We all have a friend that always seems to know the right move in any social situation. This person handles every tense or awkward situation with grace and never seems flustered. I am not that person. Over the years I have found ways to mess up all kinds of social situations. I am able to create the following list of ways to ruin a social situation because I have done all of them:
1. Telling people how you would have handled a stressful situation better than they did.
Right after college I was working at a group home and after four months switched from one group of residents to another. On my first day with this new group one of the residents sent me to the Emergency Room. The injuries wasn't serious but it was painful. The next day when I was back at work, two of my co-workers told me in great detail all of the ways that I mishandled the situation and how they would have done better if they had been there. As you might imagine, the conversation did not make me feel better about what happened.
Nothing good comes from telling someone how to handle a situation after the fact. The truth is that you have no idea how you would have responded because you were not there. Mike Tyson said that everyone has a plan until they get hit. In a crisis some people rise to the occasion and others freeze up. It is impossible to predict how things will go and sometimes the biggest talkers come up short in the moment. The best response in this situation is to listen and be empathetic.
2. Offering unsolicited negative opinions.
I while back I was in the break room at work talking to a co-worker over lunch. I had just finished telling her how much fun I was having reading The Chronicles of Narnia books to my children when another co-worker came in. She looked at us and declared how she thought that those books are awful and boring. I haven't had many conversations with that co-worker since that day.
I come from a long line of people who are free with their opinions, no matter the situation, and it has taken me a long to time learn when to keep my opinion to myself. When someone expresses that they enjoy something, telling them that you don't like it serves no useful purpose. There are times when you can playfully poke fun at something someone likes, like their taste in music or favorite football team, but sometimes the things people like are a part of who they are, so tread carefully. Like your Momma said, if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.
3. One-upping other people.
Imagine that someone is telling a group of co-workers how she ran her first marathon over the weekend and what the experience was like. Suddenly another co-worker jumps in and says "I've run two marathons this year already." Then he describes each one in great detail while the woman who was so excited about her experience watches in silence. She has just been one-upped.
There are two kinds of one-uppers. The first just wants to be a part of the conversation. They don't mean to overshadow the person sharing and it's more of an accident. The second wants everything to be about them. It's important that everyone know how cool they are and they don't care if it's at someone else's expense. I have been both kinds of one-upper and I cringe every time I think about it. When someone is sharing something important or special, it's best to be quiet, listen, and let them have their moment.
4. Being constantly offended.
To clarify, there is a time and place for taking offense. I see red when someone makes fun of people with disabilities. My brother has developmental delays and I have no tolerance for it. Sometimes, though, I need to back up and look at intent. There are times when people say offensive things but they are not trying to be mean. They just might not understand. A number of years ago I used the phrase "beat the tar out of him" when describing a play in a football game. My friend Thomas gently informed me of the history of that phrase and how it is offensive to our African-American friends. I was embarrassed but grateful to Thomas for pointing it out. He could have been offended and called me out for using a racist phrase but he knew me well enough to know that I meant no offense.
In many situations we should be like Thomas and give people a chance to understand things before we automatically take offense. Of course, that does not mean that we should remain silent when someone says something truly awful, but to first consider someone's character and intent before speaking up.
I wish I was a master of all social situations but, alas, I am not. I ruin less of them than I used to, so I consider that progress.