Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Protocol for Encounters with Strangers

I don't always make a great first impression. But the other day I really wanted to make a good one. I was meeting all the other girls' basketball coaches in our new league and I wanted to impress. Being the only female and the youngest, I wanted them to leave thinking, "Wow, that Valley coach sure has her stuff together."

But the problem was I had to come straight from our practice. I scrimmage against our girls and when I play, I do not "glisten" or "glow". I sweat. It pours out of every pore. Once in college, I had just left practice and someone asked me if I had come from the pool. You get the idea.

So I arrived at the meeting sweaty. Not a great start. But I figured I could still recover. "Sound like you know what you're talking about and they'll look past the disheveled hair." I thought I pulled it off.... until I went to the bathroom afterwards. First, I had a major sharky. This is when the hair on the top of your head gets pulled out, making it appear that you have a fin like a shark. They look ridiculous. No matter how badly I was playing, if someone on the court got a sharky, my mood was instantly improved. So I shook my head at myself in the bathroom mirror and redid my ponytail only to notice a giant blob of nutella in my ear. IN MY EAR. I had been eating bread with nutella right before practice and I skillfully managed to lodge some in my ear. And then I played basketball for 2 hours. So I had a sweaty, now crusty blob of nutella in my ear.

I should have gone with a different strategy for the first impression: look like a total buffoon so they underestimate our team. That is what I accomplished.

Why didn't anyone tell me there was a giant mess of hazelnut spread in my ear? Why? And why didn't they tell my my hair looked ridiculous? Why? Because they were strangers and it was not socially appropriate to point out the ridiculous mess in my ear. Had we been friends or even acquaintances, someone might have said something. But I've found that there is a different set of social mores when it comes to dealing with strangers. Today alone I experienced two other awkward encounters with strangers and I'm curious if I am following the proper protocol when these situations arise. You be the judge.

1) What do you do when you accidentally gleek on a stranger? I spit on my students all the time. Accidentally. And I always say something because I know if I don't, they'll be snickering behind my back for the rest of the period. However, should you point out to a stranger when your saliva ends up on their shirt? Or their face? Perhaps there is different protocols depending on where the spit lands. I think you must acknowledge and apologize if your spit makes contact with skin. Today I gleeked all over the desk at Jiffy Lube. I'm sure the guy must have noticed. Especially because I shocked myself a bit and probably looked surprised. But I chose not to acknowledge the gleeking mishap. I didn't hit the guy and I didn't know what to say. "Um, sorry sir. I just spit all over your desk involuntarily. You might want to wipe that up when I walk away."

2) What do you do when you know someone is home and isn't answering the door because they don't hear you knocking? In this case the doorbell isn't working. How many times can you pound on a door without making it sound like an emergency? How many times can you knock without annoying the people who might just be slow walkers? And what if the door is open but the screen door is shut? Screen knocks aren't very loud but "screen pounds" cause too much of a scene. It's not a friend's house so you can't call them on the phone. The only other option seems to be to shout. I stood on a doorstep today pondering what I should yell out. Do I go with a simple, "Hello?" Or, "Anyone home?" Or "I know you're there..." Or, "There is a stranger standing on your doorstep." After much deliberation and a curious look from a nosey neighbor, I went with the classic, "Um....knock, knock?" Still no response. I wasn't loud enough. Darn my insecure "knock knock" choice. I couldn't risk total embarrassment and try a new phrase so I hung my head in defeat and made my way to the car. Of course, right as I finished my walk of shame I heard a faint, "hello?" come from inside.

3) What do you do if a stranger has something giant in their teeth? I'm not talking about a little pepper. In this scenario the stranger has something green and ginormous stuck smack front and center of their smile. You know they will be mortified when they check the mirror later, so do you do the polite thing and point it out? Or is that actually impolite? Should you ignore it instead? If you choose to point it out, timing is crucial. I hate when people make everyone else aware of the awkward moment by announcing, "You have a little something right there" right when I was in the middle of saying something. Now I have to work on picking at my teeth while everyone watches me try to follow your directions to find where the food is lodged. Instead, I am a proponent of the "catch eye contact and silently motion to your own teeth" technique. Discretion is key here. Sure, everyone probably already saw the food but they don't need to also witness the shameful moment when you are made aware that you look like a fool.

4) What do you say to a stranger during the "meet n greet" at church? Most people don't give this much thought but I get a little awkward every Sunday as I debate whether or not I should give them my name. Silly, I know, but there is no set protocol. Some people exchange names and others merely exchange "good mornings" and hand shakes. Last Sunday I made the wrong decision. We said good mornings and then I tried to take it a step further. "I'm Katie" I said, beginning what I thought would be introductions. But all I got in return was a smile. Just a smile. No, "Nice to meet you Katie. I'm Susan." Just a smile. I felt like a fool going around telling people my name for no reason. Lesson learned. Stick with "good mornings" and wait to see if they offer their name first. But Susan, help a sister out and give your name in return.

5) What do you do if a stranger doesn't realize a bug is crawling on them? I think the answer to this predicament depends on the size and location of the bug. Smallish? No potential danger? Ignore it. On the pants or shoes? Ignore it. But at some point, these bugs should not be ignored. Large bug? Potential for stinging or biting? Bug touching skin? Say something. I still think I saved a man's life last year at a craft store by following these guidelines. A spider which had a body alone the size of a quarter was on his shoulder. It was the biggest spider I had ever seen and I was trying not to freak out. He was talking and I didn't want to interrupt. Plus, the beastly spider wasn't on his skin so I hesitated. But then it got to his neck. Now the question becomes, how do you tell them? Do you flick the bug off yourself? Do you speak in a panicked or calm voice? You don't want to freak them out and make them make a fool of themselves but you also don't want them to die. In my life-saving case the man was mid-story and I stopped him to say, "I'm sorry but there is a giant spider on your neck" and pointed to the side. He swept it off and stomped it and then looked amazed at the dead spider and said, "That might have killed me." And that, my friends, is how I saved a stranger's life.

6) What do you do when a stranger has a bleeding zit on his/her face? I endured an adolescence plagued by acne so this is all too familiar for me. I despised people who said, "You're bleeding" when we were in a group, thus alerting EVERYONE to the fact that not only do I have acne, I pick at it too. I say the same rules apply for when someone has food in their teeth. Don't even say, "You have something on your face." These words make everyone turn and look. Wait for a discrete moment and then brush your own face to show the victim where the bleeding blemish is so they can take care of it without everyone pitying them because of their acne. Follow this same protocol when dealing with giant boogers and cliff-hangers. Silently point to the afflicted nostril and then turn away to let them privately figure out how to handle their slimy situation.

7) What do you do when a stranger's underwear is hanging out? Easy one. Say nothing. There is no discrete charade you can do that is socially appropriate to alert the victim to their fashion faux pas. You can only tell friends and family when they need to hide the granny panties or put the crack away. I noticed a male colleague unknowingly suffering from this the other day and snickered from afar. That's all you can do.

8) What do you do when speaking with a stranger and you slip and say something awkward? Should you point out the fact that you realize you just said something awkward? Or do you ignore your own mishap? Example: You started to say "good" but mid-word switched to "great" and ended up telling a stranger that you are doing "grood." Do you ignore this? I say it depends on the stranger. Do they seem fun? Then you can laugh about it together. Do they seem crotchety? Say nothing. They might not find awkwardness funny which makes the situation doubly awkward. Last year our opposing team was wearing pink shooting shirts. I asked the male coach if they wore them for "breast awareness month." Stupid cancer. He didn't seem like the joking type so I said nothing but blushed quite a bit.

I hope you've found these guidelines to be helpful. However, I realize that I am a very awkward girl and some might disagree with my protocols. Are there any guidelines that you disagree with? Are there other awkward scenarios with strangers that I'm forgetting?


  1. I'm sitting here at 830 am, by myself, crying form laughing. You seriously need to write a book.

  2. I second Emma's statement! Let's chat about potential book titles next inservice :)

  3. Me thinks you need to write a blog entry on "crotchety criteria" so I am better equipped to know when to say nothing.

    I had to look up "mores"...so thanks for that you intellectual snob.

    Question: What do you do when you notice someone's zipper is down? The repercussions suffered from not telling may mean a highly unwanted crotch sighting with any minimal position shift. But if you do point it out then they will forever know that for some reason you looked down toward their privates in the first place (creating a giant elephant in the room that may prevent the most promising acquaintances from becoming friends). Aside from injustice…and probably picky eating…this is one of my biggest pet peeves.

  4. What about when there is an acquaintance that is waving or even worse, mouthing something, in your direction? Completely thinking it is intended for you, you wave back, or mouth back "what?" with the confused look...to then notice it was for the person DIRECTLY BEHIND YOU!!!

    Once that happens, you have two choices: Do you pretend that you were waving at a person BEHIND them...or Do you quickly lower your arm and pretend you just had a twitch or something and go along with what you were previously doing?

    Or what about when YOU'RE the waver, waving to a friend and someone in front of them thinks you're waving at them? Do you acknowledge the acquaintance and explain that it was intended for the person behind, or just pretend you didn't see them look like an idiot, and let them wallow in their stupidity once they realize it wasn't meant for them?

    Another is when you're walking past someone and they give a quick wave, but in an awkward timing, almost resembling a high five. I have DEFINITELY made the mistake of going for the high five when it was merely a wave. And I've decided that is MUCH more awkward to recover from, than someone wanting a high five and having to hang there a couple seconds for you to REALLY make sure its a true high five that is wanted, and not just an awkwardly timed wave!!

    There are SO many awkward moments that you've explained in your postings that I COMPLETELY relate to! It makes me feel more normal that at least one other person is thinking or experiencing the same things! haha :) Love reading your posts!!

  5. Katie- excellent question. I think you have to let it slide on the zipper down issue because there is no way of telling them without acknowledging that you just stared at their junk. However, Trent's was down and my mom quickly announced it to the room and I felt so cool saying, "XYZ Trent.... Your zipper's afraid of heights." Yes, I used both. I hadn't had the opportunity to use either in years so I just got a little overexcited. He was not amused.

    Lauren- I cringed reading your comments because you brought up some excruciatingly painful moments and I do not know the answers! The waving problem is such a painful one because it really is a lose lose situation. I think the answer to that dilemma is to take preventative measures by calling out a name along with the wave. I also hate when you think someone is waving at you but you're not sure so you glance around and then realize it was indeed intended for you so you wave back- I feel like the waiver must think I have low self-esteem because I assumed the wave must have been intended for someone else. The worst is when I point to myself with a raised eyebrow, "who me? you're waving at lil ol' me?" I feel so pathetic afterwards.

    Excellent call on letting the person hold their hand up a bit longer for a potential high five. I always appreciate someone who clarifies their raised hand by saying, "high five!" even though it makes them look uber dorky.

    Tonight was our first game and at the end when the teams shake hands, I love watching my assistant try to decipher if she should shake hands or do high fives with the other coaches. There is not set rule for her. I have it easy- it's always a hand shake. I watched her go for the high five as they went for the shake and immediately started laughing at her. I'm not very professional.