How to Handle Sticky Situations
The Etiquette of Awkward Interactions
Situation: A stranger walks by with his zipper down or arugula in his teeth.
Solution: In many cases, it’s not your place to step in. “If you’re in a large group or the person is the CEO of the company, you don’t have to say anything,” says Jodi R. Smith, president of Mannersmith, an etiquette consulting firm based in Boston. However, if the faux pas is truly mortifying and no one is acting to correct it, look for a moment when the person is alone and quietly mention the problem. But always take care to distinguish between those times when a “flaw” can be fixed (such as toilet paper stuck to a shoe) and when it can’t or might be intentional (a blouse that’s too sheer).
Situation: You run into someone whose last few phone calls you never returned.
Solution: Accentuate the positive. Saying “Oh, I know you’ve been calling, and now you’ve tracked me down” will only remind the person of the slight. Instead, flash a big smile and say “How lucky to run into you! It saves me the phone call I’ve been meaning to make,” suggests Shannon Donnelly, the society columnist for the Palm Beach Daily News. If you have been meaning to schedule a lunch or a coffee date with the person but haven’t had the time to do so, ask if she has time to stop for coffee right then, or pull out your calendar on the spot and make a plan to get together soon, says Smith. However, if you feel that you owe the person a conversation and nothing more, Smith adds, simply “take three minutes to give her your full attention.” Ask about her new job, her family, or anything of a personal nature that shows you are interested. “Then close the interaction,” says Smith. “Say ‘It was great to bump into you. Have a good day,’" and move on with your life.
The Etiquette of Uncomfortable Questions
Situation: A friend asks if she looks good in an outfit, and the answer is something other than yes.
Solution: Blame the clothes, not the person. "Never say 'You look terrible in that.' Instead say 'Those pants are wrinkly in the back and don't show off your cute tush,' " says Clinton Kelly, cohost of the Learning Channel's What Not to Wear and a coauthor of Dress Your Best ($20, amazon.com). "If everything in the dressing room is too tight, remember: Misery loves company. Say 'That brand always runs small. I tried on four pairs of pants last week before I found the right ones.' " Then find a better alternative. If one outfit looked great, have your friend try it on again, and compliment an aspect of it that other choices lacked. Finally, timing is everything. "If you're in a dressing room, you can make a difference, so be honest," says Kelly. "But if your friend is running out the door or already in public, why burst her bubble?"
Situation: Someone asks you out on a date, but you're not interested.
Solution: "Never, ever make up a boyfriend or any excuse that you could get caught lying about," says Lesley Carlin, coauthor of More Things You Need to Be Told. Be as gentle and respectful as possible, by keeping your answer vague but firm. Say "Thank you so much for the offer, but I really have too much going on, and I don't think this is for me right now." If you work together, use company policy (or your own personal rule) as your reason not to get involved. "It's a perfect excuse," says Carlin.
The Etiquette of Flustering Meetings
Situation: You find yourself walking alongside a casual acquaintance and you don’t want to chat all the way to your destination.
Solution: If you can do it discreetly and naturally, turn a corner or “duck into a coffee shop or public restroom,” says Leil Lowndes, author of How to Talk to Anyone ($17, amazon.com). But if that isn’t an option, it’s best simply to bring up a topic you enjoy talking about―something that elicits more interesting comments than last night’s TV shows. Excited about an upcoming vacation? Ask the person about her last trip or for a book recommendation for your flight.
Situation: You see someone you think you recognize but aren’t sure if he recognizes you, so you don’t know whether to say hello.
Solution: “If you pass someone on the street, you can let it go without talking,” says Jodi R. Smith. “But if you’re sitting in a doctor’s office or at a party, say something.” Start with your name, followed by one piece of information about yourself. Saying “I’m Clare. I went to Vanderbilt, and you look very familiar. Have we met?” is a better option than interrogating the person. If you’re fairly certain that you met the person in a specific place and just aren’t sure that he remembers you, “that can be a natural opening for a conversation,” says Caroline Tiger, author of How to Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners for the Socially Challenged ($15, amazon.com).
The Etiquette of Uneasy Situations
Situation: You arrive at a party and find that you don't know a single person in the room.
Solution: Head to the bar or the buffet first, since "there are bound to be other guests congregating nearby to whom you can introduce yourself," says Shannon Donnelly. Or stand near the entrance of the room so that guests pass you on their way in. Approach other people who are standing alone, who will probably be glad to see you, or introduce yourself to the host and enlist her help by saying, "I've scanned the room and don't recognize anyone right away. Is there someone you especially think I should meet?"
One more party tip: If a friend you’ve brought to a party humiliates herself, direct attention away from her by inventing a reason you need to leave, then ask her to escort you home.
Situation: You called someone by the wrong name―and it wasn't someone you just met.
Solution: If you flub someone's name a single time, it's fine to apologize and make light of the situation. "Say something about lack of sleep or that you've had a really crazy day, and move on. Don't bring it up again, even to joke about it―this will just extend the awkwardness," says Caroline Tiger. However, if you have been calling your cubicle mate the wrong name since day one, "the apology should be in earnest," says Tiger. "Validate her mortification by reacting in a big way, and do it in person: 'I can't believe I've been calling you Nancy for three weeks. I am so, so sorry. What can I do to make it up to you?'"
The Etiquette of Dull Conversations
Situation: The most boring person at a party has you cornered―and he won’t stop talking.
Solution: Try bringing in a third person to liven up the conversation. Or simply put in some time and then excuse yourself. “The point of social events is to mingle,” says Shannon Donnelly. “But you don’t have to babysit.” After a few minutes of polite small talk, use a verbal cue to signal that it’s time to move on. Try “It was so nice catching up with you” or “I hate to monopolize your time,” then say good-bye. In a business situation, extend your hand. “Shaking hands is a huge cue that you are about to move on,” says Jodi R. Smith.
Situation: Someone is rehashing an anecdote that’s all too familiar.
Solution: “If your 98-year-old grandmother is telling you the same story for the fifth time, let it go,” says Smith. “She’s earned her right to tell stories again.” To make it more interesting, ask her for more details or to elaborate on different parts of the story. When your boss is the one on repeat, it’s best to let her ramble as well. Ask questions only if there’s a pause, and you can hide the fact that you’ve heard it all before. But if a close friend or a coworker is yapping away, feel free to hit fast-forward and ask “Is this the time you found your car in the lake?”
The Etiquette of Discomfiting Lapses
Situation: You’re in an elevator with someone you know you should talk to, but your mind is blank about a topic.
Solution: If your riding companion is a senior partner at work, avoid talking shop unless you’re confident that you can make an intelligent comment about a current business issue. Instead, stick to a safer subject and approach it with a unique attitude. “The weather can be a great topic―just talk about it with passion,” says Leil Lowndes. Address the rider by name to make it more personal, then tell a funny story (“The snow was so deep this morning, my cat sunk in all the way up to his tail”) or make a positive remark (“I finally get to try out my new rain boots!”). At the very least, it will be a welcome change from the usual bad-weather complaints.