Ways To Resolve Common Embarrassing Situations

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We’ve all had those little moments of embarrassment that make us want to curl into a little ball and roll away.

Maybe you’re out to dinner and your card comes back as declined. Maybe you wave at someone only to realize that they’re not who you thought they were. Maybe you’re jumping out of the side of a plane when you realize that your parachute is actually a bag of loose silverware.

It’s only awkward if I make it awkward.

Embarrassing situations like these are a part of life—but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take steps to limit the embarrassment. We looked at a few common humiliating scenarios to determine how to effectively deal with them. Keep these tips in mind during your next moment of crisis:

1. You’re enjoying a nice dinner somewhere when you try to handle the bill.

You decide that you’ll treat your friends, so you pull out your credit or debit card and ask for the bill. That’s all well and good, but unfortunately, your card comes back declined. You glance around, laugh nervously, and start fumbling with your wallet to find another way to pay. It’s a humiliating moment for any adult, particularly if the meal wasn’t that expensive in the first place.

Kid covering their face with one hand
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

“I think that, when dealing with embarrassing situations, less is more,” says Diane Gottsman, founder of the Protocol School of Texas. “The more you say, the more uncomfortable the situation becomes. Just switch out the card or use cash—but you don’t have to make excuses. That only draws attention and makes things more uncomfortable.”

“Remember, it could be something as simple as a broken card reader, and everyone understands that,” she says. “If you don’t act uncomfortable, your fellow diners will appreciate it.”

Alternately, you could try to play it off with a joke. Saying something like, “I knew I shouldn’t have bought all those Bitcoin!” could turn the awkward situation into something more manageable. In any case, play it cool.

“This is such a common situation,” Gottsman notes. “Just relax. Nobody is really going to assume that you don’t have the resources to pay.”

Another option: Of course, you might not have the money to pay. If that’s the case, simply put it on your friends and make a run for it. We’ve enjoyed quite a few free meals with this technique. Granted, we’re banned from dozens of restaurants, but the point stands.

2. You’re flying somewhere when you realize you’ve got to make an unplanned layover in the airplane bathroom.

Fly with any frequency, and you’ll eventually find yourself in this situation.

If you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. I think most people understand.

“I was traveling to Houston when it hit me,” a technical writer, who asked to remain anonymous for soon-to-be-obvious reasons, tells Urbo. “I knew I was heading into the airplane commode, and I was going to take…some time. When I came out of the bathroom, there was a line of about four people, and they all encountered my, uh, odor. The worst part was pushing past them on the way back to my seat.”

There is a solution: It’s called the courtesy flush. We’ll try to put it delicately, but the basic technique involves flushing as soon as you’ve, ahem, produced.

Look, we tried to put it delicately. Anyway, the courtesy flush effectively eliminates the source of bad odors, hopefully limiting your embarrassment.

“Really, bad odors aren’t anything unusual,” one St. Louis flight attendant tells Urbo. “If you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. I think most people understand. Just try not to take too long in there—to me, that’s a way bigger faux pas.”

Another option: If you’d rather lean into the embarrassment, go ahead. Simply push open the door, look straight at your fellow passengers, and announce that you’re responsible for the horrific odors drifting out of the commode. They’ll be impressed with your honesty; maybe you’ll get some applause.

3. Someone waves at you, and you wave back…but they weren’t actually waving at you.

“I was on my college campus when this happened,” a student, who asked to remain anonymous, tells Urbo. “They waved, I waved, and then I slowly realized that they were waving at a group of students behind me. Both the wave-r and the wave-ee started laughing at me. It was like embarrassment in stereo.”

This is why waving is kind of a stupid custom. There’s really no easy way to tell whether a person is actually waving at you, and once you’ve made a mistake, it’s hard to recover your dignity.

“That’s happened to all of us, I think,” Gottsman says. “You just make it comfortable. Just smile—it’s one of life’s awkward moments that is going to happen.”

“Just own it,” she suggests. “Smile. Don’t worry about apologizing; laugh it off with them.”

Another option: Don’t let them do that to you. Keep waving.

Follow them all day, if necessary—just don’t stop waving until they wave back. Who’s the awkward one now?

4. You forget someone’s name (and you really should remember).

Look, you’re not a walking Rolodex. In fact, Rolodexes don’t even really exist anymore. You’ll occasionally forget acquaintances’ names, and that means dealing with the painful consequences.

“There are two things you can do,” Gottsman says. “You could just own it—say, ‘It’s great to see you, please forgive me, I’m having a lapse.’ That shows them that you really do care.”

Addressing the elephant in the room shows more respect than using the wrong name or letting more time go by without using their name.

“But let’s say this is someone that you really know, and you should know,” she says. “You can say ‘It’s nice to see you’ and hope that someone else uses their name. If you don’t get lucky, remember, less is more. Don’t apologize profusely. We all forget names. That’s why nametags are so important!”

As with the other situations on this list, the key is to remain calm. If you apologize, keep it brief.

Woman sitting and covering her face
Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

“It’s only awkward if I make it awkward,” says Alyssa Cremeans of Baker Public Relations. “I try to let as little time go by as possible before asking again. When I ask again, I’ll say, ‘This is so embarrassing that I have to ask you again, but what is your name?’ Addressing the elephant in the room shows more respect than using the wrong name or letting more time go by without using their name. People are usually pretty understanding.”

To prevent this from happening over and over again, try making name memorization into a little game. One study showed that creating a “name game” can improve recall ability substantially.

If you’d prefer another method, try associating the person’s name with an aspect of their physical appearance; for instance, thinking “Bill has brown hair. Brown-hair Bill” could improve your memory for names, even if it takes a bit of imagination in the moment.

The easiest method: Repeat the person’s name in conversation several times after meeting them. This creates a mental link to make recall a bit easier, per a piece in Time.

Another option: Be even more honest.

“I’m sorry, but you didn’t make much of an impression on me, and I don’t know your name. Could you tell me what it is, then say something interesting so I don’t forget again?”

Be sure to yawn to show them that they really need to work to get your attention. This works especially well with bosses and teachers.

5. You’re watching television with your kids/parents/siblings and a love scene starts.

You know what we mean by “love scene.”

After it was over, we just sat there in silence for a while.

Unfortunately, you’re pretty much stuck. Get up to go to the bathroom, and everyone will know that you’re really trying to escape the tension of the moment. Stay put, though, and you’ll have to endure every cringeworthy moment.

Even if it isn’t a “love scene,” per se, awkward moments can sneak up on you.

“My mom and I were watching some indie flick, and the last 20 minutes consists of men fighting [without clothes on],” a 30-year-old St. Louis resident recalls to Urbo. “I was like, why? Why is this happening? After it was over, we just sat there in silence for a while.”

If everyone in the room is old enough to appreciate a good joke—and really, you’re watching a movie with a love scene in it, so we’d hope that’s the case—you might try saying something like, “What do you suppose they’re doing?”

Otherwise, your best bet is to just sit there and bear it. Try not to make a big deal out of it. Next time, use a site like Plugged In to look up content warnings before starting family film night.

Another option: Gradually turn up the volume while making direct eye contact with your family.

6. You “reply all” when you meant to reply to one person.

That can be a serious issue if, say, you’re complaining about one of the people in the email thread.

“I think, again, less is best,” Gottsman says. “It would really depend on the situation, but just apologize. ‘Please disregard.'”

If you’re a Gmail user, you can quickly click “Undo” to take back your email. By default, you’ll have a few seconds to click; you can extend the cancellation period by visiting your Gmail settings. Other email clients have similar features, but you’ll have to research your client to find out whether un-send is available.

Another option: Send a second email with a computer-crippling virus, then escape to an obscure South American village and live out the rest of your uneasy life as a mute fisherman. Sometimes, the embarrassment is too much.

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