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Why Did I Just Say That?

Some predicaments are intensely awkward. A survival guide for mortifying moments.

No matter how well-adjusted or discreet we might think we are, some situations get the best of us.

No matter how well-adjusted or discreet we might think we are, some situations get the best of us. Turning down a friend's pass, knowing how to console someone who is grieving, or even just accepting a heartfelt compliment can make us want to dive underneath the nearest table or bury our heads in deep sand. "Situations that require a process of transition create intense feelings of self-consciousness," says Bernardo Carducci, professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany. You're moving into a zone where the social rules aren't clear.

Fixing a faux pas or simply making small talk forces you to focus on what to do or say, and suddenly you become very aware of your role. "You become the salient object, the main focus of your attention," Carducci says. Time passes more slowly. Normal silences in the conversation seem to drag on forever. You squirm. And, of course, paying attention to your discomfort makes you even more self-conscious, intensifying the experience. Thankfully the way to cope with many of these mortifying moments is pretty simple: Take a deep breath and realize that even though you may feel like your scarlet cheeks are visible from outer space, chances are that tomorrow nobody else will even remember this incident.

The Shy Superstar: "Oh, it was nothing, really... "

You've sweated, you've learned to love salad, you've endured cravings and low blood sugar—and you've lost 25 pounds. When you walk in the door at the family reunion, everyone is stunned. "You look great!" they chorus. "You're beautiful. How'd you do it?" Even your sharp-tongued great aunt has nothing but compliments, and that cute second cousin from San Diego is giving you the once over. This is your moment in the sun, but your face is burning. Frankly, you'd rather they all just go back to speculating about your nephew's new interest in ballet.

It's awkward because: "Receiving a compliment or praise, especially in a crowd, makes you the center of attention, and for some, this can be far too much social stimulation," says Jonathan Cheek, professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. A compliment can also have implications: Praise increases pressure to perform better the next time. It can trigger feelings of self-doubt. "People with low social confidence tend not to believe compliments," Cheek says.

How to cope: Relax and be gracious. "Don't get caught up in your subjective perspective," advises Cheek. Focusing on how uncomfortable or anxious you feel will make you come off as rude. And don't think that you're now obligated to do even better in the future. "A simple 'thank you' is all that's necessary," says Cheek. Finally, you can either believe the compliment or think it's a lie. "Choose to accept it as the truth," he says.

The Great Chitchat Train Wreck: "How about those Sox?"

You're heading off to vote, only to find a long, slow-moving line in the high school auditorium. Someone taps you on the shoulder—it's the father of a boy on your son's soccer team queuing up behind you. "Hi, Peter," you say. "It's Doug," he replies. Oops. After discussing the town budget and your kids' recent tournament, there's a long silence. Doug looks at you. You look at your watch. Ten minutes have ticked by, and the line hasn't moved 10 feet. Should you just give up your right to the ballot box and go home? Should you... talk about the weather?

It's awkward because: "Modern social interaction is purpose-driven," says N. Mark Pelusi, a psychologist in New York City. Unless there's an explicit reason for making small talk with a stranger or an acquaintance (i.e., discussing a funny sound your car is making with your mechanic or an overdraft line of credit with a bank teller), we find ourselves in a vacuum, asking, Who is this person? And what am I supposed to say?

How to cope: Create a purpose. "Make it a point to enjoy the moment by talking about something that interests you," says Pelusi. Be sure to take a genuine interest in your conversational partner, and be careful not to become too self-focused or else you could come off as a small-talk narcissist.

The Tongue-Tied Mourner: "I'm so sorry. I'm really, really sorry. I'm... sorry."

You're on a business trip when you hear one of your college roommates was killed in a car accident. He and his wife had moved to the next town over a few years ago, and you fell out of touch. On the plane ride back, you think about calling her as soon as you get home, and plan what you'll say. But what if she starts crying? What if she'd rather be left alone? You put off phoning for a few days—and then one morning in Starbucks, there she is, looking shattered. There's so much you want to say, but the urge to turn and run leaves you paralyzed—and stumbling over your words. She graciously accepts your condolences, but you feel like a class-A jerk.

It's awkward because: "Death is such a monumental event, we feel like we have to rise to the occasion and say something profound," says Carducci, author of The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk: How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything.

How to cope: Accept that the person experiencing the loss doesn't expect you to say something to make it all better. "Forget trying to be urbane or sophisticated," says Carducci. Simply acknowledge the loss and say you're sorry. "You just have to be nice and ready to listen," he says—which may mean enduring some awkward pauses.

The Go-It-Aloner: "Thanks, I'll do it myself."

This year it's your turn to host Thanksgiving, and you're overwhelmed. Your husband's family is large, there are lots of them, and they all eat a ton. When your mother-in-law calls, you're hoping she's offering to cook something, but instead she cautions you about Uncle Ralph's dairy allergy and reminds you that the 5-year-old twins only eat macaroni and cheese. You think, "How about bringing over a 75-pound bird and 500 dinner rolls?" But somehow, the question gets stuck in your throat. Why can't you just ask her?

It's awkward because: "Anytime we ask for help or a favor we're acknowledging that we're not competent or that we can't cope by ourselves," says Jennifer Crocker, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

How to cope: Shift your goals. Rather than trying to sustain an image of competency or perfection, focus on what you're trying to accomplish. Relinquish your need for mastery. "Getting what you want or need requires being vulnerable," says Crocker. But it's worth it: People who ask for help do better in life. In addition, people feel good when they pitch in for someone else. "Asking for help shows a person that you value them," says Ann Demarais, a psychologist in New York City and co-author of First Impressions: What You Don't Know About How Others See You.

The Punching Bag: "I'm sorry you feel that way."

Everyone knows the boss has a short temper, but by working hard, you've been able to stay on her good side. Until now. She's in a foul mood for some reason, and you happen to cross her path. Right there in the hallway, she launches into a verbal attack about how your sales numbers are low, how you're not carrying your weight and how you're a disappointment to the staff. Your co-workers slink away, leaving you standing there with your blood boiling and mouth ajar.

It's awkward because: "There's an unspoken code at work that you leave your problems at home and that you assume a prescribed role," says psychotherapist Jerilyn Ross, president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. So when a colleague shows a strong emotion such as hostility, the intensity of the change can be startling. "It's like a child seeing a parent lose control for the first time," says Ross.

How to cope: Try not to take it personally. "Rather than suddenly reacting to the person, step back and try to better understand the situation," says Ross. Ask yourself, "Why do I feel this is a personal attack?" This will allow you to avoid a knee-jerk reaction, which will only make matters worse.

The Bearer of the Brush-Off: "Please don't take this personally, but... "

It's a late night in the office, and you're working on a project with good-natured, guy-next-door Paul. Out of the blue, he asks you out to dinner on Saturday night. The invite is a complete surprise—he's definitely not your type. You let him down as gently as you can. But the next morning as you're getting out of your car, there he is in the parking lot. You wait until he goes into the building. This time you've escaped—but his desk is only a few cubicles away.

It's awkward because: Rejection creates inequality. "Whenever we rebuff someone's advances, we become part of an unbalanced relationship," says Pelusi. Rejection really does hurt: A 2003 study at the University of California at Los Angeles showed that a physical pain center in the brain lights up when people are rejected. No one wants to be responsible for someone else's suffering, Pelusi says.

How to cope: Tolerate your anxiety. "If you can accept the awkwardness, then you can turn the situation into a positive experience by showing respect," says Pelusi. Being dismissive or contemptuous of someone's romantic feelings produces discomfort on both sides. Being gracious can instead create a sounder working relationship—over time.