How to Recover From Your Most Awkward Moments

The key to handling interactions with grace: anticipating the other person’s point of view (often before they know it themselves)

By Mary Loftus from Psychology Today
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine September 2013

Woman hiding behind a plant

Mark Hooper/Getty Images

How to: Thrive at a Party

It’s hard to believe, but even the world’s most brazen comedians (Chris Rock) and powerful leaders(former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown) cop to being shy when they’re not performing or giving speeches. (“At a dinner party, you want to sit next to me,” Rock’s wife, Malaak Compton-Rock, once said.) They’re in good company: Forty percent of the population falls into that category, says Bernardo Carducci,director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast.

Carducci considers small talk the “cornerstone of civility” because it paves the way for bigger conversations. His pocket guide to social discourse, How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything, suggests you seek out a prop (like a wineglass) or act as a host by introducing people to each other. Here are his four cardinal rules for easier conversation: 1) Be nice but not necessarily brilliant; 2) keep your opening lines simple, and think about your introduction beforehand (your name and a little information about yourself that might serve as conversation kindling later); 3) join conversations that are already in progress by elaborating on the topic of discussion or introducing new topics, perhaps from current events; and 4) end by saying, “There’s someone I have to speak with, but it was really nice meeting you.”

Don’t make the mistake of staying on one subject for too long. It’s called small talk for a reason. Think conversational hors d’oeuvres, with each topic sampled and savored.

How to: Accept a Compliment
When asked, nearly everyone says the proper response to a compliment is “Thank you.” But when actually given a compliment, only a third of people accept it so simply and smoothly, found linguist Robert Herbert of Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York.

The difficulty lies in the fact that a compliment (“What a nice sweater!”) has two levels: a gift component (accept or reject) and a content component (agree or disagree). The recipient is confronted with a dilemma—how to respond simultaneously to both: “I must agree with the speaker and thank him for the gift of a compliment while avoiding self-praise.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, women aren’t worse than men at accepting compliments. It is the gender of the compliment giver that most influences the response. Women and men are both more likely to accept a compliment coming from a man than from a woman. When a man says, “Nice scarf,” a woman is more likely to respond affirmatively: “Thanks. My sister knitted it for me.”

But when one woman tells another, “That’s a beautiful sweater,” the recipient is likely to demur or deflect: “It was on sale at Walmart, and they didn’t even have the color I wanted.” Such a response, intended to make the complimenter feel that the recipient isn’t overly proud, only makes her feel awkward or invalidated instead. Better to make a relevant, related comment (“Thanks. It’s my favorite too”).

And nothing tops smiling, looking the complimenter in the eye, and simply saying, “Thank you.”

Who Knew? Gratitude Gaffes
Compliments can show a range of social ineptitude. In one study, clumsy responses to “I like your sweater” included “praise upgrades” (“Yes, it really brings out the blue in my eyes”), intrusive questions (“Do you really think so? Do you want to borrow it?”), and disagreement (“It’s itchy; I hate it”).

Mark Hooper/Getty Images

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