Even if you pride yourself on your social graces, every once in a while you’re likely to find yourself in a cringe-worthy situation with no graceful way out.
Since we’ve all been there, we spoke with experts to find out the best way to handle eight common instances in which etiquette may have (temporarily) escaped you. Read on to learn how to open-mouth-and-remove-foot without ruining a friendship, relationship and more.
1. You run into an acquaintance and would love to introduce him to your husband, but you can’t remember his name.
Psychotherapist Karol Ward, a licensed clinical social worker and author of Worried Sick, offers two solutions: If there’s time, nudge your husband to indicate that you’ve blanked on the gentleman’s name so he can jump in with, “Hi! I’m Sue’s husband, Joe!” Your acquaintance should step up and offer his name in return. If he doesn’t—or if your husband isn’t picking up your signals—your best option is “straight-up honesty coupled with humor,” suggests Ward. Try: “I can’t believe I’m forgetting your name, but with the day I’ve had, I’m surprised I can remember my own. Please forgive me!”
2. Your sister-in-law is constantly giving you unsolicited parenting advice—and she’s desperate to argue her case in front of a crowd.
“Kids don’t really need vaccines!” she says at a family picnic, or “Spanking is a good thing!” she announces over Thanksgiving dinner, just begging you to argue back. But no matter the topic, do your best not to engage her, says Jill Spiegel, author of How To Talk To Anyone About Anything. “People give advice to feel helpful,” Spiegel says. Acknowledge her advice, then change the topic quickly: “Really? That’s very interesting and I’d love to read more on it. Speaking of reading, did you see that article about the royal family?”
3. You show up for a blind date and don’t like what you see.
No one likes to feel rejected out of the gate, so it’s important to be pleasant and courteous in this situation, says Ward. “If your date has made reservations for dinner or an event, then find the reserve in yourself to follow through and be friendly.” Steer the conversation toward general, nonintimate topics and make sure to keep some physical distance between the two of you. Offer (more than once) to pay your own way, but don’t make things more awkward by being forceful or overly insistent. Say “thank you” at the end of the night, and do your best to avoid comments like, “We should do this again!” if you really don’t want to.
4. You send your husband an e-mail complaining about your neighbor only to realize the e-mail was also sent to the person you wrote nasty things about.
The sooner you confront the offended party, the better, says publicist Amy Ogden. In this situation it’s your job to accept the blame and apologize profusely. Explain that the hurtful things you said “were not genuine feelings, but reactions in a moment of frustration.” Your neighbor may not forgive you, but at the very least she won’t be seething for days. And, the next time you need to vent, call your husband rather than putting angry thoughts into writing.
5. You mother-in-law buys an outfit for your tween that you don’t think is appropriate. Naturally your daughter loves it.
If you think you can have a civil conversation with your mother-in-law on the matter, your best bet is to make an alliance. It would be great to have her on your side, especially when your tween isn’t. Tell your mother-in-law how much you appreciate the gesture and that your daughter was so excited to receive the outfit. “Then move into but-I-need-your-help mode,” suggests Ward. Express your concern about the unwanted attention your tween might receive while wearing the outfit and ask your mother-in-law for her help in setting boundaries in terms of clothes and makeup. If you know your mother-in-law won’t want to hear it, then you need to lay down the law with your daughter. Let her wear the outfit—as long as she wears a pair of tights or a T-shirt (or both) underneath
6. A friend asks what you think of her new boyfriend, who you think is a creep.
A gentle approach is best here, says Ward. Avoid a tirade about how awful he is; if she’s head over heels, she’s just going to start arguing his good points—and no one’s going to win that argument, says Ward. If she asks, “What do you think of my boyfriend?” turn the focus back on her by asking, “How are things between you guys? Do you like how he treats you?” If she needs to get something off her chest, she’ll take the cue. If she brings up something negative, ask, “How does that make you feel?” With a little prodding, she should come to the conclusion that he’s a jerk without you needing to spell it out for her. However, if she doesn’t say anything about him not treating her well, then it’s best for you not to say anything either.
7. You ask a neighbor when her due date is. Her response: “I’m not pregnant.”
Eden King, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at George Mason University and coauthor of How Women Can Make It Work, suggests two strategies. You could turn the moment into a personal disclosure, which can boost your friendship: “I’m such an insensitive idiot. Someone asked me the same thing last week.” However, if you’re rail-thin or post-menopausal, this will make things more awkward. Instead, try buffering the blow with praise, which everyone likes. “Wow, you must have fallen in love or won the lottery lately, because you’re absolutely glowing.” In the future, save baby-on-the-way talk for women who’ve announced their pregnancy.
8. A coworker keeps inviting you out for drinks, but you hate being around her after she’s had a couple glasses of wine.
Continually rejecting her might not get your message across, especially if you’ve always been game for after-work cocktails in the past. If this is someone you need to maintain an office relationship with (in other words, ignoring her is not an option), it’s in your best interest to be honest and direct, says Ward. Buffer your criticism with compliments and emphasize that you’re concerned and care about her. “I love your bubbly personality, but after a few drinks, lately I feel like you get angry (or sloppy or emotional). Do you need to talk about anything?” Regardless of how she reacts (either she wants to talk about it or she doesn’t), the conversation should redefine your relationship for the better.