We’ve all heard the expression “kids say the darndest things,” but what about adults? Who among us hasn’t delivered (or been on the receiving end) of a zinger we wish we could take back? Let’s face it, awkward situations happen; we can either choose to deal with them like the compassionate adults we aspire to be, or we can keep on doing the same things that most of us do in those awkward situations—avert our eyes, mumble something unintelligible, and perhaps cough extra loud in an attempt to take the focus off the ridiculously idiotic thing we just said or did. This year, I’m choosing the adult route. And with a little help from Lizzie Post at the Emily Post Institute, I’ll be ready the next time I find myself in any of these precarious situations.
1. You ask someone who’s not pregnant when she’s due.
Ouch. Nothing good can come from trying to explain why you might have thought such a thing (“But your sweater’s so baggy!”), so don’t even try to dig yourself out of this hole because everything you say will make it worse. Post advises that we immediately apologize for our mistake in judgment and move on to another topic ASAP. “You need to move quickly [in engaging her in a new discussion], because otherwise her mind may linger on the fact that you think she looks fat enough to be mistaken for a pregnant woman,” Post says. And nobody wants that.
One more recommendation: never, ever ask that question again unless you’re absolutely, positively sure that the person you’re asking is going to have a baby. If there’s any doubt at all, Post recommends waiting to ask until she shares her good news. Then we can ask when she’s due.
2. You’re unsure whether to friend—or delete—someone on a social networking site.
Sites like Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn have made the boundaries between friend, business associate, and acquaintance a little murky. Post recommends establishing a strategy before joining any site, or if you’re already a member, slightly tweaking your existing strategy. “Make a decision before getting involved about how far you’re going to go. Do you want to separate work [contacts] from personal?” Post says she keeps them separate, opting to keep professional contacts on LinkedIn versus on a site like Facebook, where your contacts are likely to see personal status updates and photos that may not be appropriate for the type of relationship you have. “It’s okay for you to have boundaries and for your boundaries to be different from someone else’s,” she says. “Just explain how yours are different.”
She also says it’s perfectly fine to ignore a friend request from someone you don’t really know that well. After all, that person you sat next to in eighth grade algebra doesn’t need to be your friend on Facebook, unless you really still are friends. Post says it’s okay to go through your profiles and delete people you feel aren’t friends. But do we tell the delete-ees? “It’s really your call whether you communicate with them or not,” she says. If you didn’t know someone that well in the first place, you probably don’t owe him or her an explanation. “But if you delete yourself from a site, I’d send a message to everyone so they know that it wasn’t about them personally, but about your decision not to use the site.”
3. Someone has food in her teeth, something on her pants, etc.
You know the feeling. You check the mirror in the work bathroom and spy a stray piece of spinach in your teeth from lunch—which was three hours ago, before the meeting you just left that you talked and smiled your way through. Why didn’t anyone tell you? Post says whether we tell depends on the person and the environment and isn’t necessarily about whether they’re a stranger or a friend. “You want to do it as discretely as possible, without saying it in front of others to embarrass the person further.” In a meeting environment, there may not be a moment to bring it up without others hearing. (Though in that situation, I’d personally appreciate a discrete post-it from a trusted coworker.) But Post says if you’re one-on-one with someone you know, absolutely let the person know. And if you encounter a stranger in a place where you can tell her without others hearing—like a restaurant bathroom, for example—telling her is a good idea (and also good karma).
4. You forget someone’s name you’ve met before.
This is a common problem, so Post recommends just being honest and laughing about it. “If someone’s upset about it, assure the person that it’s not an insult at all, that it’s just a problem for you,” she says. But definitely make sure he knows how sorry you are and if the problem persists, do some work on your part to become more adept at remembering names.
5. One of your coworkers has been fired or laid off.
In today’s economy, this situation is becoming more common. Many times, workers are asked to leave immediately, creating an uncomfortable-for-everyone scenario where someone has to pack up her belongings in front of others. Post advises never to underestimate the comforting power of the words “I’m sorry” in any awkward situation, including in the workplace. “I think it’s perfectly acceptable to approach her and say, ‘I just heard, I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do to help?’”
However, she warns that this is definitely not the time to offer advice like “buck up,” “your resume is great,” or “don’t worry, there are tons of jobs out there.” Says Post, “Sometimes, we have to just let people be in the moment and feel the sadness and confusion at hand. Life isn’t about being happy all the time and we need to learn how to get through the sad times and support people experiencing them.”
6. Someone gives you a gift, but you didn’t buy her one.
Christmas, Hanukah, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween … the marketers of the world have done a good job of making us feel compelled to give gifts on even the most insignificant of holidays. So how do we recover when someone hands us a beautifully-wrapped package and we don’t have anything for her in return? “Gift giving isn’t reciprocal—it doesn’t mean you have to give one back if you get one,” says Post. After all, the sentiment should be about finding something special for someone and wanting to give it to her because we know she’ll enjoy and appreciate it. Post advises that we focus on accepting the gift with grace, thank the person, and then move on. “You can do something for her another time, but don’t make up a white lie,” she says. “That’s what people expect to hear when they know that someone hasn’t thought of them.”
7. An invited guest shows up at your dinner party with an uninvited guest.
As much as we’d like to club someone over the head for causing us to defrost another steak and scooch another place setting into our beautifully-set table, Post recommends playing the good host in this situation by accommodating the unexpected person and making him feel as welcome as possible. Generally, the uninvited person has no idea that the invited guest has committed a faux pas, so there’s no point in making things uncomfortable by making a fuss about it or denying the person access. Post does recommend, however, that at a different time, you let your invited guest know that in the future, you’d appreciate a call in advance so that you’re able to accurately prepare food and set enough places for everyone.
The truth is, we can clear the hurdle of almost any awkward situation by starting with an apology (if the situation warrants one) and keeping three principles in mind when trying to decide what to do—consideration, honesty, and respect. Says Post, “If these are at the forefront of your actions, you’ll be headed down the right path.” Of course, try telling that to the not-pregnant woman you bought a baby gift for.
Lizzie Post works at the Emily Post Institute and is the author of How Do You Work This Life Thing?
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