Newsletter Archive

How to Manage Awkward Social Situations

by Joseph Grenny

How to Manage Awkward Social Situations

Dear Joseph,

I was at a nail salon with my daughter, daughter-in-law, and my elderly mother. The salon was packed. We have used this salon many times in the past. They tend to manage their schedule well. A woman entered the salon and started yelling at one of the owners who was in the middle of doing another customer’s nails. The woman bent over in front of the other customer and yelled in the owner’s face that she, “WILL GET SERVED RIGHT NOW!” and on and on. I live in Minnesota where people do not often get confrontational. Everyone in the salon seemed stunned. The salon owners moved her ahead of others while the three of us fumed. What could I have done?

Back of the Line

Dear Back of the Line,

Resentment, blame, and powerlessness are almost always signs you are not setting and maintaining boundaries.

A couple of years back, I took my seat for a cross-country flight in the U.S. Just before the plane door closed, a woman boarded and sat to my left. After the plane took off, I opened my laptop to finish some work when my seat mate turned her body to fully face me and said, “Let’s talk! We’ve got a lot of time.” She launched into a series of questions about who I was, why I was in Philadelphia, where I was going, etc. The more she inquired, the more I felt a rising irritation. I kept looking back to my laptop pleadingly, hoping she’d read my body language and leave me alone for a while. As she probed more deeply into the details of my life, I felt an obligation to reciprocate. As she spoke, I would nod, smile halfheartedly, then look back and type on my laptop—hoping the increasing obviousness of my preference would cause her to retreat. It didn’t. Every insincere question I asked was honored with lengthy life stories. I couldn’t believe her insensitivity!

So, I repeat (for my benefit!): Resentment, blame, and powerlessness are almost always signs you are not setting and maintaining boundaries.

As much as I wanted to tell myself otherwise, my irritation didn’t emerge as a product of her insensitivity. It grew from my failure to set and maintain my own boundaries.

There’s a fascinating temporality to this point. You can literally set a watch by the predictable emergence of resentment and your own coinciding sell out. Upsets begin with sellouts. And they end with boundaries. You start blaming others for your problems the instant you surrender responsibility for your own needs and preferences.

One more example, and then some advice. I know a man who is a “long talker.” I love him. He has had a fascinating life. And I love to hear about it. But, he pays zero attention to social cues. He can talk for an hour without noticing he hasn’t asked me a question. When I tell him I have another commitment in five minutes, he blows past the requested boundary in a lather of autobiographical marathon.

Since I’ve known him for a long time, I’ve had many opportunities to run emotional-emergence experiments on myself when this consistently happens. Here’s what I’ve learned: My ability to hold a respectful crucial conversation declines precipitously the instant I begin ignoring my own needs. In that moment, my broken integrity begins to alchemize into resentment and blame.

What could you do next time? Learn to take responsibility for your own needs. I promise you, that if you learn to do so promptly, you’ll find a respectful voice with which to do it.

Now, you live in a world where some are conscious of social cues and some are not. Some care about the needs of others, and some focus largely on their own. So, I’ll equip you with one more secret to success: When others don’t seem to live in your world of social subtlety, the rules change! With people who either can’t or won’t pay attention to your open laptop (my friend on the plane) or tapping foot (my long-talking buddy), you must free yourself of the self-paralyzing obligation to be subtle!

With my long-talking friend, I set boundaries by letting him know when I am five minutes from departure, two minutes from departure, and thirty seconds from departure. Then I depart. Many times, I walk away while he is still talking. And interestingly, he never gets angry! The first dozen times I did it, I felt creepy. The rules of etiquette are so ingrained with me that if felt wrong. But it wasn’t wrong. It is the right thing to do when others don’t either honor or understand the way the rest of the world signals each other.

So . . . what should you do next time? Speak up immediately. Don’t address the offending customer. Your issue is not with them. It is with the salon. Say, “Pardon me, I want to be sure you intend to honor the appointments of all of us who already have them scheduled. Is that correct?” Doing so declares your boundary and bolsters the confidence of the salon manager to hold his or her boundaries, too.

Good luck!

From the Authors of


"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader."

John Quincy Adams


Subscribe to Newsletter

Subcribe Now