How To Overcome Everyday Disasters

07/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Cathy Alter and Holly C. Corbett Prevention

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Not all setbacks are of epic proportion. Often, all it takes is a casual insult or silly faux pas to knock you off course. Those trip-ups can snowball--a barista snaps at you, leading you to be short with a coworker, which turns into a fight with your partner, and...well, you get the idea.

To help manage life's minor tragedies and prevent them from wreaking havoc on your world, we asked psychology and etiquette experts to share their own stories of everyday woe--and how they recovered.

You get the brush-off from a waitress
Judith Orloff, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA

"I was at a hot new restaurant--the kind of place where all the waitresses want to be actresses--and my young and beautiful server gave me a look of pure disdain and sighed when I asked her a question about the menu. Then she actually walked away in the middle of my order to wait on a table of 'more important' people! I nearly lost my appetite."

FIX IT FAST: Instead of being rude to your server (that won't help anyone), discreetly find the manager or maître d', and say something like, "My waitress and I just don't seem to be communicating. Would it be possible to switch?" The manager will appreciate that you didn't make a spectacle and will likely oblige. After all, he wants a repeat customer.

NEXT TIME: Now, when Orloff notices that the coffee shop/lunch counter/five-star restaurant she's in is busting-at-the-seams busy, she makes sure to acknowledge it to her server. ("They have you working hard today, huh? I'll try to make this painless.") Once you lay on the empathy and camaraderie--and the smiles--the waitress will have a tougher time being so impolite to you, she says.

You flub an introduction
Kevin Fleming, PhD, founder of Effective Executive Coaching

"I once had to introduce a client to the only person I knew at an event--the mayor of the city we were in. As we walked over to the mayor, I completely blanked on my client's name! I introduced the mayor, and then there was this awkward silence that lasted for what felt like forever. Everyone just looked at me."

FIX IT FAST: You can always try the "Have you two met?" trick. Usually one or the other will stick out his hand and make his own introduction. If that doesn't work, humility and honesty is the way to go: "I'm so sorry, but I've completely forgotten your name." What you never want to do is weasel out of the situation by ignoring an introduction, Fleming says. You'll simply make everyone uncomfortable.

NEXT TIME: If you have a flair for forgetfulness, immediately repeat your new acquaintance's name aloud. Also helpful: linking people's names to something visceral, like sights or sounds. (You just met Amy, who's from Maine. While silently repeating her name, picture her on a boat, sailing through the salty sea.) This way, you engage both the temporal lobe (the area of your brain that handles recall) and the brain's sensory motor center, says Fleming. With both parts storing the memory, you effectively double your recall powers.

Your child says something wildly inappropriate
Bob Murray, PhD, coauthor of Raising an Optimistic Child

"Some years ago when my daughter, Terri, was 3, she was introduced to my good friend, the late actor Vincent Price. As Vincent bent over to shake her hand, Terri yelped, ran from him, and hid behind her mother. I tried to cajole her into being polite, but she replied, 'I don't want to. He's old! He's ugly! He's yuck!' Vincent looked so startled and hurt--I was horribly embarrassed. I thought I may have lost a friend."

FIX IT FAST: What comes out of the mouths of babes can be shockingly offensive. If the object of your child's arrows is a fellow parent, you may be in the clear. But if you see that the person has been wounded, explain that your little one is just too young to fully understand what she's saying, Murray suggests. Whatever you do, don't laugh at your child's hurtful words. Not only will she do it again, but you'll double the insult to the injured party. Instead, calmly explain to her that people can get upset when she uses certain words and that this makes you very unhappy. The possibility of your sadness is the most powerful deterrent for a child.

NEXT TIME: The best way to help avoid pint-size foot-in-mouth syndrome is to keep your own tongue in check when you're in front of the kids. They get their best material from you; if you remark, "Uncle Al is getting fat," you can bet little ears will pick it up and repeat it to everyone who'll listen.

Someone takes credit for your idea
Maximillian Wachtel, PhD, founder of Cherry Creek Psychology in Denver

"A few years ago, when the organization I was working for was undergoing some changes, I suggested a new procedure that I thought would streamline matters. My boss immediately rejected the idea, saying he didn't like it. Then 2 weeks later, he casually laid out the exact same plan to the staff, presenting it as his own. It was mind-blowing. I was stunned silent."

FIX IT FAST: Although you never want to challenge the big cheese in public, you need to get credit for your work. Once you're calm, privately confront your superior, saying, "What you presented in the meeting is the same idea I mentioned to you the other day. Can we talk about this?" This allows your boss to explain his actions and save face. More important, you're letting him know you won't be stepped on.

NEXT TIME: Got a great idea? Create a paper trail. "Putting your suggestions and brainstorms in an e-mail or on paper--and dating them--forms a trackable history that automatically deters anyone from pirating your ideas," says Mary Mitchell, author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette. Also, spelling out your plan this way lets you see any flaws and eventually make an even stronger case.

You're publicly insulted
Karen Sherman, PhD, author of "Marriage Magic! Find it, Keep It, Make It Last!"

"Recently, when out to dinner with friends, I turned to my husband and said, 'I saw a great dining room set that I want to show you.' He waited a beat, elaborately rolled his eyes, and said with great exaggeration, 'Yes, dear.' He was implying that these petty concerns were beneath him. All the other husbands laughed and laughed. It ruined my night."

FIX IT FAST: Force a smile; it'll shift your focus away from your emotions and toward your actions, which will help keep you from returning the insult. Smiling shows you weren't fazed by the comment, thus putting you in control of the conversation. Plus, studies find that people smile back when you grin--and that will lighten the mood.

NEXT TIME: To avoid future jabs, later say something like, "I know it wasn't intentional, but your comment made me uncomfortable." Then agree on a signal--like touching a knee under the table--to let the other know when you feel put down. "It'll make you both more conscious of each other's feelings," says Gilda Carle, PhD, author of Don't Bet on the Prince! How to Have the Man You Want by Betting on Yourself.

You get bullied at work
Arthur H. Bell, PhD, author of "You Can't Talk to Me That Way"

"Years ago, out of nowhere, my boss walked up to me and bellowed, 'What exactly do you think you're getting paid for?' Then he kicked a trash can and slammed his door. I wanted to shout back, but I sat shocked and red-faced as my colleagues stared at me."

FIX IT FAST: Don't fight anger with anger; that would simply rile an incensed individual more. Instead, vent behind closed doors to a trusted friend to gain perspective. But don't shy away from confrontation; if you wait too long, a pattern will set in.

NEXT TIME: The next day, meet with your boss and say, "I can see you're upset. If you let me know what's wrong, we can find a way to solve the problem." Bullies find it harder to blow up at someone who reacts rationally.

You burst into tears unexpectedly
Larina Kase, PsyD, president of Performance & Success Coaching

"When I was in graduate school, tears started streaming down my face when I was discussing a patient with my supervisor. The case was upsetting, but I was so embarrassed. I didn't want to seem unprofessional, and there I was, crying in front of my boss. Thankfully, she was sympathetic. But she did tell me to make sure it never happened in front of my patients."

FIX IT FAST: To quickly turn off the waterworks, jut your jaw out. Experts say that making this type of a face and shedding tears simply aren't compatible actions; you can't do both at the same time. Not into making a goofy face? Poke your fingertip with something mildly sharp, such as a pen cap or the tip of a paper clip. That minor pain helps distract you and activates the part of your brain responsible for impulse control, Kase says.

NEXT TIME: Whenever you're feeling especially emotional in a setting where you have to contain your feelings, engage in a 100% superficial conversation that'll divert your attention ("This new coffee machine is the best"). Or go for a walk: Research shows that physical activity is a guaranteed mood booster.

You blow a speech
Linda Sapadin, PhD, author of "Master Your Fears: How to Triumph over Your Worries and Get on with Your Life"

"I recently gave a lecture to an enormous audience and had three main points I wanted to convey. During the second one, I went off on a tangent and completely lost my train of thought. As I looked out at all the people waiting expectantly for my next statement, I panicked and my heart raced. All I could think was, You're totally screwing this up!"

FIX IT FAST: When your train of thought derails, take a deep breath and say something reassuring to yourself (I can do this). That Zen-like pause slows the release of heart-pumping adrenaline. And don't attempt to chat your way out of a brain freeze--listeners will notice. Sapadin suggests quickly admitting you messed up so people can focus on your message, not your mistake: "I'm sorry, I blanked for a moment. Shall we try that again?"

NEXT TIME: Don't try to memorize your speech. If you're parroting overrehearsed words, you'll be lost if you forget your next line (and besides, you're not focusing on the overriding purpose of your presentation). Instead, put your efforts into understanding your main points, and commit just the first few lines to memory so you'll feel confident at the start. In studies, public speakers' stress levels tend to be highest during the first minute of a speech.

You screw up an interview
Diana Pace, PhD, author of "The Career Fix-It Book"

"I once had a phone interview for a job I really wanted, but when the tough what-would-you-do-if questions started, I realized I wasn't prepared. I tried to wing it, but my long, awkward pauses gave me away."

FIX IT FAST: Start interviewing the interviewer. Everyone likes talking about him-or herself. Plus, it gives you time to regroup.

NEXT TIME: Come prepared with a stock answer to curveball queries: "I'm not familiar with that theory, but I'd like to research it and get back to you." It shows you're not easily flustered. Then fulfill your promise in your (prompt) thank-you note.

You send an errant e-mail
Traci Vujicich, PhD, author of "How to Get Started as a Life Coach"

"In college, I had a short-lived but heated romance with my best friend's brother. Years later, I noticed his address on a mass e-mail from my pal, so I decided to send him a racy note. But I forgot that my friend's father and brother have the same name. I'd accidentally written a steamy e-mail to my friend's dad!"

FIX IT FAST: You can actually take back what you wrote with a service called Bigstring; it allows you to recall an e-mail no matter what program you're using (www.bigstring.com; $30 a year). If you weren't signed up at the time of the misfire, however, simply apologize in a brief e-mail. If you're close to the person, calling to straighten things out is better. But be vague; rehashing the contents of your message will put everyone back in that uncomfortable moment and potentially place you on the defensive, negating any apology.

NEXT TIME: Ask the sender for contact info instead of swiping from her CC list. Also, never use the Reply or Reply All buttons. Press Forward and type in the exact addresses to ensure your note is sent to whom it's intended.

You put your foot in your mouth
Candace M. Coleman, PhD, president of Say It Well!, a firm specializing in presentation skills

"I saw a colleague whom I hadn't seen in several months at a party and I thought, Oh, my gosh! She's pregnant. I ran over to her and blurted out: 'How wonderful that you're going to have a baby!' Then, the silent, withering look. 'I'm not pregnant,' she said, flatly. If there were a hole in the floor, I would have climbed right in it. All I could do was say 'I'm so sorry' and walk away--quickly."

FIX IT FAST: Yes, it's uncomfortable--but don't abandon ship. Instead, offer a sincere apology. Try: "I can't believe I said that. I sometimes speak before I think. Please forgive me. I wouldn't want my big mouth to get in the way of our friendship." Luckily, most people accept apologies that are from the heart. If she doesn't, don't even try to justify your behavior. Hear her out and calmly say you're sorry again--then you can walk away.

NEXT TIME: If you're feeling stressed or distracted, be especially careful of what comes out of your mouth. A 2005 University of New South Wales study found that you're more likely to say something you regret under those circumstances. And never make assumptions--particularly about changes in appearance. Simply ask an open-ended question ("I haven't seen you in a while. What's new?") that allows the other person to respond with whatever info she thinks is appropriate. If you're dying to inquire about your pal's miraculously tighter jawline or significant weight loss, it's okay to subtly acknowledge the makeover with a general "You look terrific" and hope she volunteers the name of her plastic surgeon or diet.

Originally published at Prevention.com.

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