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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

The Psychology of Surviving 7 Awkward Moments

The key to handling interactions with grace: anticipating the other person’s point of view (often before he knows it himself).

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iStock/Susan Chiang

How to get an honest answer

You’re buying a used car, moving into a new apartment, or determining which doctor should treat your cancer. These are times when you need to get directly to the core of an issue. Asking general questions elicits little valuable information and may even yield deceptive responses, says Julia Minson, a visiting scholar in decision sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. The best bet, says Minson, is to ask probing questions that presume there are problems.
Let’s say someone is selling a used iPhone. An example of a general question is “What can you tell me about it?” A positive-assumption question is “There aren’t any problems with it, right?” But a negative-assumption question such as “What problems have you had with it?” will get the most honest response, found Minson and colleagues. In a study that set up a fake sales interaction, 87 percent of the sellers alerted the buyer to problems when asked a negative-assumption question versus 59 percent of those responding to a positive-assumption query and 10 percent of those responding to a general one. When you want the unvarnished truth, you have to ask for it: What mechanical problems does this car have? What are the worst parts of this job? How many people with my kind of illness have been successfully treated? What are their relapse rates? Your questions should communicate that you assume there will be difficulties and drawbacks and that you want to know about them. These are the 10 secrets you learn in etiquette class that will help you manage any situation.

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How to frame criticism

No one likes being told he is doing something wrong, which means that even “constructive criticism” is usually received with defensiveness. That’s why Denver psychologist Susan Heitler— a founder of, a website focused on building communication skills—recommends feedback that “skips the complaining and goes straight to the explaining.” For instance, while cooking, don’t say to your husband, “That’s not  the way to sauté. It will dry out the potatoes.” Instead, offer helpful advice such as “My grandma taught me three tips for keeping sautéed potatoes soft and yummy: Start your potatoes and onions in a hot skillet, keep adding small amounts of butter, and keep stirring until the onions are translucent.” For parents, the same approach applies to homework and chores. Choose encouraging statements over stern commands, and say what you’d prefer your child do rather than what she has not done or has done incorrectly. Say “I’d love to see your playroom cleaned up by this weekend so you and your friends can have fun there” instead of “This place is a mess! What have you been doing? You haven’t picked up one thing. No one is coming over this weekend until this room is spotless.” These are the 8 smart ways to give constructive criticism without offending someone.

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How to thrive at a party

It’s hard to believe, but even the world’s most brazen comedians (Chris Rock) and powerful leaders (former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown) cop to being shy when they’re not performing or giving speeches. (“At a dinner party, you want to sit next to me,” Rock’s wife, Malaak Compton-Rock, once said.) They’re in good company: Forty  percent of the population falls into that category, says Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. Carducci considers small talk the “cornerstone of civility” because it paves the way for bigger conversations. His pocket guide to social discourse, How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything, suggests you seek out a prop (like a wineglass) or act as a host by introducing people to each other. Here are his four cardinal rules for easier conversation: 1) Be nice but not necessarily brilliant; 2) keep your opening lines simple, and think about your introduction beforehand (your name and a little information about yourself that might serve as conversation kindling later); 3) join conversations that are already in progress by elaborating on the topic of discussion or introducing new topics, perhaps from current events; and 4) end by saying, “There’s someone I have to speak with, but it was really nice meeting you.” Don’t make the mistake of staying on one subject for too long. It’s called small talk for a reason. Think conversational hors d’oeuvres, with each topic sampled and savored. Here’s how expert minglers make amazing small talk in every situation.

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How to accept a compliment

When asked, nearly everyone says the proper response to a compliment is “Thank you.” But when actually given a compliment, only a third of people accept it so simply and smoothly, found linguist Robert Herbert of Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. The difficulty lies in the fact that a compliment (“What a nice sweater!”) has two levels: a gift component (accept or reject) and a content component (agree or disagree). The recipient is confronted with a dilemma—how to respond simultaneously to both: “I must agree with the speaker and thank him for the gift of a compliment while avoiding self-praise.” Contrary to conventional wisdom, women aren’t worse than men at accepting compliments. It is the gender of the compliment giver that most influences the response. Women and men are both more likely to accept a compliment coming from a man than from a woman. When a man says, “Nice scarf,” a woman is more likely to respond affirmatively: “Thanks. My sister knitted it for me.” But when one woman tells another, “That’s a beautiful sweater,” the recipient is likely to demur or deflect: “It was on sale at Walmart, and they didn’t even have the color I wanted.” Such a response, intended to make the complimenter feel that the recipient isn’t overly proud, only makes her feel awkward or invalidated instead. Better to make a relevant, related comment (“Thanks. It’s my favorite too”). And nothing tops smiling, looking the complimenter in the eye, and simply saying, “Thank you.” These are the 9 compliments your spouse will truly appreciate.

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How to apologize

Sorry, my mistake. It won’t happen again. Please forgive me. If such words come easily to you, you’re lucky. Most of us have to steel ourselves to apologize, sometimes because it feels as if we were fully justified in our offending behavior, other times because it is so humiliating to admit that we weren’t. It turns out that  the words you utter when apologizing are less important than the act of apologizing itself. Social psychologist Steven Scher of Eastern Illinois University has identified five main elements of apologies: 1) a simple expression of regret (“I’m sorry,” “I apologize,” or “Excuse me”); 2) an explanation or account of the cause that brought about the violation (“I forgot to call you the other day with the information”);  3) an expression of the speaker’s responsibility for the offense (“What I  did was wrong”); 4) a promise of forbearance (“I promise nothing like this will happen again”); and
5) an offer of  repair (“What can  I do to make it up to you?”). Employing any of these strategies is better than using none, Scher has found, and the effects can be additive—the more components you include in the apology, the better. Perhaps most important, make it genuine: Insincere apologies can be worse than none at all, found psychologist Jeanne Zechmeister and colleagues at Chicago’s Loyola University. These are common mistakes you make when saying sorry.

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How to dole out praise

Kind words can be powerful motivators—but only if you praise the right things. Praising someone’s ability to work hard is more effective than gushing about how brilliant she is. Research shows that kids who are praised for their intelligence do not try as hard on future tasks. “Being praised for effort or other aspects of performance directly under your control leads to resilience, while being praised for being smart or for other innate abilities can lead to feelings of helplessness or self-doubt when a setback occurs,” says psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. How praise is delivered counts as much as what gets praised. Praise should be specific and sincere—and given generously, especially at the office. Workers asked to learn a task performed better the next day if they had been praised at the end of the previous day, say Japanese researchers. To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being given money.

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How to persuade others

Our polarized political climate might suggest that no one can be persuaded to anything; everyone has already made up his or her mind. But if that were true, there would be no salesmen, lawyers, or therapists. In fact, each day, many of us have to persuade people to buy into something they might not otherwise consider. When you want to change someone’s mood, mind, or willingness to act, don’t ask yourself, How can I win this argument? Instead, ask, How can I win agreement without anger? advises rhetoric expert Jay Heinrichs, author of Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. Figure out what you want, and then go about getting it. “Never debate the undebatable,” he says. “Instead, focus on goals.” Control the mood with volume, tone, stories. Watch for persuadable moments. And most important, be agreeable—express similarities and shared values; show people that you have their best interests, as well as your own, at heart. (You’d say, “You may not agree with _____, but do you really want Big Brother deciding what we can and can’t do in our private lives?”) These are the 50 etiquette rules everyone should practice.