Evidence That Most of Us Are Terrible at Knowing When to End Conversations

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While reading up on Zoom fatigue for last week’s article, I came across a number of articles that provided tips on how to extract oneself from a video call that has gone on longer than you’d like.

Some were more funny than practical – like the “Passive Aggressive” and “Irish Goodbye” in 8 Non-Awkward Ways to Leave a Zoom Hangout. And likewise, the Zoom Escaper webapp which helps you fake a bad connection, or a baby crying, dog barking, etc. as an excuse to leave Zoom calls (here’s a quick tutorial , if you’re so inclined).

But the implication was that we are often trapped in conversations, and unsure how to exit them gracefully.

Indeed, whether it’s a stranger next to you on an airplane, an acquaintance at a social gathering, or a friend who appears to be on a practice break, how do you know when is the right time to end the conversation?

Like, does this person actually want to stop talking to me, but is hanging in there to be polite, so I’m being kind of insensitive by keeping them hostage?

Or are they genuinely engaged in the conversation, and by cutting things off rather abruptly I’m inadvertently pushing them away, when I’m really just trying to be respectful of their time?

You’d think we’d be able to tell which way our conversational partner is leaning. But can we really?

A conversation study

A team of researchers (Mastroianni et al., 2021) recruited 252 participants, paired them up, and had them chat with each other in a quiet room for up to 45 minutes.

Their instructions were to “talk about whatever you like for as little time or as much time as you like, as long as it is more than 1 minute and less than 45 minutes. Whenever you’re ready to move on to the next part of the study, please come get me.”

To make sure there was no incentive to cut the conversation short, they were also told that however long they chose to chat with each other, there would be additional tasks to complete for the remainder of the hour.

A few questions…

When they were finished chatting, the participants were separated and asked a few questions about the length of their conversation. 

Questions like whether there was a point in the conversation when they felt ready for it to end. And how much shorter or longer they would have liked the conversation to be. 

But also, whether there was a point during the conversation when they felt like their partner may have been ready for the conversation to end. And how much shorter or longer they thought their partner might have wanted the conversation to be.

And what did the researchers find?

Conversation length…

Well, the first question is, how often do you think both participants in each pair were happy with the length of their conversation?

Believe it or not, this happened less than 2% of the time!

Yikes. But most of the time, at least one of the people in each pair must have been happy with the conversation length, right?

Yeah, no. Only 29% of the time, was even one of the people in each pair happy with the length of their chat.

What both participants actually wanted…

Umm…ok, so how often was it that both of the participants actually wished the conversation would have been shorter?

Almost half of the time – 47% to be specific.

That said, there were also a number of times – about 10% – when both participants would actually have liked the conversation to continue for longer.


So why is it that both people in a conversation are so rarely in sync, regarding the desired length of their conversation?

Well, it’s not that we’re all conversational jerks, either monopolizing our partner’s time, or cutting things off short because we just don’t care.

It seems we’re just pretty bad at knowing what the other person wants.

When asked to estimate at what point in the conversation they thought their partner might have been wanting to stop, on average, people were waaaay off. By about 64% of the length of the entire conversation!

Ok, but these were strangers talking to each other. Wouldn’t we be more in tune with the wishes of friends and family?

A similar study with friends and family

Well, the researchers also did a study with 806 participants, who were asked to recall their most recent conversation, and answer many of the same sort of questions as in the study with strangers.

In this case, the researchers weren’t able to gather data from their conversational partner, so there were some questions that couldn’t be answered. But many of the results were similar.

Half of the participants, for instance, wished their conversation would have been longer or shorter, by as much as a third of the total length of the conversation!

Which suggests to me that navigating the ends of conversations can be tricky even when it’s with friends or family.

So…what are we to do with all of this?


Well, this research was done on regular, in-person conversations, so it’s not clear if this would generalize to Zoom calls or if maybe there are different dynamics to consider when chatting online.

Although, given the Zoom fatigue considerations from last week, and the findings of this study, I suppose there may be some truth to the saying that it’s better to leave people wanting more than less?

But even if this isn’t 100% transferable, at some point in the coming months, we’ll probably find ourselves in the position of having to navigate live, in-person conversations once again. Where strategies like the Techno-Devious and Passive Aggressive (#2 and #3 on this list) will no longer be an option (though I guess the Irish Goodbye, a.k.a. French Exit/Dutch Leave is still on the table?).

And what to do then?

Things aren’t so clear-cut…

Well, I went into this paper assuming that most folks would want conversations to be shorter. And though there was some evidence for this, I was surprised to see how mixed the results were.

In that sure, 47% of the time, both conversational partners wished that the conversation would have been shorter. But 10% of the time, both people wished the conversation would have continued for longer. Which is not an insignificant number.

And remember too, that participants’ estimates about how long they thought their partner wanted to talk, and how long their partner actually wanted to talk were not even close.

Maybe we can learn something from performing?

So at the end of the day, given that we can’t really know for certain what the other person is thinking, maybe the optimal approach to navigating conversations is a lot like the optimal headspace for performing?

In that rather than worrying about what the audience or audition committee is thinking while we’re on stage, and whether they approve, or are silently wishing they could be anywhere else, we should just aim to be as present and engaged in the music as we can be, trusting that everything will work out ok. Even if there are tiny hiccups here and there.

As the lead author recently said in an interview – “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.”

* * *

Speaking of being present, engaged, and trusting things to work out on stage, this is of course easier said than done. Because it depends on our trusting and feeling good about our practice too.

And for most of my life at least, I had a pretty negative relationship with practicing. Where there were countless plateaus, slumps, and days when I counted down the minutes until I’d met my practice time quota for the day.

In hindsight, I can see that much of my negativity around practicing was because my efforts weren’t translating very well to meaningful results. Like, even if I sounded better by the end of a practice session, there was no guarantee that these improvements would be there when I returned to the practice room the next morning. Never mind on stage.


Eventually, I kind of resigned myself to practice being an unsatisfying daily slog, but then I began learning about strategies around effective learning and practice and the mental side of performing. And for once, practice seemed to make a real difference. I began to improve faster. The improvements began to stick, from one day to the next. And they even transferred to the stage!

I’ve been teaching these strategies, concepts, and mental skills in live, in-person classroom settings for years. But it turns out this works pretty well online too.

Interested in changing your practice up a bit?

So starting Saturday, April 10th, I’ll be teaching a live, weekly, 4-session, Zoom-based, performance psychology class. We’ll meet in Zoom on Saturday, April 10, 17, 24, and May 1st, to explore research-based strategies for being more effective in the practice room, and also experiment with techniques for managing nerves, getting into the zone, and playing with more confidence on stage (or in front of a webcam).

So if you’ve been feeling demotivated lately, frustrated with your practice, or looking to change things up a bit but aren’t quite sure how, this might help you jump-start things a bit and feel more positive not just about your practicing, but about your performing as well.

Registration begins TODAY (and runs through next Sunday, April 4th)! If this sounds like something you might like to participate in, you can get all the details here: Performance Psychology Essentials


Mastroianni, A. M., Gilbert, D. T., Cooney, G., & Wilson, T. D. (2021). Do conversations end when people want them to? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(10), e2011809118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2011809118

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


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