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How to Manage Awkward Social Situations

Dear Joseph,

I was at a nail salon with my daughter, daughter-in-law, and my elderly mother. The salon was packed. We have used this salon many times in the past. They tend to manage their schedule well. A woman entered the salon and started yelling at one of the owners who was in the middle of doing another customer’s nails. The woman bent over in front of the other customer and yelled in the owner’s face that she, “WILL GET SERVED RIGHT NOW!” and on and on. I live in Minnesota where people do not often get confrontational. Everyone in the salon seemed stunned. The salon owners moved her ahead of others while the three of us fumed. What could I have done?

Back of the Line

Dear Back of the Line,

Resentment, blame, and powerlessness are almost always signs you are not setting and maintaining boundaries.

A couple of years back, I took my seat for a cross-country flight in the U.S. Just before the plane door closed, a woman boarded and sat to my left. After the plane took off, I opened my laptop to finish some work when my seat mate turned her body to fully face me and said, “Let’s talk! We’ve got a lot of time.” She launched into a series of questions about

who I was, why I was in Philadelphia, where I was going, etc. The more she inquired, the more I felt a rising irritation. I kept looking back to my laptop pleadingly, hoping she’d read my body language and leave me alone for a while. As she probed more deeply into the details of my life, I felt an obligation to reciprocate. As she spoke, I would nod, smile halfheartedly, then look back and type on my laptop—hoping the increasing obviousness of my preference would cause her to retreat. It didn’t. Every insincere question I asked was honored with lengthy life stories. I couldn’t believe her insensitivity!

So, I repeat (for my benefit!): Resentment, blame, and powerlessness are almost always signs you are not setting and maintaining boundaries.

As much as I wanted to tell myself otherwise, my irritation didn’t emerge as a product of her insensitivity. It grew from my failure to set and maintain my own boundaries.

There’s a fascinating temporality to this point. You can literally set a watch by the predictable emergence of resentment and your own coinciding sell out. Upsets begin with sellouts. And they end with boundaries. You start blaming others for your problems the instant you surrender responsibility for your own needs and preferences.

One more example, and then some advice. I know a man who is a “long talker.” I love him. He has had a fascinating life. And I love to hear about it. But, he pays zero attention to social cues. He can talk for an hour without noticing he hasn’t asked me a question. When I tell him I have another commitment in five minutes, he blows past the requested boundary in a lather of autobiographical marathon.

Since I’ve known him for a long time, I’ve had many opportunities to run emotional-emergence experiments on myself when this consistently happens. Here’s what I’ve learned: My ability to hold a respectful crucial conversation declines precipitously the instant I begin ignoring my own needs. In that moment, my broken integrity begins to alchemize into resentment and blame.

What could you do next time? Learn to take responsibility for your own needs. I promise you, that if you learn to do so promptly, you’ll find a respectful voice with which to do it.

Now, you live in a world where some are conscious of social cues and some are not. Some care about the needs of others, and some focus largely on their own. So, I’ll equip you with one more secret to success: When others don’t seem to live in your world of social subtlety, the rules change! With people who either can’t or won’t pay attention to your open laptop (my friend on the plane) or tapping foot (my long-talking buddy), you must free yourself of the self-paralyzing obligation to be subtle!

With my long-talking friend, I set boundaries by letting him know when I am five minutes from departure, two minutes from departure, and thirty seconds from departure. Then I depart. Many times, I walk away while he is still talking. And interestingly, he never gets angry! The first dozen times I did it, I felt creepy. The rules of etiquette are so ingrained with me that if felt wrong. But it wasn’t wrong. It is the right thing to do when others don’t either honor or understand the way the rest of the world signals each other.

So . . . what should you do next time? Speak up immediately. Don’t address the offending customer. Your issue is not with them. It is with the salon. Say, “Pardon me, I want to be sure you intend to honor the appointments of all of us who already have them scheduled. Is that correct?” Doing so declares your boundary and bolsters the confidence of the salon manager to hold his or her boundaries, too.

Good luck!

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7 thoughts on “How to Manage Awkward Social Situations”

  1. Carla Bange

    Perfect, real-life examples, as always. I’m sharing this article with my FB friends who often come to me, I think because of my HR experience, with these kinds of difficult situations and ask how they should’ve handled them. Thank you for recognizing our need to (appropriately) stand our ground.

  2. Lauren G.

    Sometimes anxiety or fear affects my decisions in those types of situations. If someone was THAT confrontational and aggressive, I’m not sure I would feel safe by speaking up.

  3. Megan Gaffey

    I normally love this column, and I like your part about setting boundaries, but I guarantee, this would not have worked in this situation. That would be just another source of pressure on the nail tech (who very likely doesn’t have perfect English). I also live in Minnesota, and I know the awkwardness to which the question refers.

    Now, in this case, you would likely need to address the angry lady. Politely, but firmly, you could say, “Ma’am, unfortunately, we have appointments ahead of you. I am sure they will help you just as soon as they’re able.” THEN turn to the tech and ask that they honor your appointment time.

    Minnesotans have this weird idea that being assertive is impolite. We need to get over that ASAP.

  4. Lisa Baker

    I agree with the intent of this article overall. However, I would like to point out that a scary number of people who behave as this rude, self-absorbed woman did seem to have no problem with using violence as well as words. I would not have considered getting my nails done as worth someone getting hurt. Conversation with the manager at another time, yes. Give them a chance to make it right, or take my business elsewhere. But I have seen too much of this bad behavior escalate quickly to physical bad behavior to think this is a wise response. Your advice, while correct and quite sound, assumes a certain amount of stability on the part of the one exhibiting the bad behavior that may not exist.

  5. bean

    i will follow you to the ends of the earth, joseph!

  6. Grizzly Bear Mom

    Great examples. What does one do when presumably a neighborhood community association leader 1. anonymously reports you to the county for having an unlicensed tow truck business 2. your neighbor and not you own the business 3. you are not required to have a license in the first place? 4. they don’t hold themselves to the same standards they do for the community? 5. they discuss those who aren’t meeting community standards publically at the community meetings?

  7. Teresa D

    I love Joseph Grenny! His articles are always helpful. This time, I’d like to add that I think it is perfectly appropriate to address the offending customer also. The rude and aggressive behavior made the other customers feel uncomfortable and left unaddressed, sort of makes the bystanders complicit in the rudeness if they say nothing about it. I think the rude customer and the shop employee could have both or either been addressed in the situation. Thanks for always giving me food for thought!

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