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The Art of the Italian Exit

Some people ghost a party like they were never there. Others like me draw out goodbyes for hours, hug everyone three times and stay to clean up

I go a little overboard at parties. After a decade of legal drinking, I’m no longer puking in my friend’s toilet at 9 p.m. or peeing my pants after duct-taping two bottles of Andre to my hands — I’ll reserve that for my 10-year college reunion, thanks! — but there’s one nasty habit I still can’t shake.

I’m terrible at saying goodbye.

Actually, scratch that — I’m great at it. My whole maternal Sicilian-Italian family is. We’re so great, as a matter of fact, that we insist on saying goodbye to everyone in the room three times. Weddings, a light midday meal, holidays, family get-togethers… it’s all the same; nobody can leave. We’re trapped in an endless cycle of cheek kissing, full-body hugs and “I’ll see you next month,” which leads to “When was the last time I saw you?,” which leads to “How’s work, how’s your health, how’s Uncle Dave?” Like Strega Nona’s pasta pot, the dinner never ends. On FaceTime calls with my parents, we’ll say goodbye and then seamlessly dive into another conversation.

At social gatherings with friends, or even when I run into an acquaintance on the street, the painfully prolonged goodbyes get even more cringe-y. It must be revolting to witness. I get such a buzz from the social energy I can’t pull away, and my friends dutifully suffer though my entreaties to get lunch, grab a beer, stop by the office, etc. You poor thing, I imagine them thinking. You must be so lonely. Look, I’m fine — maybe a little stir-crazy from working from home. The problem is much deeper: The only farewells I know are sentimental, drawn-out ceremonies, gooier than cannelloni and awkward as shit.

I hope the prolonged goodbye simply evinces the warmth of a cheery family. But my worst fear is that it reveals something darker — my pathological need to be liked. What if my every see-you-later is really a selfish tactic of cloying ingratiation, not a sincere acknowledgement of a good time? Why do I really need the affirmation? Why can’t I just… chill?

“When it’s difficult to part, it fundamentally is tapping into a fear of loss on some level,” says Florida clinician Alex Ribbentrop. “If I leave, I cannot be guaranteed that what I am leaving I will be able to return to. Also, there’s a release of control. When around others, I can have awareness of what’s going on, what others are doing, etc.”

Ribbentrop suggests we think of it in terms of evolutionary psychology. He says the drawn-out goodbye might be closely linked to our ancestors’ fear of leaving the cave, “venturing out into the dark, away from the fire and safety… Knowing what the group is doing taps into something deep within us that’s related to survival.”

“Long, drawn-out goodbyes are one big avoidance-of-sad-feelings party,” says New York–based psychotherapist Claudia Luiz, who also reflects on the FOMO in a drawn-out goodbye. “The kind of insecurity you’re talking about is clinically called separation anxiety. Separation anxiety takes many shapes. It makes it hard to leave a party, it’s at the root of all FOMO and it gives us anxiety of all kinds about being alone and not in the mix. Even people with great self-esteem and who feel very loved and validated can still have some separation anxiety.”

So it partly boils down to a fear of being alone: a fairly universal affliction. It may explain why so many of us share the struggle of leaving the damn room. But what about our families? Is this behavior deeply coded in our DNA?

I’ve always called my kind of goodbye the “Italian exit,” as opposed to the so-called Irish exit — a miraculous feat of disappearance, the ability to ghost an event like you were never there. (MEL’s Miles Klee is an Irish-exit artist: I once saw him crash a formal holiday party in a tank top, suck down two beers and a white wine, dance like mad and then vanish before anyone thought to question his invitation. “Lol,” he reflects. “Great party.”) My wife, Ellie, calls it the Ohio exit: “Warmth, eagerness and friendliness come together to form the ultimate awkward goodbye,” she describes (ouch).

Indeed, the drawn-out goodbye is universal, often associated with Jewish, Hispanic, African American and Midwestern families (mine is Italian, Jewish and Midwestern, though the Jewish side is far more reserved and would have no trouble peacing out). There are even very sweet, basic memes about each culture’s inability to stop hugging. When I asked people on Twitter about their family goodbyes, I was delighted to learn how many folks consider the prolonged exit part of their heritage. These sons and daughters of big-time huggers shared stories that felt painfully familiar to me:

There’s a fine art to the drawn-out goodbye. Often, it occurs in three shifts: “There’s the table goodbye, then the door goodbye and then the car goodbye,” says Insider editor Kristin Salaky.

Others write that they’ve developed systems for ushering loved ones out the door faster:

The family connection matters, says L.A. psychologist Jeanette Raymond, so we ought to embrace it. “Long, drawn-out goodbyes are an important ritual of mutual filling-up so that there is a sense of being loved and cared for, not rejected,” she explains. “It acts as an inoculation against depression, anxiety and other adjustment and relationship disorders.”

But it’s not always convenient. Sometimes you simply need to go, in which case it’d be great to have an exit strategy in your back pocket. So, I wondered, is there a way to train yourself to Irish?

I believe it can be done. Actor and comedian Paul F. Tompkins, who is also half-Italian, tells me he “used to say goodbye to every single person at a party, and it never occurred to me there was any other way to do things. Then, in my 40s, my Irish side surged forward, and I haven’t looked a human in the eye while leaving a party in 10 years.” I can imagine the thrill and relief of accomplishing this for the first time — like walking out of Best Buy with a gigantic 4K TV and having no one notice.

For help, I asked the MEL folks who attended my last holiday party — many of whom saw me, wracked with guilt and sadness, leave early to catch a flight.

“Just remind yourself you’re gonna see everyone again soon anyway,” Klee advises. “Be drunk and decisive.” His pro-tip: Go to the bathroom and just bounce directly from there. Writer Tracy Moore admits she pretends to go to her car for something and vanishes. Or she’ll pretend to take a call.

But what if you’re caught slipping out? Isn’t it mortifying to get caught leaving without saying goodbye? Generally, no. If they’re drunk enough, they won’t really notice or care. That in itself is a relief, says MEL Deputy Editor Alana Hope Levinson: “The reality is, you aren’t that important.” “This is the one time cripplingly low self-esteem is helpful,” adds Senior Editor Nick Leftley: “‘I’m leaving, and that’s okay because literally no one will care.’” Content marketing senior manager Jeff Gross admits, “No one’s ever cared that I Houdini-ed.”

If caught, “just be like, ‘I need to go, sorry, I’ll text you tomorrow,’” says Art Director Erin Taj. In the unlikely event the crowd protests or demands to share just one more round, it’s okay to say no! It’s not on you. Breathe. “Peer pressure is bad and they should feel guilty,” Taj sums up.

Dr. Ribbentrop suggests I simply stay conscious of my boundaries and neuroses. Awareness is key! “Be aware of what is driving any anxiety or concern around seeing [your] way out,” he concludes.

But maybe there’s a compromise. Insider reporter Rebecca Ungarino says it’s all about choosing your targets wisely:

Brilliant. A guilt-free Irish exit. You let the A-list in on your secret — that you’re dead tired and sick of everyone else’s company.

So… thanks for reading. I’d love to hear all about your issues, but first I need to just duck into the bathroom for a sec.