Its a feeling I know well. I'm a bit eccentric, I suppose, and I'm uncomfortably aware that I can be horribly socially inept at times, completely missing the subtle cues and rules that govern social interactions.
Sometimes this spills over into my work life. Once, in my first week of a new, dream job, I suffered a "brain-mouth-filter" failure and noted casually to my new (male) boss that the cactus on the table in the bar of the conference centre we were at was probably a phallic symbol.
Yup. I really said that. Epic First Week On The Job Fail.
Now, while in principle I believe that an uncomfortable truth is more useful than a pleasing illusion, I've worked hard at learning how to navigate the treacherous social and professional waters between truth and diplomacy.
Rule 1: Put your finger on your lips.
I mean this literally. The next time you're about explode with frustration, or tempted to speak when you should be listening, pretend you're back in Grade 1. Close your lips, place your forefinger over them, and keep it there until the urge to speak passes, just like Teacher taught you. This acts as a physical reminder to keep your mouth shut, and has the added benefit of making it seem like you're really considering the merit of tie-dye uniforms for all customer facing staff. This tactic also works well when you're trapped with a group of gossip-mongers and you're finding it hard not to join in. ("OMG! Did your hear about Josie's ridiculous tie-dye proposal?" Finger on lips.)
Rule 2: Embrace the discomfort of silence
Usually, when a room falls silent for more than a few of seconds, someone jumps in to fill the gap. Don't be this person. Staying silent just a little longer than is comfortable creates space for quieter, less competitive speakers to have their say. Also, sometimes the need to break the discomfort of silence will make someone say more than they otherwise would have, revealing a hidden agenda. (Hands up those who knew that Josie's Mum is the proud new owner of Tie-dye Uniforms Inc.?) Finally, creative ideas only emerge when the obvious ones have been exhausted. Stretching a silence beyond what is comfortable forces people to stretch their imaginations too.
Rule 3: The 3-question check
I don't recall where I first heard this advice, but it has saved my hiney more than once. Before venturing an opinion on someone, or something, ask yourself: Is it True? Is it Kind? Is it Necessary? If the answer to any of these questions is "No", rather say nothing. (See Rule 1). When Josie's tie-dye uniform innovations earn her an office in the C-suite, she will remember your support and reward you handsomely.
What are your tactics for navigating unfamiliar social and political situations?