Talk, talk, talk: How to escape a dull chat

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 30, 2012 - 10:32 AM

When the conversation lulls or won't end, there are ways to extract oneself. Even polite ones.

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“The cellphone is kind of a get-you-out-of-anything excuse” when you're stuck in a bad conversation, says T.J. Akerson, bartender at Mission American Kitchen in Minneapolis.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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We've all been there -- cornered at a party, in the grocery store or while on a simple neighborhood stroll, ensnared in an interminable conversation, our Minnesota Niceness stymieing the vehement desire to cut off the talker and cut out.

But not all of us have experienced "the Johnson goodbye." Since Tom Stangl married into the Johnson family decades ago, he has learned to chuckle at the clan's perennial penchant for an adieu ritual that is extremely kind and incredibly slow, bidding godspeed with no speed whatsoever.

"I've seen them introduce new subjects all the way to the curb. One time, one of them followed my son to his car and then got in the car with him and stayed 30 minutes. And my son actually had to go somewhere."

Because family members are so fond of one another, and the practice is so well established, "it's fun to watch," Stangl said. But getting buttonholed by a boor or a bore, an egotist or a polemicist, can be quite the challenge.

True experts -- a politician, a psychologist and a bartender -- use proven exit strategies. It should be little surprise that a favored tactic among these seasoned veterans of dealing with gabby gasbags involves modern technology.

"The cellphone is kind of a get-you-out-of-anything excuse," said T.J. Akerson, bartender at Mission American Kitchen in Minneapolis. He said customers "will look at their phone and that will give them an excuse. 'I've got to call this person.'"

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, admitted that he uses contemporary telecommunications to his advantage in more ways than one. "My favorite trick is that I have the ability to have my phone make a noise," Garofalo said. "One of the benefits of owning an iPhone 4S is I can make it chirp on demand with Siri."

Then, when he's putting the phone to its intended use, "the easiest thing to do is the unintentional phone drop," he said. "You say, 'Hey, this call's breaking up, I'm about to lose my signal.'"

For nonconstituents only

Garofalo is quick to point out that these tactics are for peers, and definitely not for voters in his district. "You never cut off a constituent. When they get me on the phone, I'm on the phone till they're done talking. They visit me, the same thing."

Disengaging from a peer is another matter. "The meanest thing to do in a [political] group function is to say, 'You know who's great on basket weaving? Rep. Johnson here is really an expert.'"

That kind of tactic is probably suited only for one-way, soapbox situations, psychologist Mindy Mitnick said. "When you want to have a conversation but the other person wants to have a monologue," she said, "you're going to get out of that situation sooner."

More genteel options abound. When running into someone, "you can say, 'I'd love to catch up with you more, but right now I have to fill-in-the-blank, pick up my child,' " said Mitnick, who works at the Uptown Mental Health Center. She added, "if you're an honest person, you follow up. But some people, when they say, 'It's so great to see you, let's do lunch,' what it really means is 'I can't stand to talk to you for one more second.'"

A similar tactic can work at a neighborhood or other social gathering. "It's always acceptable to say, 'It's so good to see you. I just want to make sure I catch up with Jack over there.' There's nothing wrong with saying you want to see so-and-so."

Parting as sweet sorrow

Another potential ally, especially for hosts, is self-deprecation. "Some people make jokes about their age," Mitnick said. "'You know, we don't stay up as late as we used to, we've got to clean up and go to bed.' If you have children, you can say 'the kids are up real early in the morning.' If you know in advance that you invited people who linger, you can even say in the invitation, 'We've got to make this an early night.'"

Above all, she added, "Say something gracious. 'We just wish we could talk all night with you guys.'"

That's generally not as necessary in the workplace, where it never hurts to form a "buddy system" to take the air out of windbags: Anytime one member of this tag team spots the other one being shanghaied by a blabbermouth, she can butt in and say, "Hey, did you know so-and-so was looking for you?"

Bartender Akerson said that when he gets stuck with a babbling barfly, "one of the servers might see that and call my name."

Between bar patrons, however, more drastic action often is necessary. "People will just excuse themselves to go to the bathroom for a long time," Akerson said. "Sometimes I've seen them find the server and pay and just sneak out the door. It might be the only thing you do when there's no other way to extricate yourself from a conversation that you probably didn't want to have in the first place."

No such option exists for Stangl. In his appointed familial duties, neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night can stave off "the Johnson goodbye."

"It doesn't matter what the temperature is," Stangl said. "It could be pouring rain and they'll grab an umbrella and go out with you.

"It's always going to be like this. You could apply an exit strategy, but it will most likely fail. There's nothing short of rudeness that can end it, so you hang in there."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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