By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor
What is the etiquette for common personal mishaps, whether they happen to us or the person with us? We’ve all experienced them, so we can relate to the embarrassment of having spinach caught in our teeth, our zipper accidentally undone, or a tag on our clothes sticking up.
They’re common calamities that cause us discomfort and cause those with us to feel awkward because they don’t know what exactly to say or do and they don’t know whether it’s better to pretend to not notice.
Sometimes, when we bring the mishap to the attention of others, our kindness throws them a social life preserver!
Other times, our good intentions end up embarrassing them to the point that their outward smile of thanks just might be covering the social noose they feel we’ve tightened around their neck.
Honestly, it’s hard to know what to do. I might always want to know; you might never want to know; your coworker might want to know some of the time, but not all the time. It’s pure personal preference.
The skills I have for you today are best practices with strangers. With others, use your sixth sense and alter the practices if you’re familiar enough with the people to be able to fairly guesstimate their preference. Here are the three most common situations and the gold standard of interaction for each of them. Keep in mind that the same manners would apply to other similar common awkward situations; the etiquette answers below aren’t limited to these three situations.
Good manners: they’re very adaptable to just about any situation you find yourself in. That’s just one of the many benefits of knowing them!
What to Do If Food Is Stuck in Your Teeth or You Have a Wardrobe Malfunction!
1.) What to do About Spinach or Something Equally Noticeable Stuck in Your Teeth?
A. If it’s in your teeth: Make one quick attempt at releasing it by moving your tongue over your teeth, followed by one attempt to swallow a sip of your drink to try to dislodge the offending element. If that doesn’t work, simply say “Excuse me” to those at your table and go to the bathroom to do the rest of the dirty work. You don’t need to give an explanation to your tablemates before you leave or when you return.
B. If it’s in another person’s teeth: Whether you say anything depends on a few things. Are you alone with the other person, or are there others around? Do you know the person well, or are you basically strangers? Here are a few things you can do. First, keep in mind that people often subconsciously mirror the movements of those around them. Act as if there’s something lodged in your teeth, and your tablemate just might follow suit. If that doesn’t do the trick, if your tablemate is a new acquaintance, a client, potential client, or a high-ranking member of the business, social or church community that you don’t know very well, it’s best to act like you don’t notice. If it’s a friend or family member, you can say, “I always want to know when I have something stuck in my teeth. Do you agree?” As long as the answer is yes, say, “I think you have something in yours.” Notice that your saying “I always want to know when…” lets the person know it’s happened to you before. The fact that you used the word think allows for some doubt, which helps alleviate the person’s fear that the offending object is so large it’s going to appear on the latest Google Earth images update.
2.) What If Someone’s Zipper is Unzipped or There’s Some Other Wardrobe Malfunction?
A. If it happens to you: First, try to exit the room to zip up. If that’s not possible, try to head to the corner of the room or at least turn your back on the people you’re talking with. When you turn back around, simply say, “Excuse me. I’m terribly embarrassed. Obviously that was an accident.” Admitting you’re embarrassed probably will keep others from saying anything else. Without further comment, continue with the conversation.
B. If it happens to someone with you: Again, it’s situational, but most people really want (even need!) to know. If you’re a woman, and the person with the downed zipper is male, try to find a man to deliver the news. “Allen, I don’t want to embarrass Ryan. His pants are unzipped, and he’d probably rather hear it from you.” It’s a little less embarrassing if you receive the news from someone of your own gender.
If there are no guys nearby and he’s about to step on stage, into a meeting, or a room full of people, of course, go ahead and tell him!
Again, try to put yourself into the scenario so that the embarrassment is lessened. “James, I know I want to know when something I’m wearing is unzipped. I’m sure you do, too.” I promise he’ll instinctively check his zipper!
You can simply say, “You’re welcome!” Then walk away so he can zip up privately, and because it’s a gracious way of letting him know the case is closed. (Pun intended.) He doesn’t need to mention it or thank you.
3.) What If Someone’s Tag is Sticking Out of Their Shirt, Pants or Skirt?
For some reason, my tags stick up more than most people’s. Strangers all too often adjust them for me! Unless you know the person well enough that you’ve previously hugged, don’t adjust the tag. Those who do the adjusting think they’re being sweet, but the fact is, no one’s dignity is damaged because their tag is showing. It’s better for strangers to let it slide.
My friend and I were trying on outfits to wear to an event. I headed out of the dressing room to the three-way-mirror and was waiting for my friend to join me. A man was standing with his wife at the cash register as his wife’s order was being rung up. Suddenly, he came from behind me, put his hand on the nape of my neck, and pushed down my tag. With a smile he said, “Now you’re properly dressed.”
I don’t think he meant any harm; however, he scared the bejeebees out of me. It took me by such surprise that I merely muttered, “Thank you,” and walked to the other end of the department — fast! It was only later that I thought of what I should have said: “You scared me. That was more startling than helpful.” (Don’t you hate when you think of the perfect thing to say about ten hours too late!)
Only when etiquette is perverted does it make you a doormat. You can and should be polite, but naturally implied in etiquette are restraint and clear boundaries (which he didn’t show).
Grace Note! Humor Helps The Medicine (Truth) Go Down!
Humor is almost always a great way to rebound from any embarrassing situation!
The best rebound I’ve ever seen in person came from a pastor of ours several years ago. He was fervently preaching with no idea that his pants were unzipped. His best friend was standing in the back of the room motioning with his arms to try and get the pastor’s attention. But the pastor was so intent on what he was doing that he didn’t notice.
So, to our pastor’s surprise, his friend ran up on stage, put his hand over the microphone, whispered in the pastor’s ear, and then both men turned their back on the audience as the pastor zipped up. By now, the whole congregation caught on to what was happening and was chuckling.
Our pastor turned back to the congregation, and said, “Transparency in the church is a vital part of its success, don’t you agree?”
He bowed to our generous clapping and laughter, and then continued with his sermon.
Afterwards, he did have to endure some good-natured ribbing, but he handled the incident perfectly, with the help of his friend.
About the good-natured ribbing: A little bit goes a lonnnnnnnnng way. The best choice: let the embarrassing situation slide by not mentioning it. Sometimes, forgetting is the best gift you can give someone!
There are so many other common situations we could have talked about, but this post was getting rather long. Now, it’s your turn! What things have happened to you, and how did you handle them, or how do you wish you had handled them differently? Comment and share with us over on the Manners Mentor Facebook page. I’d love to hear from you!
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Until next week, keep doing what you were put here to do. Bless those around you by being authentically you…at your best!