One of our favorite restaurants has an eclectic menu. The owners are a German-Chinese couple so, you can order Wiener schnitzel and spaetzle with a side of moo goo gai pan. The food is delicious but the entertainment is odder than the menu. On most weekend nights, a woman dressed in lederhosen plays an accordion while throwing back beers faster than any of my fraternity brothers did in college. She then wanders around the restaurant and hovers over each table a bit longer than social etiquette norms would dictate.
This represents one of those awkward moments in life.
I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. It may be an encounter with an amateur clown passing out flyers at the grocery store. Or it could be an interaction with a very kind but uncomfortably earnest religious duo going door-to-door in your neighborhood. Or it might be the approach used by a greeter at the discount department store who read one too many bad joke books and uses said bad jokes to “entertain” you as you walk by.
Life is sometimes just awkward. And often, it feels as if our only option is to smile and walk away. But with a little thought, we can turn uncomfortable into funcomfortable (OK, that was a bit awkward).
As a humorist, most people assume that I have a never-ending arsenal of funny lines just waiting to be used. They think I’m always just a barrel of laughs. In fact, my wife is frequently asked, “Is he that funny at home?”
She generally responds by simply saying, “No.”
In reality, I’m sometimes a whiney crank at home but that’s my prerogative as middle-age-and-soon-to-be-bitter-old man. My humor is not like a broken toilet that runs continuously. Instead, it’s like the one street light in our neighborhood that is sometimes on and sometimes off. It’s very unpredictable and I don’t always know what to expect. To be fair though, my humor skills are probably sharper than the average person’s but duller than Jimmy Fallon’s or Amy Schumer’s.
The key to responding humorously in an awkward situation is to learn from the past and then recycle. Most of us have had a brilliant insight after an awkward experience and thought, “What I should have said was….” Or we hear someone else say something funny and think, “I wish I’d said that.” Either way, these experiences can become our arsenal for future awkward encounters.
Once, when I was attending a conference, my friend’s daughter Jill asked me what I did for a living. I said that I was a motivational speaker. She quickly replied, “So, motivate me.”
I had no response. It was the first time anyone had ever said that to me and I had nothing prepared. Worse yet, we were in an elevator with several other people. Once Jill issued the challenge, everyone was looking at me to see what I’d do. I had nothing clever to say which was quite possibly the most un-motivating thing I could have done. She gave me an awkward smile and then turned back to the conversation with her mother. I went straight home and reviewed my copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People.
My friend, David Glickman, is very good at witty retorts. Once, he was teaching a group of speakers how to add humor to their presentations. He explained that they have to think about the words they use and try to use funnier words. A woman had just told a story about an incident that happened near her home in Atlanta. David suggested that the story would be funnier if she used the name of a different town, rather than “Atlanta”.
He said, “Is there a town near Atlanta with a funnier name?”
The woman replied, “Buckhead.”
David said, “Same to you lady.”
He got a huge laugh. And I guarantee he came up with that response based on a previous experience.
Often, when I speak at conferences, I’ll have lunch with the planning committee or the leaders of the organization prior to my presentation. On one occasion, after my keynote address, one of the executives complimented me on my humor and then confessed that he had not expected to enjoy my presentation as much as he did. I asked him why and he said, “Because you weren’t that funny during lunch.”
I said, “Well, you weren’t paying me to be funny at lunch.”
He laughed and I realized that I now had the perfect response whenever someone puts me on the spot about being funny. It may not be the best line you’ve ever heard but it works.
Someone once said that “history repeats itself because nobody reads the minutes from the previous meeting.”
I think this is true. We miss great opportunities because we don’t learn from past experiences. Whether it’s something that happened at our workplace, with our partner, or in an awkward social situation, we probably have the answer if we just pay attention to what worked in the past.
Just this morning, I walked into an airport bathroom and stood at the urinal. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I realized there was a woman standing behind me. I feared that I had somehow wandered into the women’s bathroom by mistake. But I was standing at a urinal. Unless someone had recently discovered a way for women to use urinals, I was definitely in the men’s room. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that the woman was casually cleaning the sink. She didn’t seem to mind that men were taking care of business right behind her. I was unnerved just a tad.
At the risk of sharing too much information, the presence of a woman in the bathroom affected my ability to, well, properly use the urinal. So, I retreated to a stall where there would be a door between me and Mrs. Clean.
When it was time for me to leave, I needed an exit strategy. I racked my brain for a snappy retort as I left the stall and walked past the cleaning woman. My mind raced. I had nothing. The awkwardness was inhibiting my creativity. Finally, I could stall no more, so to speak, so I walked by, nodded at the woman, and said, “Urine the men’s room. Get it?”
The look on her face was uncomfortable. Then she said something in a language I didn’t recognize. She didn’t speak English.
I smiled and then left without washing my hands.
Sometimes, even when we’re prepared, life is just awkward.