Modern Etiquette: Defuse a thoughtless public blurt

(Mary M. Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, including “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette” and “Class Acts.” She is also the founder of executive training consultancy The Mitchell Organization with the website The opinions expressed are her own.)

SEATTLE, Oct 1 (Reuters) - People say the most amazing things. Then they expect you to respond, which is difficult at best because you’re too busy picking your chin off the floor.

At a recent barbeque, one guest announced that “all you carnivores should be ashamed” to eat the meal.

At the same party (did I say party?), another guest informed me that “only stupid people believe in God.”

All I’d done to merit this salvo was to mention that on my way home from church, I noticed something-or-other. Then this same guest found it important to share yet another unsolicited opinion - mercifully, with someone other than myself - that “only poor people live in apartments.”

A few days later at a business event, a former neighbor actually said to me: “I haven’t seen you dressed up with makeup on. Your eyelashes are so long! Are they real?”

Clumsy as the comment was, it was a compliment, and I took it as such. Humor goes a long way in sticky situations like this, even though it’s sometimes difficult to muster on the spot.

In reply, I mumbled something like, “You bet they’re real. I grew them myself, organically.”

Maybe I am just socializing with the wrong crowd. Still, I wonder if all the time we spend with our computers erodes our sensitivity and ability to be civil and pleasant to others. I also wonder about the best way to respond to such verbal assaults.

You can be sure of two things in such situations: First, a painfully long, loud silence will follow the inappropriate comment. Second, a direct reply is not only unnecessary but also unwise.

That leaves us with the only viable choice: Change the subject. But how?

Know that whoever breaks such silences is a hero and will find his or her name on the guest lists of every person within earshot. That’s why it’s worth doing a little homework before heading out to just about any gathering.

Let’s take the process step by step.

A particularly crummy comment lands in your lap. Silence prevails. Do not take the bait and argue the point, regardless of how much you are incited. You need a mollifying transition here, followed by a fast change of subject.

That might sound like, “That’s an interesting view on the subject. Thank you for sharing.” Then, turning to the group, ask “What’s the greatest movie you’ve not yet seen?’ or, “What athletic skill do you wish you had mastered?” Or, “What purchase made you feel most like a grownup?”

As you read this, you might sense a conversational disconnect when you change the subject somewhat abruptly.

Actually, everyone around you will breathe a sigh of relief. So press on! Take care not to exclude the person who originally lobbed the zinger. He or she might not know any better, and a cold shoulder will serve no one.

Here are a few more imaginative questions to change the subject skillfully: “What’s your favorite meal of the day?” “What’s your favorite appetizer?” “Who are your heroes?” “What do you consider the greatest invention of the last 25 years?”.

Nobody likes to be interrogated.

That’s why it’s exceptionally helpful to give a little personal information before you ask others to share things about themselves.

You might say something like: “I was just reading a story about.He/she always has been one of my heroes. Ever think about your heroes?” Or, “I got back from a business trip yesterday and, after lugging a suitcase through airports, I concluded that wheels on suitcases are the most important invention of the last 50 years. What do you think is the most important invention of the last few decades?”

Perhaps the intense guest who was quick to label guests as carnivores and believers as stupid would find such small talk trivial and fatuous.

However, making effective small talk to lubricate the creaky wheels of society before they become stuck in the mud is a big skill, not to be underestimated. A little preparation and thought before any social gathering will go a long way to averting fiascos. (Editing by Paul Casciato)