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How to Be Polite in an Awkward Situation

by Rose Springfield

The only thing worse than being trapped in an awkward situation is not knowing how to deal with it. How you choose to act can mean the difference between enduring a relentlessly uncomfortable situation and easily moving past the awkward moment. Unfortunately, many people are at a loss when it comes to dealing with another’s awkwardness, even though the same types of situations tend to occur repeatedly. By preparing for various tricky encounters, you can learn to handle them tactfully, preserving the feelings of all involved.

Ignore others' awkward slip-ups. Although it is generally poor manners to act as if you are not listening, steering the conversation away from an awkward topic can be an easy way for the offender to save face. Drawing attention to an uncomfortable situation by commenting on it will only worsen the awkwardness and can also convey a lack of social grace on your part.

Indulging in gossip can worsen an already awkward conversation.

Refuse to aid in the spread of gossip. When a person is bent on gossiping about others, you can subtly discourage the behavior by avoiding asking for details or offering your own opinions. Instead, say something vague like “I’m sure we’ll know the truth sooner or later.” Be careful not to pass the gossip on yourself – if you don’t foster an attitude of speculation about others, people will have less incentive to share their opinions with you.

Find a reasonable excuse to leave when the group dynamic is uncomfortable. While it is rude to step out of a conversation the moment someone else enters it, certain situations can be unbearably tense. In these cases, stay as long as you reasonably can, and then invent some plausible excuse for wandering off, whether it’s to refill your drink, answer a phone call or greet a newly arrived friend.

Redirect the conversation when someone asks you a question that you are unprepared or unwilling to answer. Avoid feeling put on the spot or panicking by planning ahead for such situations. Give a generic answer, such as “How thoughtful of you to ask!” and then shift the topic by saying “Oh, that reminds me…” or by pointing out something time-sensitive: “Hey, isn’t that Betty?” or “Wow, what type of bird do you think that is?”

Staying silent around a ranter can keep the discussion from escalating.

Stay neutral when others around you begin ranting. It can be difficult to remain calm and quiet while you are being lectured, particularly about a subject you know well or with which you disagree, but staying mum is your best bet for a graceful exit. After courteously allowing the person to rant for a few minutes, you can switch the subject or find a reason to leave. If the lecturer is saying things that are downright offensive, however, you can cut him or her off by saying “I don’t feel comfortable in this conversation” and refusing to discuss the matter further.

Tips

  • Don't draw unnecessary attention to yourself or the offender when using these tips -- staying discreet is the most surefire way to be polite.
  • Learning to confidently and gracefully manage difficult situations takes practice, so don't get discouraged.

Warnings

  • In an awkward situation perpetuated by a superior, such as your boss, you may need to simply go along with it, since he or she may take offense at your attempts to extricate yourself.
  • People who mostly wish to create drama may continue to try to provoke a response or become upset with you for politely backing away from the conversation.

About the Author

Rose Springfield specializes in writing about interpersonal relationships and behavioral science. She holds a bachelor of science in psychology and a bachelor of arts in English, both from the University of Arizona.

Photo Credits

  • Kane Skennar/Digital Vision/Getty Images