Easy Ways to Exit Awkward Situations
A Dull Conversation at a Party
“Politeness requires seven or eight minutes” of conversation, says Letitia Baldrige, a former social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy and the author of Taste: Acquiring What Money Can’t Buy (Truman Talley Books, $25, amazon.com). After that, you can say good-bye to the bore.
At a cocktail party (assuming you haven’t made the mistake of sitting down with the person), it’s fine to excuse yourself to get a drink or food, help the hostess, or make a phone call. (If you did sit down, employ the same tactics. It's just a little more awkward having to get up.) To avoid an embarrassing getaway “gotcha,” be sure to follow through on your excuse―that is, get the drink, help the hostess, make a call.
Another tried-and-true tactic? Introduce the bore to someone else, excuse yourself, and scram. This way, you avoid leaving the bore stranded, and he becomes someone else’s problem. Who knows? They may hit it off.
A polite “Thanks, I’m not interested” is your best response to unwanted calls. “The caller will probably come back with a benefit statement or a probing question”―e.g., “Are you aware this will cut your insurance bill in half?”―says Kimberly King, president of InterWeave Corporation, a customer-service consulting firm in Tampa. Again, thank the person and hang up. Don’t let her rattle on, which is a waste of your time and hers. And never explain anything or volunteer information. Telemarketers work from a script with responses to common customer objections (called “soft no’s” in the industry). Saying another family member needs to make the decision will only lead to more questions: What time will he be in? Can I call back then? Finally, ask to be taken off the calling list, and wait for the telemarketer to do it before you hang up. That extra minute is worth it.
How do you say “I don’t know” without sounding, well, dumb? Especially in a nerve-racking setting, like a job interview? Be direct, says Sue Shellenbarger, a career-advice columnist at the Wall Street Journal: Just say, “That’s a great question. I’d like to think about it and get back to you.”
If you don’t have a good answer because you haven’t been doing your job well, apologize and specify when you’ll get back on the query; then be sure to do so or you’ll lose credibility. If putting off the question isn’t an option (you’re a keynote speaker at an event; you’re being interviewed on TV), employ the Ted Kennedy strategy, says Anne Fisher, who writes Ask Annie, a career-advice column for CNNMoney.com: “Say, ‘That’s a good question, but an even more interesting question is.…’” Then talk about what you do know. “It’s worked for Kennedy,” says Fisher. “He’s been elected eight times.”
A Spat With Your Significant Other
He started it. Well, maybe you did. Either way, you don’t want to talk about it anymore. Do you have to finish what you began? No, says David Ransburg, a therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. In fact, you shouldn’t continue until you’re calm. “When we’re in a ‘flooded’ emotional state, access to the part of the brain where logical thinking resides is inhibited, and IQ drops noticeably―perhaps by as much as 15 points,” says Ransburg. “This is when we say things we wish we could take back.” So call a time-out. Typically, your logic will return in about 20 minutes, at which point you can resume the discussion in a productive way.
If you can’t call a time-out midspat, practice with tiny disagreements, suggests Ransburg, when you’re both less likely to take things personally: “Knowing you can―and should―do this will make it easier when you really need to take the kettle off the stove.”
A Story Repeater
Your father-in-law is telling you that story about foiling the pickpocket in Moscow―for the fifth time. Do you let him know you’ve heard it before and can tell it better than he does? “If the story is longer than a minute and the two of you are alone, do interrupt to tell him that you’ve heard―and enjoyed―that story once before,” says Margaret Shepherd, a coauthor of The Art of Civilized Conversation. Try: “You had everyone in stitches when you told that story last Christmas.” No need to add that you’ve heard the story for the last four Christmases. “Segue to a related topic,” suggests Shepherd, and if possible, draw in another person to freshen up the conversation.
With older people whose memory may be slipping or when you’re in a group, though, it can be cruel to interrupt, says author Letitia Baldrige: “Patiently listen and wait for a chance to change the subject. If they’re thrilled to be telling the story, dismissing them too suddenly is like smooshing an ant.”
The Wrong Restaurant
You’ve been seated, they’ve given you water and bread, and you decide―because the place is a bit grimy or too expensive, or nothing on its menu is appealing―that you want to leave. Can you just get up and go? “My policy is never to settle when it comes to food,” says Danyelle Freeman, a restaurant reviewer for New York’s Daily News and the founder of the website Restaurantgirl.com. “If you feel like you’ve made a bad choice, cut your losses and quietly exit. If the restaurant has already put water and bread on the table, they’ve technically begun service, so you should perhaps leave a small tip.”
If your server catches you on the way out, Freeman says, “graciously thank the person and briefly explain that you’re looking for something lighter, more casual, or whatever else the restaurant isn’t.” Don’t linger making excuses. “At the end of the day,” says Freeman, “it’s your money.”
You may escape faster―and avoid future rants―if you take a moment to hear the person out, says conversation expert Margaret Shepherd: “Don’t debunk their beliefs, tease, ignore, argue, scoff, or demean. They’ll just try harder to convince you.” Let the person spew for a couple of minutes before you introduce a neutral subject or make your exit.
Offensive rants―racist, misogynist, or obscene―are an exception. In those cases, cut the speaker off as soon as possible with a simple “Excuse me―I’ve got to go.” If the sermon takes place at work and other people are present, enlist their help. “They probably don’t want to hear it either,” says career columnist Anne Fisher. After listening to the lecturer for a minute or two, say, “It’s interesting you feel so strongly about that, Joe. Hey, Sally, what did you think about that meeting last week?” Unless the person “is a total bonehead,” says Fisher, “he or she will take the hint.”
An Inebriated Coworker
An after-work drink with the new assistant sounded like fun, but three drinks later she is anything but. Can you ditch her? “No,” says career columnist Anne Fisher. “Leaving a drunk to fend for herself could be dangerous, especially if he or she is planning to drive. You must either pour this person into a taxicab or drive him or her home.” Use any excuse you’d like to call it a night. ("I have so much to get ready for tomorrow"; “I’ve got to feed the dog”; “My mother phones me at 11 p.m. and I have to be home for her call.”)
To mitigate any morning-after awkwardness with someone you’ll continue to see at work, shrug off her own comments about being embarrassed (don’t rub it in) and extend an occasional lunch invitation, says Fisher. Make sure you go “someplace that doesn’t serve anything stronger than iced tea.” And remember: Lots of people are “instant idiots” (just add alcohol) when out but fine company when sober.
A Run-in With a Long-Lost “Pal”
If you barely have enough time for the friends you have now, be wary of taking on someone you haven’t missed that much and nip this encounter in the bud―nicely, of course. During the initial meeting, show some enthusiasm―“Great to see you!”―but don’t overdo it. “Don’t even vaguely suggest having lunch if your gut feeling is ‘Get me out of here,’” says conversation expert Margaret Shepherd.
If the person insists on a ‘date” and keeps calling or e-mailing to follow up, Shepherd suggests spelling out the terms you can live with: location (close to you), duration (short), purpose (strictly personal, or is there a business motive?). Also, be direct about anything you don’t want to discuss. (“I’d love to catch up on what you’re doing, but if we’re going to talk about that horrible personnel manager one more time, let’s call it off.”) Meet with the person once, and keep in mind that you don’t have to see him or her again if your opinion hasn’t changed.