How To Handle Awkward Moments Without A Panic Attack

Karma’s a bitch, dude. This morning, I was frolicking through Starbucks, smiling to myself about how awesome my life has gotten. On Friday, I’m moving out of my parents’ house and into my own apartment. Today I woke up next to my new Gentleman Caller the night after we decided to date each other exclusively. The sun is shining. The birds were trilling. Tra la la la la la la!

And then I ran into the woman whose ex-boyfriend cheated on her with me two years ago. A woman who didn’t respond to my multiple apologetic emails because, let’s be honest, she probably hates my putrid guts.I stared at her. She stared at me. What do I do?!?! I squinted and stared at her harder. Time froze for 10 seconds. We stared at each other until it became clear that one of us had to make a move.

So I dashed out of Starbucks, my composure rattled — no, literally shaking.

Why did I do that? I have no idea. I should have just woman-ed up, marched over to her, looked her in the eye, apologized in person, and then left. But instead, I freaked out and ran off with my tail between my legs looking like a fool. Karma: she’s a bitch with a sense of humor, isn’t she?

I handled this awkward run-in like an idiot: staring, staring, staring … then running for the hills. But it’s got me thinking of the how I could have handled it better, as well as how to behave in other awkward situations:

Ex-Boyfriend

First of all, you can’t ignore an ex-boyfriend. Even if your paths cross at an inconvenient moment — you are full of nerves before a job interview or on a Starbucks run with a new boss — you have to at least acknowledge his presence with a smile and a wave. It’s the classy thing to do. If he’s classy, too, and also acknowledges your existence, you two can chitchat for as long or short as you like. It’s up to you how much you want to divulge about your lives, but it’s probably best to avoid uber-personal topics. For instance, I always find it a little sad when I run into an ex and he asks after my older brother, who has struggled with drug addiction in the past. (It’s nice that my ex remembers … but I just don’t want to rip that wound open randomly with some dude I never see anymore, you know?) Also, resist the urge to brag like a douchebag. I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you how annoying it is when you run into someone from high school and they’re, like, “Yeah, I’m working for NASA and marrying Megan Fox next month on my parents’ private island in the Maldives.” Of course you should fill him in on how awesome your life is going; just don’t be a cocky braggadocio. And lastly, you should also be careful not to make agree to “hang out sometime” unless you really intend to do it. That could make things even more awkward.

Ex-Boyfriend’s Family Members And/Or Friends

Unfortunately, you can’t ignore these people, either, even if you’d like nothing more than to run in the opposite direction from his crazy mom. You know she is going to tell him she ran into you, so it’s best if you behave courteously. Ask a vague question, like “How’s the family?” or “How’s your group of friends doing?” and then excuse yourself, mentioning you have somewhere to be and adding, “Tell Ex-Boyfriend that I said hi! Bye!” I’d personally advise against asking about him directly. Some parents/family members/friends lack a sense of discretion and are Gossip McBlabberpantses. You don’t really want to know about his new girlfriend, do you? On the flipside, they might think you’re digging around for info on him and could feel uncomfortable.

Former Co-Worker Who Got Laid Off/Fired

In this economy, you probably have more laid off/fired former co-workers than you do exes. Just like you can’t ignore an ex-boyfriend, you can’t ignore a former co-worker, even if he or she was your office’s Dwight Shrute. Say hello warmly and smile. It’s probably best to avoid the topic of the layoff/firing and life back at the office entirely; if you can, stick to vague topics like “Where are you headed today?” or “Hey, I saw that movie you recommended.” But the person may want to talk some smack about the office, the boss, and specifically the circumstances of their firing. PROCEED WITH CAUTION! You’d best assume anything you say will be repeated to anyone else you currently work with whom this person is still friendly with. Even if you think your boss is a dick and agree that the way your ex-coworker was fired was dickish, you should assume that the gossip might spread back somehow. Make sure to be discreet in your commiseration: a simple “It sucks what happened; I’m really sorry” will suffice. Also, just like you shouldn’t offer to get together sometime with an ex if you have no intention of doing so, you shouldn’t offer an introduction or a lead on a new job unless you’re serious about going through with it.

Someone Who Owes You An Apology

Everyone has an arch-nemesis: a low-down dirty ex, the roommate who kicked you out, the woman who hooked up with your boyfriend. Unfortunately, these people also live on Planet Earth. They might appear at your friend’s birthday party or show up in line behind you at the bank. But think of it this way: it’s probably helpful, on some level, to see people who you’re angry at or upset with out in public because it humanizes them. Seeing someone who you think is an a**hole as just another falliable, flawed human being can really be helpful to handling your negative emotions. Acknowledge the other person with eye contact and a nod, and then go about your business. That should make it clear that you want to avoid talking to them. Hopefully, they respect that. If they try to talk to you, the ball is in your court to either listen to what they have to say — an apology, perhaps? — or brush them off. Even if you’re filled with blind rage, it’s imperative that you keep it classy and don’t instigate anything. I seriously doubt Frisky readers are these people, but please, don’t be people who fight and argue in public. (Leave that to the girls of “16 & Pregnant” and “Teen Mom.”) Keep the snotty insults — no matter how true they may be! — in your head. Take it from one who knows: losing your temper will have repercussions that you could be dealing with for years to come.

Someone You Owe An Apology To

Woman up and apologize. Just. Do. It. It may go badly. They may not want to hear it (like the two emails that I sent this woman, which she ignored). They may tell you to f**k off, in so many words. They may make you feel humiliated, stupid or rattled. But apologizing to someone whom you have wronged is the right thing to do. It’s the mature thing to do. Be a big person and offer a brief, sincere apology and if you’re willing to, offer to email or talk about whatever the problem is at a later date. A lot of times, it feels like, people get so stubborn that they’d rather behave icily or ignore each other when they’d be perfectly happy just kissing and making up. Being the one to say “I’m sorry” first takes courage — hell, saying “I’m sorry” at all sometimes takes courage — but find it in you to do it. I didn’t woman up and now I’m ashamed of myself. But you can bet that the next time I run into this chick at Starbucks and the moment is right, I’ll walk straight up to her and say, “I was wrong and I am so, so sorry.”

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