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How to Handle 7 of Life’s Most Embarrassing Moments

The real test of our manners comes when we are dealing with our most embarrassing moments. Here are some doozies, and tips from the etiquette experts on how to handle them with grace.

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Oops! You forgot someone’s name

And when they then greet you by your name, you feel like even more of an idiot. Don’t just carry on the conversation or skate by with a “heeeeeeyyyyy!” Whether the deer-in-headlights moment happens in a business meeting or at your kid’s soccer game, it’s better to just fess up at hello. “Say something as simple as: I’m having one of those days, please tell me your name again,” suggests etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach. Or start with: “I know we met last week at the luncheon”—this lets them know that you do remember them, it’s just their name has slipped your mind, adds Whitmore. Say you just met the person that day, however, and you’re blanking on their name. If it’s a professional situation, ask to exchange business cards before you leave, suggests Mister Manners, Thomas P. Farley, an etiquette expert based in New York. Or in a more personal setting, suggest swapping cell phone numbers and have your new friend enter the info right into your phone—then you can quick-glance the card or phone before parting ways. “If neither solution works, be honest and admit your momentary brain freeze so you can say goodbye graciously, and without embarrassment,” adds Farley. Don’t miss these tips on how to commit names to memory.

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Crap! You ruin a surprise

Birthday party, baby shower, awesome anniversary trip meets your big mouth and now the beans have been spilled and you feel awful. If there’s any way to attempt a quick recovery, go for it, suggests Daniel Post Senning, co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th edition. But don’t lie—making up another ruse to cover your loose lips means you have to maintain the deception. Instead, try to reintroduce a little question or mystery: ‘Oh, they haven’t mentioned a party to you, maybe it’s not happening or maybe I misunderstood,’ suggests Post Senning, who also co-hosts the podcast Awesome Etiquette (and yes, is related to guru Emily Post—he’s her great-great-grandson). All that said, if the deed is done and there’s no way to shove the cat back in the bag, accept responsibility and apologize. In some situations, you may also want to call the host and let them know, says Post Senning. But if the honoree would rather you not tell anybody, and says she’ll act duly surprised at the appropriate time, you can honor that request. Here are 50 etiquette tips to help you avoid embarrassing moments.

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Shoot! You send an email to the wrong recipient

We’re not talking a “meet you at the restaurant for dinner” message that accidentally went to Joan in accounting instead of John, your husband; we mean the my-boss-is-the-devil email meant for your close colleague, sent to your now very offended boss. Of course hindsight is 20/20, and obviously, it’s a bad idea to rant and rave over email, especially at work: not only can it be sent incorrectly, it can also be forwarded. But you did it anyway. “Now you have to own up to it,” says Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. Confront the situation as soon as you realize your mistake. Call your boss, explain the circumstances—that you were frustrated with a meeting, overwhelmed with extra work, whatever it may be—and that you were letting off steam, suggests Gottsman. Say you’re sorry and acknowledge you should have discussed your concerns directly with your boss. In general, it’s good practice to hit save, read and re-read any email before sending, adds Whitmore. And when your blood is boiling and you need to vent, pick up the phone and call your friend. Here’s the simple way to stop reliving embarrassing moments.

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Oh no! You fart in the elevator (or anywhere public)

Despite a valiant effort to keep it contained, you let one loose—but whether you take ownership depends on the situation. “If it’s obvious you are the offender, a simple ‘pardon me’ is all you need to say: “No one is interested in a lengthy explanation of what you had for lunch that afternoon,” says Farley. But, if that unfortunate moment occurs in a group of people where the source is a little more nebulous, you might want to just let it linger. “There’s no need to draw attention to an awkward or embarrassing situation if you don’t have to,” said Post Senning. And in that elevator full of strangers, you definitely don’t have to.

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iStock/Todor Tsvetkov

Yikes! You bail on plans, then get busted

You tell one friend can’t make her dinner party that evening, then meet girlfriends for happy hour instead and tag—you’re outed on Facebook. If your hurt friend confronts you, tell the truth, says Farley: Were you feeling too tired to go out but then rallied to see other friends for a last-minute get-together? Did your child’s event finish up earlier than expected, so you could pop by a party you didn’t think you could attend? “If so, don’t be afraid to say so,” he says. And if the reason was you just didn’t feel up for going to dinner, explain that—in the nicest way you can: ‘It’s been so long since we’ve hung out, I knew we’d be out all night talking. I needed to make it an early evening—I don’t know why I simply didn’t say so. I do want to get together, though. When can we do that?” Canceling on someone, however, to make plans with another—that’s pretty much as rude as rude gets. If you find yourself in that predicament, you’d better have a very good reason—and one you will not feel ashamed of sharing when you ask permission to cancel, says Farley: ‘A friend just offered me a ticket to see a Broadway show I’ve been dying to see. Would you mind terribly if we rescheduled?’ Then be sure to treat for the postponed plans when they happen as a gesture of gratitude for your friends’ understanding. Check out these etiquette rules to follow avoid embarrassing moments at someone else’s house.

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Awkward! You go in for a hug, and are met with a handshake

Imagine if you went in for a cheek kiss? So it could have been worse, but still… awkwaaard. If it happens, the best you can do is just navigate that handshake well, says Post Senning. Look the person in the eye, smile and don’t dwell on the uncomfortable. At any expectation of formality, it’s always best to defer to the gold standard—the handshake, advises Post Senning. That includes first meetings, in business environments, even a company barbecue if you’re meeting your spouse’s colleagues for the first time. On the flip side, if you’re not a hugger, but you know a particular client or acquaintance is, offer your hand first with a warm smile, adds Gottsman—it’s a friendly way to keep a little distance. Here’s etiquette advice to avoid other common embarrassing moments.

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iStock/Enrico Flanchini

Eeeek! You say, “Congrats! When are you due?”—and she’s not pregnant

This ranks up there as one of the worst unintentional insults (and definitely worse embarrassing moments) you can say to a woman, says Farley. Experts agree your next move should be say you’re sorry, be sincere about it, and most importantly, move on. Continuing to apologize or rambling on and on about it only makes it worse. Then, remember this: Never. Ever. Ever. Utter the word ‘pregnant’ unless a woman brings it up first. “Even if you think it, know it, even if she looks like she’s about to give birth today—say nothing about unless she mentions it,” says Gottsman. She may not be bringing it up or want to talk about for a number of reasons. And for the record: Saying something like ‘Oh, I notice you’re not drinking tonight—are you pregnant?’ crosses that too-personal line as well, adds Post Senning. Are you certain she’s expecting? Definitely avoid these phrases never to say to a pregnant woman.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Teresa Dumain
Teresa Dumain is a NYC-based writer who has been covering health and wellness for nearly 20 years for a variety of publications and websites, including Reader’s Digest, WebMD, Creakyjoints.com, Real Simple, and the Leaf (Nutrisystem’s official weight loss blog). Her work has also appeared in Shape, Prevention, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz The Good Life, and EverydayHealth.com; and she has written for The Doctors, a nationally syndicated TV show. She earned a BA in Communications and English from James Madison University.