Face-saving Remedies for Awkward Work Situations

Use these tips for changing course and saving the interaction when a conversation takes an awkward turn.

“So, chairman, this must be your lovely new girlfriend … ?”

“Um, actually, she’s my granddaughter.”


Ever been in this situation? The one where you put your foot so completely inside your mouth there’s nowhere to go?

We all have. The difference maker is how you respond to the flub. Here are six face-saving antidotes to awkward situations.

Never say, “Well, this is awkward.”

All that does is increase the level of awkwardness. No need to bring any further attention to your blunder. You’ve said enough. Avoid this phrase at all cost — otherwise you risk digging in deeper.

Remember: Everything is neutral until painted with the meaning you ascribe to it. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Don’t make things worse by magnifying the mess.

Change the focus.

Whether or not you’re the cause of the awkward situation, always have a few go-to topics ready. And I’m not talking about the cliché, “So, how about them Dodgers…?” or “Boy, that economy really sucks, huh?” Instead, find an interesting topic of discussion that has nothing to do with the current conversation. I suggest segueing with, “Anyway, on a completely unrelated topic… ”

Are you an interesting enough person to change the subject to a different topic at the drop of a hat?

Self-deprecation helps.

If you say something stupid, playfully admit your blunder. By honestly recognizing your humanness, people will (usually) forgive your mistake. For example, if you accidentally walk in on a private conversation between two co-workers discussing their intra-office affair — and the record scratches the instant you walk in the door — just say, “Whoops! I appear to have terrible timing.”

Are you willing to poke fun at yourself to save the situation?

Remove yourself.

If you’re not comfortable in a certain situation, just say so. Here’s how to remove yourself quietly and professionally: from the simple, “Will you excuse me, please?”; to “I’m not comfortable talking about this”; to the dramatic, “OK, well, it appears the line has been crossed, and I need to excuse myself before my head explodes.” Remember: If you don’t set boundaries for yourself, other people will set them for you. And then they will violate them.

Are you willing to stand up for your boundaries?

Fake a phone call.

Sometimes people just keep talking. And talking. And talking. And there’s nothing you can do to stop them. Very, very awkward. So, when all else fails, pretend like you’re receiving an incoming call. Act like it’s an emergency and explain that you need to take it. People will understand. Just make sure you have a fake conversation on the phone for at least 30 seconds, and have a story ready to go for when they later ask you who called. Sure, it’s not the most authentic course of action, but you can only listen to your co-worker talk about her cat’s infected ear goiter for so long.

Are you willing to walk away?

Follow up if needed.

If the awkwardness was especially thick, perhaps a quick email later that day will patch the scar. “Hey Mary, look, I didn’t mean to rush out of the room like that this morning. The mere mention of politics, religion and The Great Pumpkin always puts my stomach in knots. Hope you weren’t offended. I’m happy to get together later and recap if there’s anything I missed.”

How are you remedying your awkwardness?

Remember: Awkwardness is a choice.

Consider these practices for saving your face, even when you fall flat on it.

Let me ask ya this:
What is your antidote for awkwardness?