’t know: to mingle.

The idea is to start and maintain casual conversations with others and then move on — sort of like speed dating.  People often exchange business cards.

If one speaker does not maintain eye contact and keeps looking over the other’s shoulder, or seems completely disinterested in the discussion, it is likely a cue to end the conversation.  Saying something like, “Well, it’s been nice talking to you.  I should go and say hello to some of the other people I haven’t met” is one way to end a conversation in a non-abrupt manner.

Or suppose one speaker has introduced a topic, like baseball, in which the other has expressed a lack of interest. Despite attempts to change the subject, the first speaker persists in talking about baseball. In desperation, the other speaker says he/she should go and meet some of the other people.  If the first speaker tries to continue the conversation, he or she has missed the cue the other speaker wants to end it.

Small talk is closely related to the need for people to maintain ‘positive face’ and to feel approved by those who are listening to them. Failure to respond appropriately to verbal and non-verbal cues when making small talk can leave a negative first impression and may affect future social interaction.