The Art of the Exit

We’ve all been there, those moments when you find yourself in a painfully awkward conversation with someone who you either a) don’t really know, b) don’t really like, or c) have absolutely nothing in common with. What do you do? What are your socially acceptable options? Can you just leave the conversation? Read on and discover The Art of the Exit.

Having spent the better part of 15 years working as a corporate monkey for a large bank, you’d be correct to assume that there must be some elements of my job that I enjoy.  But, the truth is, there aren’t many.  Aside from the extended lunches with colleagues that I have all too often indulged in, there really hasn’t been much.  By the way, attending such lunches is a great way to make your work day that much more tolerable. Borderline enjoyable in fact.  Add in a few beers and an expense card, and now you’re off to the races.  No one has ever asked me to write a “How to” book with respect to career management, so I will leave it that as far as career advise goes.

Back to the point at hand, the vast majority of my day tends to be spent doing things I’d rather not.  I don’t think I’m alone in that, which is an incredibly sad state of affairs if you ask me.  Hell, our employers are basically begging  us to drink at lunch on the company dime – sorry, again I digress.  Where was I? Right, I hate my job.  Now, if you were to ask me, I suppose the part of my job that agitates me the most is the mandatory mingling, hobnobbing, elbow-rubbing, and all-around ass-patting associated with the various lunches (the legitimate ones), dinners, and parties (we’re actually not allowed to call them “parties”, “functions” is the more appropriate term I am told.  The last thing anyone in the corporate world ever wants is to actually have fun) that I am forced to attend.  All these functions are typically held in the name of entertaining existing clients, or finding new ones. Either way, I would always rather stay in my office and photo-copy my ass-cheeks in high-def colour, than attend the vast majority of these events.  The worst ones are the big, multi-client, cocktail hobnobbing orgy fests that we reserve for special times of the year – the most notable being the annual client event each Christmas – The Client Christmas Function. At some point over the last 15 years, that event became known as The Client “Holiday” Function.  Though the name changed, the décor never did. Christmas trees, Christmas lights, Christmas music, Christmas drinks and tales of Christmases past.  I wonder what “holiday” people figured we were celebrating?  That is of course, is a whole other book all together.

These larger functions are an interesting beast.  You typically have a very nice venue, packed with a large number of clients and staff, with everyone in a joyful “holiday” spirit looking to have a good time.  More often than not, servers are there to offer a broad assortment of quenching cocktails and tasty nibbles from the moment you arrive to the moment you decide to leave. What could there possibly be not to enjoy about this?  Well let me tell you, aside from the fact that you have a room full of suits, all of which suddenly seem to have their assholes tightened by the grips of God upon entering the room, which typically leads to that forced yet controlled artificial laughter at some seriously unfunny  joke an aging white dude just told about the overvalued Japanese Yen, what really makes these gatherings so unbearable is The Art of the Exit.

The Art of the Exit is an art I never took the time to develop.  In fact, I never even became consciously aware of this art until many years into my career.  I simply didn’t realize it was a legitimate art form and therefore gave myself no opportunity to learn it.  And I am not the only one, most people are like me, which is the real root of the problem.  If the majority of people had an appreciation for this art, we wouldn’t have a problem. Instead we are left with these awkward moments when you are in these settings and stuck standing next to someone with whom you have simply ran out of niceties to discuss, the overvalued Japanese Yen included.  You started a conversation with this person because they are a business acquaintance and you have a business relationship with them, but you don’t really know them.  You asked what their plans for Christmas are, you mentioned it was unseasonably warm, you talked about the wide variety of cheeses on offer, but now there is simply nothing left to talk about.  So now you are just standing next to this person, and he or she is standing next to you, and you are both staring into space hoping for some form of divine intervention to be bequeathed upon you unveiling the next great conversation topic. But it doesn’t come, and now a sufficient period of silence has passed, which in reality is only about 10 seconds, where no matter what either of you say, it will be awkward.  Incredibly awkward.  After your 10 seconds are up, any comment can only come across as the most desperately forced attempt ever made by mankind in the history of the world at furthering a conversation that was already dead.  Kind of like resuscitating your 106 year old Grampa whose lungs are purely composed with tar and whose brain turned to silly putty 30 years ago.  Oh wait, that is another story  too.

“So . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .this sure is a beautiful venue” one of you will say.  And the other person will agree, and then the staring and searching for inspiration will carry on.

And the amazing thing is you both actually want to leave. You both want to go and speak with someone else, anyone else, yet you don’t know how.  This is The Art of the Exit.

I tried for many years to avoid these situations simply by avoiding 2-person interactions.  I would only enter conversations if there were a minimum of 4 people, including myself, in the group.  A grown adult reducing himself to such tactics at a corporate event really is as ridiculous as it sounds.  I couldn’t avoid people introducing themselves to me, but I could avoid initiating direct one-on-one contact with others if they didn’t meet my minimum conversationalist thresholds.  I didn’t say it could be done gracefully, but it can be done.  I soon learned that this strategy is flawed . . . and for more than the fact that it makes you feel like a petulant child.

You see, I would willingly go up to groups of 3 or more.  With 4 or more people, you can enjoy rich conversations without ever coming close to breaching that key 10 seconds of silence limit.  And what is great is that even if you do, it is not nearly as awkward, because the awkwardness is divided among 4 people vs. 2 – each of you feel a lesser share of the awkwardness  Even better, according to a rich body of scientific study, the effect is not a simple linear reduction.  With 4 people, you can breach well passed the 10 second limit, and not a shred of awkwardness is felt by anyone.  Please note that the complex mathematics behind this relationship are beyond the scope of this tale.

Problems arise however, when #4 decides to leave.  He or she could rightfully decide to go and take a leak, grab a drink, a snack – whatever. The critical piece however, is that #4 rarely comes back.  So your group is now down to 3 and you’re not getting back up to 4 unless you recruit new talent because your old #4 invariably gets caught up in some other much more entertaining group than the one he just left.  Fortunately, 3 still works, the awkwardness factor goes up quite a bit given it was so low with 4 people, but it is still at a manageable level with 3. But you are walking a razor’s edge at this point, because 2 is no good.  And all 3 of you know it.  Each of the remaining 3 of you are fully aware that if one more leaves for a perfectly acceptable reason, then you have entered no man’s land and the remaining 2 of you are properly fucked.  The Art of Exit gets increasingly more difficult the fewer there are remaining in the group.  If you’re looking to gracefully leave a struggling conversation when there are only 2 of you left, you better be a goddamned master of the art.   So now it becomes a game of wits, each of you wants to remain in the group, thereby keeping it whole and healthy at 3, but none of you wants to be left when it is eventually reduced to 2.  It’s the ultimate battle of serving yourself vs. serving the group if there has ever been one.  Karl Marx and Adam Smith would’ve had a field day in studying these dynamics.

Most people act similarly in these situations, not really wanting to be the one who leaves the other 2 behind, because if you were to so choose, the desperation in the eyes of the remaining saps becomes palpable.  Should you casually mention that you are going to refill your glass, you will ignite sheer desperation deep in the souls of the 2 that you are unknowingly leaving for dead. But the 3 of you can’t stand there all fucking night, someone has to have the balls to breakaway and find a better group to speak with . . . it will happen sooner or later.  It happens sooner when number 3 doesn’t subscribe at all to the betterment of the group, he is purely individualistic and when that number goes down from 4 to 3, he doesn’t blink before getting the fuck out of there. And these types of people make their quick exit with such confidence and bravado that they might as well be giving the rest of you a giant oscillating double middle finger gesture as they back away towards the bar.

So what is the Art of the Exit?  Well, backing away without hesitation while symbolically gesturing towards the remaining two to kiss your big white ass is a lot closer to the perfected art form than you might otherwise expect.  The key is no hesitation.  The 10 second rule shrinks down to nanoseconds when it comes time to make your exit when in a group of 2.  That said, the truly perfected form of the art is to do so with grace, confidence, and an elegance whereby your conversation partner(s) hardly even notice that someone left.  They simply stare at each other in fear while the bartender serves you a single malt Scotch, only then realizing the deftness of your maneuver. A true art indeed.  The alternative strategy, which I have employed on many an occasion is to summon a putrid, wet, decaying fart from deep within your bowel and let it waft into your local area.  This of course will ensure you’re not even required to make an exit as everyone else will happily do that for you.  The choice is yours.

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