how do I politely end conversations at networking events?

A reader writes:

Once you’ve got talking to someone at a networking event, and both people have got what they needed out of the conversation, how do you politely move on?

I’m on the board of an association that pays for me to attend various networking events. I want to get the most out of the event both for myself and my organization, meeting people who may want to collaborate, engaging industry leaders, and chatting to a cross-section of the community. But sometimes I get stuck — it’s not that I don’t want to talk to the person, I just need to circulate!

I know a few people who are so good at extracting themselves from conversations without fuss that I don’t even notice them moving around. While I’m happy to say “I must circulate” to people I know well, it seems rude to just cut off the flow of conversation with someone you’ve only just met. In that situation, I usually say something awkward like, “I must pop to the toilet” which … isn’t that elegant.

I don’t want anyone to think I don’t value their conversation. Do you have any scripts I could use to move on without causing offense?

I answer this question — and three others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Should I tell a freelancer she’s not charging enough?
  • Replying to the wrong optional emails on vacation
  • I’m embarrassed about the year I got my degree

{ 74 comments… read them below }

  1. Not A Raccoon Keeper*

    I worked on a great university fundraising team for a few years (not as a fundraiser myself, hence why I didn’t have this skill/knowledge), and I think it was my talented director there that taught me that ending conversations at networking events is a gift for both you and the person/people you’re talking to – everyone knows the purpose is to talk to many people, and maybe your conversation partner is also trying to plot an escape! A simple “it was really lovely to talk to you, please excuse me” or “thanks for explaining ___! Please enjoy the rest of your evening” also work.

    The physical needs excuses (bathroom/food/drink) are great if the person you’re talking to is one that goes from story to story without a break (I prefer “I just saw someone I need to speak with”), but otherwise you don’t need to pretend that everyone present isn’t aware that the purpose of a networking event is…networking. Be gracious, obviously, but give the gift of letting both of you continue with your intended purpose. Shifting this mindset has made it so much easier for me.

    1. AskJeeves*

      Yes! I feel awkward about conversation-closing too, so when the other person does it gracefully, it’s such a relief.

      1. Artemesia*

        A lot of people at networking events just say ‘I have enjoyed talking to you and hope our paths cross again; I need to circulate.’ or something like that.

  2. HonorBox*

    OP1 – I’m very fond of, “If you’ll excuse me, I see that _____ is here and I need to catch them quickly.” That and the suggestion about refilling your drink have always served me well.

    OP2 – Alison’s suggestion, as usual, is great. If you can’t get the invoice adjusted this time, you might just send the freelancer an email or quick text letting them know that others you’ve used in the past have charged you X for similar work.

    1. Tio*

      Depending on how OP’s company is, they might be safer calling or texting the freelancer if they’re worried that the company would come back at them for “costing” them money, rather than a company email.

      1. HonorBox*

        Totally agree! A phone call might actually be better as it allows them to provide some better context too.

  3. Susan Lewis*

    “Well, it’s been nice catching up with you! Maybe I’ll see you later”

  4. CanRelate*

    I generally use these two:

    “Well, I dont want take up too much of your time, thanks for all the info on X”

    “Thanks for letting me talk your ear off, I’m going to let you go and find my coworker” (If I was the one being a chatterbox)

    I think it helps shift the feeling of it to you being respectful of their time, rather than trying to wiggle out of things. Its like “I release you from this social obligation, be free!”

    I also like that they are pretty clear and work for people who dont immediately take the hint (ie, they offer to follow you to the buffet if you just say you’re gonna go grab a bite).

  5. Uncle X*

    Removed. You need to change your user name before you can post again. (I changed it for you here.) – Alison

    1. L. Bennett*

      Don’t forget the critical “Welp!” at the beginning of that sentence!

      1. ENFP in Texas*

        Yeah, but then you have another 45 minutes of the Midwestern Goodbye…

    2. Nea*

      I like to use Lord Vetinari’s version: “Well, I won’t detain you any longer.”

  6. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    I like Alison’s script on the freelancer question, the idea of asking “Is this the full bill — including research time, etc.?” but I’m a bit surprised that the OP in that question didn’t have some idea of what the freelancer was charging before the invoice arrived. Wasn’t the hourly rate and scope of the project discussed? In addition to research, the freelancer also needs to account for any time she spent in meetings/phone calls/emails/texts she responded to. That’s usually, IME, where the unaccounted-for time really gets lost and adds up. For someone starting out, it can feel so …petty?… to record 2 minutes here and 3 minutes there.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      That brings up where my expectation from the title differs from the content of the letter. I thought OP would say that freelancer’s rates are too low. Which reinforces your point for me, “didn’t OP know freelancer’s rates from the beginning?’
      So I think from the letter and your comment, the issue is the hourly rate is fine, but the hourly hours aren’t.
      Is that correct?

      1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

        It was unclear but that was my reading of the question since time for research was mentioned — the letter writer was surprised by the final invoice but nothing is mentioned about how the invoice is itemized or if it’s just one big number. She thinks the freelancer didn’t account for all of the hours they worked on the project, but nothing mentions the hourly rate. It could be both though — too low hourly rate and not accounting for time. Or…a third option I guess, the freelancer just threw out a number that sounded right and there is neither an hourly rate agreed upon, or hours tracked. yikes!

  7. Robert in SF*

    Try this one: “Would you excuse me? I cut my foot before and my shoe is filling up with blood.”

    But in all seriousness, I just make sure we have generally wrapped up any topics so as to not to appear to abrupt and ease the transition, think of one last thing to say (not ask!), and frame it as, “Oh one last thing before I have to go and find…such’n’such, [final say on the topic]. Thanks again for the food for thought [or other compliment on the interaction]”.

    Then they know I am prepping to leave, I am ending on a contribution, and I leave the door open to running into them later and picking up where we left off. :)

    1. HonorBox*

      Your initial thought reminded me of the perfect excuse a friend gave to get out of anything, and a conversation would certainly fit into this. “I’m having explosive diarrhea so I need to go (or can’t attend…)”


      1. Robert in SF*

        This reminds me of Karen (of Will and Grace), who said, “I would have gotten here sooner but I didn’t want to.”….or similar. :)

        1. Nina*

          I have never seen Will & Grace, only gifs, but is it the “Sorry I’m late, I didn’t want to come” line?

  8. LMM*

    From a freelancer who was just told to raise her rate: Definitely tell her!

    My editors just let me know that I was doing more labor for certain things than my current rate would indicate, and to bill Y in the future vs. the current X. It was much, much appreciated and also really nice to know that my extra work had been noticed.

    1. Firecat*

      Same situation here. I was tutoring and several of my clients mentioned I should raise my rates. I had no idea I was undercharging and really appreciated the heads up.

    2. yala*

      Blessed are those who pay their freelancers more than the under-market-rate they were quoted/invoiced for.

      Telling is great, and I hope OP does it. But it’s always best to back it up by paying what you think they’re actually worth, otherwise it’s pretty easy to think, “Yeah, I know I’m undercharging, but it’s the only way I can get gigs.”

      But it’s always good to let them know, especially if they’re younger.

      1. Dr. Vibrissae*

        When I was finding a new pet-sitter, the sweet college freshman I ended up hiring first quoted me a daily rate that was less than what most people were charging per visit. When I paused she asked if it was too much, and I let her know I’d feel bad if I agreed to pay her so little and suggested something closer to the market rate. When you see someone has no idea what their service is worth, it feels unethical not to let them know.

    3. Phryne*

      I’m a bit surprised that these things are not discussed beforehand… When we hire freelance (generally guest teachers with specific experience), there is an agreement on number of hours we estimate the job will take and hourly rate… If the freelancer expects to go we expect them to raise that with us before doing those extra hours to discuss reasons and how many hours etc. If they stay under we leave it up to them to bill as needed. We of course appreciate it if people do not bill us for hours they absolutely did not make, but we have budgeted these hours anyway and we will not check on those hours unless we have strong reasons (like sub-par work being delivered), so they can just bill the full amount.

  9. Former Retail Lifer*

    OP #4: I was told to hide the year of my degree because it made me look old…when I was barely 30. I’m closer to 50 now and I still do that. Virtually no one has ever asked for the year. You’re good!

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Yes. Question asked and answered. School. Degree. Done.
      Nobody cares. And people who care shouldn’t have that info anyway.

    2. Past Lurker*

      Am I the only one who’s in a field where graduation year of any and all post-high school degrees is required on a lot of applications? I know there’s no good reason for it, but the application won’t let me continue without the year(s) in most cases.

    3. Michelle Smith*

      Does this same logic hold true for advanced degrees? I did not do my education all at once. I got a bachelor’s degree, worked for a while, went to law school for a few years, then worked again. I assume eventually the jobs I had prior to law school will no longer be on my resume, but I’m not at that point yet so if I left the years for my degrees off, I would have a three year gap in my job history.

  10. Fuel Injector*

    “I know a few people who are so good at extracting themselves from conversations without fuss that I don’t even notice them moving around.”

    Make it a point to talk with those people and take note of how they end conversations. Use those techniques yourself with the next person.

  11. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    Yeah, a later degree is going to work in your favor if you’re trying to avoid age discrimination!

    1. Fuel Injector*

      To add the degree year and let people assume they are younger, they would have to omit a large portion of their work experience as well.

      1. Weaponized Pumpkin*

        Often that is a feature not a bug! Not necessarily for this LW, as they have been in a continuous job and wouldn’t want to ditch that, but in my case I was happy to omit all the jobs that came before my degree. Not only does it lop 15 years off my age, but my degree was a turning point in my work so it makes sense to focus on my current career trajectory.

  12. Brain the Brian*

    I’ve excused myself from networking conversations before by saying “I’m going to run to the restroom,” only to have the other person say “I have to go, too!” There’s nothing quite like awkwardly standing at a urinal next to someone you’ve *just met* and were trying to *escape*…

    1. 1-800-BrownCow*

      If you hadn’t said urinal, I would have thought you met my coworker. She’s the worst person to get out of conversations with as she follows people into the bathroom (if same gender), out to their vehicles, into meetings, etc. Literally, people have shut the door in her face to get away from her, it’s aggravating. I’ve turned and walked away mid-sentence before because after firmly telling her 3 times that I have an appointment and need to leave that second, she wouldn’t stop talking or asking questions. Everyone at work dreads conversations with her because of it. But interestingly, she tells everyone that she’s an introvert, yet she talks non-stop at work, to everyone, whether she knows them or not,

      1. GreenShoes*

        I worked with a guy who would either follow you into the bathroom or in my case wait outside the bathroom. It was kind of amazing… he’d pick up mid sentence where he left off when the door was shut.

        1. Brain the Brian*

          On the coworker side (rather than networking contacts), I once had a senior VP ask me at urinal how I was doing following my father’s death. In fairness, he had also just lost his mother (it was a rough year for a lot of us that year), and perhaps his judgement was a bit off as a result — but why did that conversation need to happen mid-pee?

          1. Nina*

            Reading this thread I’m increasingly glad I don’t have the necessary equipment to use the kind of peeing situation that puts you within visibility of other people.

            1. short'n'stout*

              I have on several occasions cringed while someone attempted to carry on a conversation with me through a toilet cubicle wall. Excruciating even though they couldn’t see me.

    2. Venus*

      As a way to escape gracefully I have been known to refill my glass only a small amount each time and then have to refill it often.

  13. ArtK*

    There’s something that we can be aware of that can make ending these conversations at least a little bit easier. We are socialized to feel that ending a conversation unilaterally is rude; we need agreement that the conversation is over. That can be a barrier to using the techniques above. There’s the feeling that we have to give a “good enough” excuse so that the other person will agree.

  14. Friyay*

    I’m actually more concerned about this part of OP #4’s letter: “I also would feel awkward if anyone at my current job ever found out, since I never told anyone at work about this, and no one ever followed up to make sure I graduated after I was hired.” It actually seems like… a really big deal to me, especially if the degree was required to work there? Like, essentially lying about your eligibility for the job? It probably should have been disclosed as soon as the class was failed to discuss options.. but instead the OP worked for 5 years though without having the required qualifications. I’d be curious to know what/if anything they should do now – do they get in front of it at their current job or just continue to ignore it and hope no one asks for the remainder of their time there… what if it DOES come up?

    1. The Person from the Resume*

      I just assumed if a degree was actually required, the employer would follow up to confirm the employee graduated i.e. bring proof of your graduation on your first day of work.

      Degrees are rarely required; although very often preferred so much so that companies will only interview people who have degrees or are about to graduate.

      1. umami*

        Where I work, official transcripts are required to determine compensation. So imagine my surprise when I recently noticed one of my new directors is being paid more than someone at that level who has been in the role for several years, and when I asked compensation to review the longer tenured director, they came back to say they need the new director to submit transcripts. But … how did you determine compensation without transcripts??? I’m sure he has the degree he is claiming, but I also know the other director has a higher degree (and we compensate for that), so it STILL doesn’t make sense. To be continued …

        1. I have RBF*

          The idea of compensation based on college transcripts is just… weird… to me.

          I mean heck, some classes you don’t do great in, but knock it out of the park on the job. Who cares what they got in freshman math, or how many times they had to take it, or that they took clay sculpting as an elective, or… you get the idea.

          You know what they call the guy at the bottom of the med school class who finishes his internship and residency? Doctor, the same as the guy at the top of the class.

          If I had finished my degree in my 20s, I sure would look askance at someone wanting my transcripts for a job when I was in my 40s or later.

          1. Kevin Sours*

            Some positions have a salary bonus for graduate degrees. I presume that the transcript is provide proof that the degree was granted (and qualifies) rather than compensation being based on some analysis of electives taken.

      2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        “Required” to be considered for the job v. “Required” to be certified, qualified to do the job.
        I think OP should keep his/her mouth shut about it and keep it moving.
        Because I think it’s a gray area:
        OP was hired based on completing that degree. One class probably didn’t make a difference, let’s be real. OP learned more about the specific work doing in than in any class. But someone who did have a completed degree did not get the job.
        OP did complete the degree. Time got away. It happens. The company never followed up. OP keep his/her end of the bargain without oversight. Does the number of years matter?
        Mental gymnastics.

    2. GreenShoes*

      I would guess that it’s not going to come up. If the OP were to be considered for a new role at the same organization or a promotion, it may come up then. If it does it’s likely that they’d just ask if it was completed or for proof and move on.

      Clearly the company didn’t flag it as a big deal at the time so I would not think it would be a big deal now.

    3. Kevin Sours*

      If it was required, the employer would have followed up. Unless it is an actual legal requirement (in which case the employer is the one in a world of hurt) or OP explicitly lied about completing the degree then OP should keep their mouth shut. If it comes up the appropriate response is a shrug emoji. They’ve been doing the job presumably without complaint for a decade that they *have* the “required” qualifications. Why would a company want to dredge up the past like that?

  15. Mags*

    My favorite sign-off remains the guy who came up to talk to me at an awards ceremony, looked at me when I said was the office manager at the organization running the event, and went, “Well, you’re no use to me”. Then he just walked away. Which was funny, because a: he was wrong, I handled the funding/mentoring program that was definitely what he was after and b: like nobody in the office talked to each other?

  16. Person from the Resume*

    For the question about graduation year, this is an example of you thinking people are paying more attention to you and your details than they are. They have no idea you failed a class. They’re more likely to think you got your degree in the midst of working full time than you failed a class and took 4 years to retake it.

    You don’t need to list your graduation year, but you can.

    1. Kevin Sours*

      And if it comes up at an interview just a breezy “I got a job before I graduated and ended up focusing on that for a while so it took me a bit to actually finish”. I mean, who cares?

    2. Becky*

      I took me 11 years to get my Bachelor’s degree. I kept stopping and working for a year and then return to classes because I couldn’t afford it any other way.

  17. GreenShoes*

    And this is a great time to plug college organizations, in my case a greek. We actually did training on this during rush. A couple of my favorite wraps up are:

    -When someone else joins the discussion “If you’ll excuse me” with a big smile
    -1:1 “Thanks for the break from forced mingling! I better get out there” with a big smile
    -1:1 “Oh shoot! I forgot I was supposed to check in on the office an hour ago, will you excuse me” with a big smile and a show of the phone
    -1:1 “Oh boy, I suppose we should go mingle a bit huh” then lead the person to another single, chat for a little bit then use the first one
    -1:1 For emergencies only – Start coughing… “Sorry excuse me” while holding up a hand and coughing while walking towards an exit door
    -1:1 “It was great catching up/meeting you, if you’ll excuse me”

    Basically end everything you lead with, with a very friendly “if you’ll excuse me” and a big smile. It shouldn’t be overly dramatic, just warm and friendly. People expect mingling at these types of events so it’s different than if you were in a room 1:1 with someone alone.

    1. Bee*

      I’m a fan of “it was lovely meeting you, but I guess I better go circulate,” with a wry smile that suggests it is only duty that pulls you away from someone you’d rather keep talking to.

  18. Sara M*

    For extra fun, try networking in an industry of introverted awkward people. Our parties are awkward too!

    1. Lana Kane*

      In a perverse way, I think the awkwardness would just soothe my social anxiety because I know it’s all coming from a familiar place!

  19. Kevin Sours*

    I think the actually *reason* given for mingling at network events is somewhat less important than a confident tone of voice and determined follow through. Reasonable people understand the need to keep moving at these events and unreasonable people can’t be helped. So a “hey I see somebody I need to catch up with” or “I’m going to hit the buffet” just serves as a polite nudge that the conversation has run it’s course.

    They’re such nothing lines that I think you could get away with “If you’ll excuse me I can’t remember if I left my penguin on” if you use the right tone of voice and leave immediately.

  20. awasky*

    To LW #2: I’m incredibly grateful that when I started freelancing, someone told me I was low-balling the bill. I just had no idea what I was doing on the billing.

  21. Ahdez*

    My boss is so, so good at politely moving on. He doesn’t have a set script, just years of experience, but it’s always so smooth. I think he often makes it clear with his body language that the conversation is ending, like extending a hand to shake while saying, “Well, it’s been such a pleasure to connect with you, and here’s my card – I look forward to staying in touch / feel free to reach out to me about (topic) / etc.” then smile plus immediately walk away.

    It’s totally polite but also clear he’s on his way. One way to think about it is that the other people might be unsure when is the socially acceptable ending point of the conversation, and clearly letting them know you’re moving on is actually helpful all around!

  22. Goldie*

    For #3- sometimes I will cruise through my easy emails on vacation so instead of coming back to 200 random emails, I have 20 more complex emails to take care of.

    If you supervise the person, it’s nice to proactively encourage them to stop working and if they are not salaried, let them know that they shouldn’t be working.

  23. RNL*

    My husband used to work for a prominent billionaire. He once said to me at a party “it’s been lovely to talk with you. I’m going to mingle. Have fun!”

    And I’ve used it ever since.

    When I’m at a professional event with a table or similar (I do some recruiting) and I can’t walk away, offering your card and saying something like “it’s been wonderful to connect, please don’t hesitate to reach out to continue the conversation” works every time.

  24. Roobidy*

    OP1, why not be honest but with a friendly and genuine tone, i.e. “It’s been lovely chatting with you and I hate to stop you while the conversation is flowing so well, but I must circulate and network with a few more people here.” and if you want to, share your business card.
    Incidentally, here in the UK in my field we don’t have/use business cards as standard. When I attended a conference in the US, I was advised to bring some, and what a difference it makes to these networking conversations!

  25. MJ*

    About gracefully leaving a conversation that’s going nowhere, it’s easy! Simply say: “Will you excuse me? I cut my foot before, and my shoe is filling up with blood.” And then limp away.

  26. Nicki Name*

    For #1, at two consecutive jobs my teams had Friday boardgame hour. Scheduled in the afternoon so no one had to stay late.

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