A former client of mine, Jill, shared with me an awkward moment in her academic career. During a group interview, she posed a question to one of the candidates applying for a mid-level managerial position.
Just as he began to answer, Jill suddenly felt ill and her face reflected her discomfort. She offered no explanation and the candidate, a callow youth, valiantly continued on with his answer regardless. Jill thanked the candidate for his answer (he did land the job). Neither ever spoke of the incident.
“What should I have done, Debra?” Jill asked me later. “Should I have said something? Excused myself?” She worried that ignoring her (and the candidate’s) discomfort was not the “correct” thing to have done. I told her to forget about it. She’d done nothing wrong.
Indeed sometimes the only way to handle an embarrassing moment is to ignore it. Yes at times this may be true, but that's not always the case.
1. Kindness counts.
I can’t tell you how many times my hopes for a young associate’s success have faded after I have had a chance to observe this person in a setting outside the office. My experience has taught me that there is a real correlation between an associate’s ability to roll with the punches of crowded flights, equipment failure or harried wait staff and his or her ability to handle a business encounter with dignity and grace.
Want to make a good impression when traveling with a boss? Don’t bully gate agents when the flight is late. Don’t berate the front desk clerk if a hotel room isn’t ready. Don’t snarl at the server who mixes up a drink order. By demonstrating that the little tribulations of the day unsettle you, you let the higher-ups know you are not ready to handle difficult clients or delicate negotiation.
2. Cute doesn’t cut it.
It might have seemed like a good idea at the time when you used the woofing sounds from “Who Let the Dogs Out” as your ringtone. But seriously do you really want your boss or a client wondering if you understand the decorum necessary for certain business meetings. Either set your phone on vibrate, turn it off entirely or choose a subdued and boring sound. Depending on the environment in which you’re conducting your transaction, you might consider doing all three.
In the same spirit, deep six the emoticons at the end of your emails or texts. Nothing says, “I have the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old” like J or ; ) at the end of a memo. Similarly, save the LOLs and ROFLs for when you instant message your nephew.
If you're dealing with colleagues or clients older than 40, you may want to think twice about Internet slang or Twitter argot in a formal business meeting. That's not the case, however, if you work in a social-media-dependent industry. But much of the business universe still uses (and expects you to use) more formal means of communication.
3. Cut your losses.
You’ve done something unthinkable: You forgot the name of the boss’s wife, emerged from the rest room with toilet paper stuck to your shoe or let the elevator door close before a client could enter. For the first and the last situations, a prompt and simple apology will suffice, along with a promise to not let it happen again.
Then don’t allow it to. Take a moment to learn from your mistake. Commit to memory the names you know you should not forget. There are plenty of mnemonic tricks to help you do this. Try the one that Franklin Roosevelt used: Imagine the person’s name written on his (or her) forehead. It worked for a president, so it should work for you.
There’s an even simpler fix for the elevator faux pas: Avoid it in the first place. Always let your guest, superior or elder enter the elevator before you. It's simple and polite and guaranteed to make you look like you understand social graces.
Toilet paper on your shoe? Get rid of it with an “Oops!” and then move on. Again, let it be a reminder that you should always do a quick check to make sure you’re groomed and presentable before exiting the rest room. The best way to avoid a sticky social situation is to prevent it from happening.