This morning, as I went about the process of waking up and getting ready for work, I started to think about the concept of closure.

I think that people tend to unnecessarily narrow the definition of closure. Sociologists have generally used the term to denote the end of a relationship. In a broader sense, however, I think that closure is important even in far less significant matters than these. It’s also something with which I’ve always had a great deal of difficulty. I’ve never been comfortable with how things end, and I’m not sure why.

In many cases, of course, closure is precluded. Death tends to force its own sort of ending. My father died before I had the chance to have the sort of dialog with him that would have left me satisfied that I’d said and done all that I should have. My mother also passed away suddenly, leaving me with deep regrets and more questions than answers. It’s a cruel sort of separation. I hope that when the time comes for my life to end, I’ll have more of a warning. I want to have the time to draw those I love close to me and open my heart to them.

I also hope that, by that time, I’ll have figured out how to end a conversation. That’s one of my biggest closure issues. How will I ever learn to achieve proper closure of my life, or of any chapter of my life, if I can’t even manage to end a conversation without sounding awkward?

Some conversations are easy to end. When I take a business phone call, for example, the conversation is very issue-focused. A customer has a question that needs to be answered, and I draw on my knowledge, my resources, or my magic 8-ball to provide an answer that satisfies him. He thanks me, I thank him, and we hang up. I’m not worried about exiting gracefully. I’m not concerned that I’m being too abrupt. It’s just business, and business protocols demand brevity and efficiency.

Structured communications should be easy, but often aren’t. Let’s use amateur radio as an example. The final transmission of almost every ham radio contact I’ve ever made has fit a simple pattern.

I send (in Morse code, of course):
(It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for the contact, and best regards, old man. Will stand by for your last transmission. K2XYZ, this is KD4DCY. End of communication.)

The reply:
(Roger. Thanks, and good evening to you. Best regards. KD4DCY, this is K2XYZ. End of communication.)

We’ve both sent the proword, “SK.” That signifies the end of a communication, and specifically means that we’re not going to send anything more. For some reason, though, I always feel the need to let the other guy know that I heard his final transmission. He knows I heard it, just as I heard every other transmission he sent, but I don’t want to be rude. So, in defiance of logic and at least one FCC regulation, I reach for my keying paddle and send two spaced dots. “Dit (pause) dit.”

I am not the only ham who does this. In fact, I learned this silly practice from other hams, and I’ve tried to eliminate it with only mixed success. I think it’s a problem for me because the same thing happens in other personal communications. I have no idea how to end a conversation gracefully and properly, without awkwardness.

Sometimes my problem is just one of protocol. I don’t know who’s supposed to say what, and when. I try to fit in all the things with which I want to leave the other person at the end of our exchange, but I don’t know how to properly order them. The other person is often doing the same thing but is usually handling it far better.

With no one at the other end, of course, it’s easy. I used to have a daily radio program, and I ended that one-sided conversation the same way, every day.

“That’s going to wrap it up for me, Scott Johnson. It’s been a pleasure sharing the afternoon with you. Thanks for listening, and I hope you’ll join me again tomorrow. Until then, all the best from me to you and yours. So long.”

I’m sure that sounded corny to some, but none of those people ever called in to say so. It felt like a good end to the show. On those few days when special news coverage or other contingencies kept me from properly saying goodbye to the listeners, I felt bad. Expressing that I’d enjoyed the time, thanking them for their time, and wishing them all the best was something I owed, and when I’d satisfied that need I felt closure.

When there’s another person who’s also trying to interleave their parting comments with mine, the equation becomes complicated. I feel the need to say certain things. I also feel the need to listen and respond properly to the things the other person needs to say. Awkwardness results, as I struggle with listening, talking, and respecting time constraints as the other person grows impatient, or at least wonders what sort of dolt can’t simply say, “Bye!”

When I’m conversing with a loved one, another dimension further increases the difficulty. There are feelings to express, and I want to be sure I’ve expressed them. I want to leave her with a smile on her lips and a warm sensation in her heart. I don’t want to end the conversation too abruptly, lest she feel brushed off, but I also don’t want to prolong it unduly and leave her exasperated and annoyed. I want to tell her that I love her, but in a way that expresses true emotion and doesn’t sound like rhetoric or, worse, like prompting.

Unfortunately, as with most things in life, there are no absolutes. As far as I know, no one has ever published a set of protocols for conversation closure. Even if such a thing existed, no one would need it but me. Everyone else seems innately to know how to wind down and close out a conversation. I was born without that gene, I suppose.

Even in slower forms of communication, such as e-mail, I’m never quite sure how closure occurs. If I send a friendly e-mail to someone, and he sends one back, am I then obligated to reply? If I do reply, will he then feel obligated to reply to that? If so, where does it end? Does one of us have to say, “Enough, already?” Or, is one of us bound to wonder if his last e-mail was simply ignored?

The great minds of this world are focused on curing cancer, feeding the hungry, and bringing peace to a conflict-ravaged world as I ponder who’s supposed to hang up the phone first. Perhaps I just need a bit of perspective.

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