What to Say in Awkward Social Situations
Waiting in line at the deli, you’re greeted by someone whose name escapes you.
“I’ve found that it’s best simply to smile back and let them speak,” says Sirio Maccioni, owner of the famous New York City restaurant Le Cirque. “Never ask who they are. You’ll eventually figure it out from what they’re saying or by asking someone else once they’ve walked away.”
Another option: If the mystery woman didn’t greet you by name, reintroduce yourself. (“Oh, hi! I know I know you. I’m ―. Remind me how we met.”) “She’ll probably get the hint and tell you her name,” says Debra Benton, the author of CEO Material (McGraw-Hill, $25, amazon.com).
Of course, it helps to have backup. If you’re with, say, your spouse, you can introduce him by name and hope the semi-stranger responds in kind. It’s even better if your wingman (or child) is trained. “My family members know that if I don’t introduce them to someone, I’ve blanked on the person’s name and they need to step in,” says Susan Fitter Sloane, the founder of Global Matters, an international etiquette-consulting business based in Middleburg, Virginia.
It’s Thursday afternoon, your foils are setting, and your boss walks into the salon. You look like an extra from Star Wars―and it’s clear you slipped out early.
Although every instinct might tell you to hide your face in the nearest tabloid, don’t. “If you’ve been getting your work done to your boss’s satisfaction, leaving a little early one day shouldn’t be an issue,” says Barbara Pachter, the president of a communication-training company based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Instead, be brave and say a cheerful hello. “As a general rule, the person who makes the approach has the power, because she sets the tone of the interaction,” says Fitter Sloane. Tell her briefly why you left early. “Showing that you believe you owe her an explanation―for example, maybe an early appointment was the only way you could get your hair done and get dinner on the table for your family―sends an important message that you respect her as your superior,” says Laurie Puhn, an attorney and a mediator in New York City. Once you’ve come clean, go your separate ways.
You enter the pediatrician’s waiting room with your sick child, and spot a parent with whom you’ve had issues (to say the least) at PTA meetings.
No, don’t encourage your child to cough in her general direction. (You know you want to.) Just greet her calmly without overdoing it. “Say hello, introduce the children if necessary, follow up with a relatable comment―like something about the frustratingly long wait time to see the doctor―and find a seat anywhere you feel comfortable. But don’t feel compelled to continue chatting,” says Benton.
If you think the two of you can get past your differences, “try to connect with her over your mutual parenthood, which always proves to be neutral territory for feuding adults, wherever they are,” says Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax. “With any luck, she’ll do the same and leave your issue behind.”
At a baby shower, you encounter a friend who is seething with anger at you.
Whether it’s a shower, a birthday party, or a Bar Mitzvah, your first concern should be the comfort of the host or the guest of honor. So don’t make this a scene from The Hills. “Walk up to your disgruntled friend, smile, and tell her that you’d like to meet for coffee in the near future,” suggests Fitter Sloane. Your goal is to make it clear that this is not the time or the place for her to vent her issues with you. Says Fitter Sloane: “Once you’ve extended the olive branch, walk away―then follow up when you get home by calling her and setting a date.”
If you fear she’ll start yelling at you or if the idea of speaking to her makes you nervous, “take a deep breath, stand up straight, and find someone else to talk to,” says Casey Biggs, an acting coach at the New School for Drama, in New York City. “Focus completely on that person and your conversation and soon you’ll be so absorbed that your anxiety will dissolve and you can enjoy the event.”
You make a dash for the elevator and slide in as the door is closing. Cozy: It’s just you and the CEO.
Yes, this might be your chance to make a good impression. But it could also be one of his only Zen moments in the day. Do what makes you feel most comfortable, whether that’s just offering a confident hello and exiting the elevator with “Have a good day” or adding something more in between. But be sure to skip the overzealous pitch. In any close encounter with a person who intimidates you―be it the CEO in the elevator or an elected official sitting next to you on an airplane―it’s important to remember that he or she is also “looking to make connections and wants to know from you how things are going,” says Fitter Sloane.
If he or she seems in the mood to chat after introductions, say something about the person’s latest achievement, whether it’s a huge merger or a new city park, says public-relations executive Sean Cassidy, of DKC, a firm in New York City. And if you have an idea that you’re bursting to share, ask if you could e-mail it to an assistant.
You’re pumping gas when up walks an acquaintance who has been bugging you to serve on a committee she chairs.
Face it: She has you cornered. But you can still control how long the conversation lasts. If you’ve decided not to join the committee, tell her then and there. Biggs recommends using a simple line, like “Love to―can’t” (or a variation, if you want to soften it). “The trick is to stop there and not explain why,” says Biggs. “You don’t want to keep the door open for her to come up with even more arguments to try to change your mind.”
If you are still considering her proposal or don’t want to make a rushed decision, say hello but keep moving. Start backing away as if you’re in a rush to get somewhere, or pretend to rummage through your purse for your cell phone to make a call. It should become apparent that you’re too busy to talk. If she doesn’t let up, “tell her you’ll call her with an answer on a certain day,” says Fitter Sloane. “Be respectful of her time,” she adds. “Call her on Monday if you said you would.”
Your former in-laws show up unannounced at your child’s basketball game. Suddenly you’re sweating as much as the players are.
Not every surprise is a good one, but since children generally love to see their grandparents, and vice versa, you should let them have their moment. Invite them to sit with you. Draw them into upbeat conversation―about how the team is doing, say―and never bad-mouth your ex. “This is a good chance to warm up any cold feelings they may have toward you,” says Pachter. Any time you interact with former family members, use the opportunity to show your children how well everyone can get along. “When the kids see you communicating positively with everyone, it will make them feel less nervous about future events with the entire family in attendance,” says Puhn.
You’re at a restaurant with coworkers when you run into your therapist.
Keep in mind that counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists―indeed most medical professionals―have an ethical obligation to be discreet. They probably won’t speak to you outside of their offices or even acknowledge knowing you unless you initiate contact, says Fitter Sloane. And they won’t be offended if you decide not to engage in conversation with them.
That said, if you’d like to say hello, have a follow-up question at the ready that will steer you away from awkward territory, says Pachter. (This holds true for any uncomfortable encounter.) For example, you could ask, “Have you eaten here before?” or “How are you liking the weather?” which may sound obvious, but if you’re someone who gets flustered easily, even simple niceties can escape you. Take a moment to collect your thoughts and choose an opening line―before opening your mouth.
As you’re walking into an ATM vestibule, a person who recently fired you is walking out.
“Whether you’ve found a new job or not, you still need to interact graciously,” says Pachter. Feign excitement and offer an upbeat reply to the inevitable question, “So how’s it going?” Even if “it” is not going well.
“Mention a few of the possibilities that you’re exploring, and say that you’re ‘planning to make a decision soon,’ ” Pachter suggests. “It shows that you’re not wallowing in self-pity.” And if you’ve found a position that you love, let him know.
If you want to have a bit of fun with your ex-employer (who probably feels as awkward as you do), try the approach of Mary Matalin, a former adviser to President George W. Bush. “I actually enjoy running into people who have fired me,” she says, “particularly if I’m with another person and can jokingly tell them how the meanie got rid of me. It breaks the tension and leads to a good laugh.”