What are your tact hacks?
January 7, 2011 7:47 PM   Subscribe

What are your tact hacks?

A while back I was reading an old "tricks of the trade" list and came across the following tip:

When helping someone fix their computer over the phone, and you want them to see if all the cables are plugged in correctly, don’t ask, “Have you checked to see if the cable is plugged in?” because the customer will always say, “Of course I did, do you think I’m a moron?” Instead say, “Remove the cable, blow the dust out of the connector, and plug it back in.” The customer will most likely reply, “Hey, it’s working now—I guess that dust really builds up in there!”

I've successfully used variants of this trick a couple of times recently. That got me thinking: often I find myself having to do something that might make the other person feel upset, embarrassed, awkward, or put on the spot, such as:

- Asking them a potentially embarrassing question
- Having them do something they're not good at
- Requesting something they may not be able or willing to provide
- Correcting them or pointing out a flaw
- Getting them to acknowledge they were wrong

Aside from the fundamentals of being polite, humble, and discreet, giving people an "out", and determining if they are askers or guessers, what are some good techniques or tricks for being tactful?
posted by lunchbox to Human Relations (45 answers total) 166 users marked this as a favorite
This topic was covered quite recently, actually. Have a look here.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:06 PM on January 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

PareidoliaticBoy, I think the OP is asking for specifically non-IT questions.

My best hack for this is to just lampshade the awkwardness. "This is really embarrassing, and I apologize for that, but I can't think of a way around it." "I know this isn't a strength of yours, but I need you to do it for XYZ reasons." "No is totally an OK answer, but could you. . . ?" "Argh! I don't want to be That Guy, but Gandhi is spelled with the H after the G." As for getting them to acknowledge that they're wrong, think carefully about how important that really is. . .
posted by KathrynT at 8:34 PM on January 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

One classic example might be the trope of the person who doesn't think they are smart/strong/whatever enough to perform the task, so their friend gives them a magic potion(or whatever) to help them do it. But it's not real - it's really that person doing the thing they thought they couldn't do.
posted by CathyG at 8:46 PM on January 7, 2011

I think you can accomplish a lot with the vocabulary you use. As a TA, I got very little teaching advice but one thing someone told me really helped: never start responses with a negative. Even if you have to say in a rather empty way, "Oh yeah, that's a question of..." or, "Hmm, I see what you mean," before you launch into your explanation of what's going on. Then answer however you normally would. Don't fall all over yourself or pretend to think it's a very interesting question when you don't. All people really need is some sort of verbal gesture that says you're in this together.

You can also repeat part of the question but you have to watch that. "So, what you're telling me is.." is often used in a snotty way. But if you repeat the question like people do when they are giving sound bites, or like you are just checking to make sure what the question is, that's another way of not sounding negative.
posted by BibiRose at 9:13 PM on January 7, 2011 [9 favorites]

Oh, and I see that you weren't asking specifically about answering questions; I got kind of carried away with that. Anyway, try to find a stock of vocabulary that will let you start out in a positive way.
posted by BibiRose at 9:15 PM on January 7, 2011

At work I frequently have to e-mail/call people at other departments about mistakes or omissions they've made, so I'm hoping this thread could add to my arsenal of ways to not feel as much of a heel every time.

But currently the only thing I can think of is telling them it's a common mistake (when applicable), or one that's understandble/easy to make. Or find a way to take some of the blame away from just them, like, oh, I dunno... "The forms are crappy and vague!!" I feel like it makes them not feel like they're being singled out and scrutinized as badly. I know it'd work on me.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:19 PM on January 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I used to work a closing shift where I would have to kick stragglers out of the library. Instead of saying "We're closing" or "you have to leave now," I'd say "You're on your way out, right?" in a tone of voice that implied I really did think they were on their way out, and I was just confirming—even if they were sitting like bumps on a log and had obviously forgotten or ignored the closing time. It seemed to work. People always answered "yeah" and got moving, and nobody gave me attitude about it. I think it worked because it implied that I was assuming the best of them, and not approaching them from an adversarial / corrective standpoint.
posted by Orinda at 9:41 PM on January 7, 2011 [26 favorites]

I think there should also be a distinction made between e-mailing, calling, and live interaction. I have trouble writing some e-mails without worrying that I'm coming off as haughty and impatient.

Sure, you have to include "please" and "thank you," but to me, "Can I please get an update on this? Thank you" could sound like "Can I PLEASE get an update on this, for crying out loud? THANK YOU, you miserable sad sack."
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:55 PM on January 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

But currently the only thing I can think of is telling them it's a common mistake (when applicable), or one that's understandable/easy to make.

One trick to bringing people out of their shells is to admit or at least imply that it's a mistake _you've_ made, or a problem you've had, in the past. Don't corner people, don't (for the love of God, don't) vaguely say that "it's a mistake that happens", because we all know what that means. This is as old as Sun Tzu; you always give somebody an out, a way of exiting gracefully. People who don't have a way of bowing out gracefully will stand their ground and fight you 'til they're hamburger.

If you want to disarm somebody, give them an out, and make that out a way to come to you. I like to tell people that, whatever it is, "It's like tying your shoes or riding a bike; that's actually really hard until you've done it a few hundred times." That gives people who are strugging with whatever you've asked of them to say, yeah, I'm struggling with this now or I was wrong, or whatever, without feeling like a jackass.

But the other thing is, and I can't emphasize this enough, just saying "please" and "thank you". It takes approximately zero time and zero effort, but you would be just astounded at how many people will fall all over themselves trying to help you only because you showed them some basic politeness and entry-level manners when you asked for their help. Somehow that's become a rare and precious commodity in modern society, but having been there, let me tell you this: some days, for some people, an interaction that starts with "please" and ends with "thanks" can be the single best thing that's happened to them that day. I've seen salespeople practically deflate, their tension just hissing out of them like a punctured balloon, when I ask them if I have something in stock and say if the answer is no, that's OK.

Don't be That Guy, basically.

So, yeah. Be polite, measure your tone and give people an obvious exit in a direction that's good for you that they can take with their head held high.
posted by mhoye at 10:10 PM on January 7, 2011 [10 favorites]

I worked security on the set of the movie "Seabiscuit". The particular location I was at was a horse racing track. The shoot was on the track (which was closed), but inside the building it was business as usual (off-track betting, etc.) People who regularly came to the track throughout the year would wander onto the set to see what was going on, crossing caution tape, barriers, etc. (We were not allowed to lock the doors due to fire codes.) Some guards would confront the wanderers with a "Hey! You can't come through here!" That met with a sour response and little cooperation every time. This was *their* usual haunt. They walk through this way every week. YOU shouldn't be here! (Most of them were on their second drink at least, too.)

So, I tried something different. I would wave and kindly approach the trespassers and say, "Hi, folks. I'm sorry but they won't let me let anyone through this way. Some kind of safety and insurance stuff during the shoot. Sorry about that." The key was the "they". Negotiators call this an Appeal To Outside Authority. I wasn't challenging the trespassers with my own authority. I was enjoining them and letting a nameless, faceless "they" be the bad guy. It worked every time.

I learned a lot about tactful crowd control there too. Like this gem: I can do the work of six guards by myself with a roll of yellow "police" tape, two saw-horses, and a BIG walkie-talkie (which was not even functional; we used Nextel push-to-talk officially, but the BIG old walkie was a totem that got attention and moved crowds like a shepherd's hook).
posted by skypieces at 10:15 PM on January 7, 2011 [19 favorites]

This is a really good topic. I was a Big Sister to a girl with learning disabilities and my approach was to have her show me what she was trying to do and then gently suggest other ways. Usually when people ask for help, having them talk it out seems to bring up the answer. It's important to present people with a choice as well. Somewhere I have my mentoring manual, but asking open ended questions like "I don't understand why you did that?" or "What else could you have tried?" were good questions.

"I've had that problem too. This worked for me, maybe it will work for you?" is something I say a lot.

When I do craft sales, people are confused about what the magnets are despite a large sign that says "magnets". I try "Which one caught your eye?", "I see you're looking at the magnets." or "What do you think of these magnets?" That way they don't have to feel embarrassed.

I used to support a groupware solution and I developed a whole catalog of phrases and gestures to make the users comfortable when it acted up. I can't really explain it, but sometimes a head scratch or just the right squint at the monitor seemed to reassure the users that we were on the same level of frustration.

Getting them to acknowledge they were wrong

Again with the mentoring example, sometimes she did things that weren't good ideas. We would go through the problem and figure out why it was a bad idea. I guess it depends on what the wrong is and if it was willfully done or an accident.

Somehow I have cultivated approachability over the years, but I consider myself somewhat socially awkward. I actually bought The Complete Idiot's Guide: Difficult Conversations which contains little scripts for everything from death to office romances. It has a three step confrontation script:

1) I see (problem)
2) I feel (problem is affecting this...I feel worried...)
3) I want (to be heard...consider other options...)

I'm not sure if that will help, but I keep the book very handy.
posted by Calzephyr at 10:36 PM on January 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

Totally blank on an acquaintance's first name? Shoot past it and they will supply you the information.

"I'm sorry, but I can't quite recall your name."

*ahem* "It is Ricochet."

"Oh, no, I know that, of COURSE -- I meant your last name."

"Oh, sorry -- it's Biscuit."

People seem to be okay with others forgetting their surnames; at least, it leaves them less miffed than being thought of as so forgettable that others forget their first name.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:39 PM on January 7, 2011 [19 favorites]

For your first three instances, I think my favorite hack might be helpful. I find a way to say some version of "I wonder if you can help me out here, I have to do (or confirm or report or whatever) and I wonder if you could do me a favor and __(whatever you need them to do or tell you).

For the last two, I'd be very reluctant to even agree that pointing out flaws or correcting someone and getting them to admit they are wrong are in the same ballpark with things to be tactful about. I think those things are in the ballpark of 'don't go there; who do you think you are anyway?' If you are authorized and required to judge people for a living there will be ethical guidelines and other professional training to help you do so properly. If not, you're just a person like the rest of us and those things are real no-nos if you're trying to get along in this world. You need to know someone extremely well and they need to be absolutely confident of your good will before there's a possibility that kind of assessment is going to be remotely well received.

On the last point, you can invite people to debate if they like to do that, but you'll waste a lot of productive time and forfeit a lot of peace and friendship if you seriously believe you can somehow with your conversational skills cause people to admit when they are wrong!
posted by Anitanola at 10:57 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes after I've ordered a beverage from the local coffee shop, I'll get the impression they might not really have been paying attention, or whathaveyou, so I'll say "Did I remember to ask for extra hot?" or "Did I say 'no whip'?".
posted by backwards guitar at 10:57 PM on January 7, 2011 [20 favorites]

No matter how dumb someone is being, I find the whole interaction goes better when I align myself with them. "Oh, you don't like data because when it shows you you're wrong, you have to change? I totally know what you mean! I used to feel that way, too, but then I realized that with data, I can change so I'm even more effective at my mission than before!" (actual example)

Sometimes, too, being tactful means NOT saying anything. Like, when someone misuses a word, for example, but I know what they mean ... it's okay to just let that go.
posted by rosa at 10:58 PM on January 7, 2011

Oh, also, being aware of the factors of "face" for the other person. If there's a chance of their losing face by my actions, saving it for later whenever possible so as not to put them on the spot.
posted by rosa at 10:59 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's one of mine:

Let's say I ask a friend to send me a spreadsheet, but several days later they still haven't sent it. Instead of emailing them with a reminder like, "Hey, could you send that file when you have a chance?", I'll make a trivial follow-up request or clarification like, "By the way, could you send me the file as a .xls instead of an .xlsx?" This will remind them of the task they probably forgot about, without my having to point the finger.

The principle is to make a subtle reminder without actually making the request. I've seen this principle of used in other contexts, such as making oblique references to an upcoming anniversary in the presence of a forgetful spouse.
posted by lunchbox at 11:44 PM on January 7, 2011 [9 favorites]

If all else fails, shut up and pay the bar tab with a smile.
posted by paulsc at 11:48 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like your example there lunchbox :) I did that recently with a vendor who is dragging their feet.

When people don't get back to you in a timely way, is popping by their desk an option? Email is so easily ignored. I usually work with a remote office and sometimes they forget about me because I'm not physically there. When one of my team mates worked from home I made the effort to remind everyone to include her. Keeping people in the loop avoids conflict for sure!
posted by Calzephyr at 11:54 PM on January 7, 2011

Sometimes if there's something that I can share, but don't necessarily want to come right out with it (because it would come off as obnoxious, highlights the power/knowledge difference between us, or somesuch other reason), I will provide all the information and setup necessary, except for the final answer they're looking for. That way, they can use what's given, go find it and feel good when they do. If they want to come back and talk to me about it, great! And now they have more information than I would have been able to provide them with, had I done it explicitly. This is because they were forced to apply the setup they were given to the information they found and arrive at the relevant solution for them. Who am I to say what the exact solution is anyway? Maybe mine was only 90% there.

Here is a list of examples of politeness strategies (3 types), addressing a hearer's "face". I find it helps me to understand and be able to categorize the type of request/imposition I'm making (how exactly it threatens a person's face needs), and then go from there – picking a strategy based on what is threatened and what I think the hearer will appreciate my addressing the most in my delivery of said request...i.e some people don't want to be told what to do, period. So I might pick a strategy that addresses that need (negative politeness strategy), even if my request is something that is more underlyingly positive face threatening (hurting their feelings) rather than negative face threatening (bossing them around). Some combos consistently work better in certain contexts and it can be fun to discover those patterns.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:15 AM on January 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

BibiRose is onto something really important. When you're dealing with someone who's frustrated or angry, or in a situation that might give rise to those emotions, play the role of a conciliatory listener. And do that by introducing prefaces to what you say that make your words a little less direct, slow the conversation down a little, and let the other party express their desires or needs again or in a different fashion.

"It seems to me that you're saying.."; "It sounds like you're.." "If I've got that right, what you want is.."; "Let me just run through what I think you mean, and then you can correct me if I'm wrong"; "Okay, I'm not sure I got all of that, could we run through the key parts together?"

And don't be surprised or offended if you do have what they said the first time wrong, they say so, and they want to correct you. The goal isn't tact per se, but achieving a meeting of minds that achieves the most effective outcome for both you and the person you're talking to.
posted by Ahab at 3:48 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Let's say I ask a friend to send me a spreadsheet, but several days later they still haven't sent it.

IIRC, Randy Pausch, in "The Last Lecture," used to send reviewers a manuscript and a box of chocolates with the instructions to eat them as a reward for finishing their reviews. When reviews were late, he'd send off an email about something else and say in passing "And what did you think of the chocolates?"
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:38 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Complimenting people and/or their work regularly makes it much easier to be critical occasionally without hurting their feelings.

Acknowledge what someone has said and why they said it before explaining why it won't work.

If someone has an idea you think is stupid, sometimes you can just let them run with it. They'll learn better by finding out for themselves. A nd it's always possible that it really isn't such a stupid idea after all!

Instead of "That won't work because of X", you can say "OK, just make sure you have thought through how you will deal with X".

Instead of saying "No", say "Yes If" or "Yes, When".

You: Yes, I'm happy to do this outrageous thing, it will take a year and will cost about 100k.
Customer: OH I SEE, maybe we could do something different then.
You: That's a great idea!

Customer: I want my website in pink and purple with a big blinking picture of my dog.
You: OK, now what we normally do is we make a mock up, show it to some of your customers just to see what reaction we get so that we can make sure we have it exactly right and that we haven't missed anything.

If you are telling someone something that you think will embarrass them, it helps to be completely matter of fact. No hedging, no apologising, no explaining how embarrassed you are or looking guilty. "Excuse me, your skirt is tucked in your underwear". Job done.
posted by emilyw at 5:26 AM on January 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

At a job I once had, my boss had terrible tact. She was always coming across as being cruel about things I had forgotten or been unable to complete.

After a week or two it was my mantra on the way home, or in describing my new job to friends, that "I would appreciate a little less 'you're a fuckup' and a little more 'thanks for trying.'

Having lived through that, I'm pretty sure I point out to people the things they are doing well at least twice as often as things they're needing improvement on.
posted by bilabial at 5:54 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I want to do it, self-deprecation seems mighty effective. Letting them help, no matter how small, is good, too. Joining against a common enemy, occasionally. Being funny as hell if I can, and laughing at the situation. Explaining that I had the same problem about 100 times before I learned it. Explaining that this happens to my wife/mother/brother/uncle/co-worker/employees about 100 times before they learned it, too. Compliments to them for whatever they have done. Honest, true empathy and support and making sure they don't feel bad for asking. Volunteering to do it again, if they need it. Explaining what I am doing as I do it.

That said, even though I am from the south and they teach this stuff to us when we aren't seceding from the Union and all or discriminating against our co-citizens, I am a self-admitted know-it-all and pedantic asshole a fair percentage of the time. I try and average it out to an unnoticeable average, and to some, I am the ultimate of tact, while to others, the example of a complete creep! I suck!

Whatever, each of us is pretty much the same. We're all ignorant of something, and only one or two people in my 57 years have been consistently saintly.

I do love to experiment with difficult situations and see how successfully I can navigate them. I embrace and enjoy it and try to learn something for the next time.

(Fortunately I an un-threatening smaller man who has a track record of being right a lot, and who has a firm grasp on his vast fields of ignorance/incompetence, so folks expect me to be right where I am strong, and weak where I tell them I am weak. )

Good question, BTW.
posted by FauxScot at 5:58 AM on January 8, 2011

Bilabial, I had a boss like that too. Youth mentoring gave me a better way of understanding people problems. My Little probably doesn't realize she did more for me than I for her. I don't know why fear and bullying are used so often in the workplace. It's like beating a dog or something. I feel strongly about this topic because I have a strong sense of fairness. Some people also naturally downplay their talent and I really make sure they get their recognition.

There's also the compliment sandwich, but it only works with the right kind of person. Some people zero in on the negative part and don't see the positives.

The ability to make mistakes is also important. I had to learn a lengthy process over the phone and it was easy to miss a step. But my co-worker let me make dumb mistakes and learning the consequences ensured fewer mistakes :) I have to teach a lengthy process over the phone soon and I want to have the same teaching technique.
posted by Calzephyr at 6:59 AM on January 8, 2011

Oh, modelling the behaviour you'd like to see in others eventually rubs off. This can be tactful too. It can take a while, but the results are worth it IMHO. Modelling can go either way though, so it has to be very conscious. When my old boss yelled at me, she sent the message that it was OK for others to yell at me too :S I was 19 or 20 at the time so I didn't feel I had the power to confront older folks.
posted by Calzephyr at 7:07 AM on January 8, 2011

If you have to deal with some kind of complaint, assume an active listening position with attentive eye contact, a few nods of encouragement and understaning, a sympathetic facial expression, no crossing arms or leaning back or other gestures indicating disagreement or impatience. You'd be surprised how quick and painless this tends to solve many situations, even when your subsequent verbal message is (some suitable version of) "I'm sorry, but you're totally in the wrong here". People often just want to feel heard, especially when they're dissatisfied about something.
posted by sively at 8:41 AM on January 8, 2011

Negotiators call this an Appeal To Outside Authority. I wasn't challenging the trespassers with my own authority. I was enjoining them and letting a nameless, faceless "they" be the bad guy. It worked every time.

This one may be tricky to pull off - don't rely on it too much. Eventually you will come across some smartass who will inform you "they" are a bunch of idiots, and you a spineless wimp for going along with their demand. At this point you will have no arguments, since you have already conceded the demand is being forced on you as well.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:48 AM on January 8, 2011

I recently has a colleague send me an email, copying our two highest ranking executives, implying that I was undermining him. I wasn't and the executives clearly knew this. In order to tactfully defend myself and also let him know he was way out of line, I wrote something like this:

"When I initially read your email, I was extremely upset, and frankly insulted by the accusation, but after reading your note a second time, I am sure I have taken your comments our of context".
posted by jasondigitized at 9:46 AM on January 8, 2011 [8 favorites]

When you're dealing with a customer service person and realize you've started ranting, if you can pull yourself up short, change your tone of voice to be more kind and say something like, "I'm sorry, I don't mean to take this out on you, I know it's not your fault, I'm just really frustrated" you'd be surprised how often the person will fall all over himself trying to help you. I know it worked on me when I had to deal with ranty folks over the phone... being talked to like a person with feelings for a change made me much more sympathetic to the person's plight.

Also, at the end... "can I have your name please? Thank you so much for all your help, [name]. Have a good day." This is nice to say in any case, but especially if you need them to follow up and do something for you.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:18 AM on January 8, 2011

This is the best thread ever. This is exactly why I read AskMe on a regular basis.

A tactless thing habit of mine, which I have been working to break myself of, is the knee-jerk shoot-down. (I blame the internet.) If someone tells me "I'm thinking of doing N," my first impulse is often to say "That won't work. X will happen."

When someone tells me their plan, I ask myself: Have I, or someone I know first-hand, ever tried this?

If so, I feel comfortable in saying "Oh, I tried that and X happened, but we can probably figure out a way to prevent it this time."

If not, if I'm just working on a gut reaction or a hunch, then I say "I guess my concern would be that hypothetically, X might happen."

Sometimes - often, actually - my concerns are completely unfounded. Which is usually pretty obvious as soon as I say it out loud. Other times my forecast turns out to be pretty accurate, but at least the other person has been gently forewarned.

In either case, pitching it like this makes it clear that "I'm providing my insight, but you're free to disregard it without hurting my feelings." As opposed to an adversarial/overbearing "NO U CANT U DUMMY AN HERE'S WHYYYYY."
posted by ErikaB at 12:23 PM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

My personal tact hacks for each example:

- Asking them a potentially embarrassing question
"You know what question I really hate answering? ____, but I've gotten to the point where I find it's easier just to answer and assume the person isn't trying to upset/shame/provoke me. What about you, how do you respond to people asking you _____?"

- Having them do something they're not good at
"Oh man, can you show me how to to X (again)?" (person does X) "Okay, that's interesting, I've been doing it THIS way... let me try it your way. (Do X) I dunno, what happens when you do it the way I usually do it?"

- Requesting something they may not be able or willing to provide
"Hi, I'm hoping someone smarter than me can help me figure out X. Are you busy? If you are, can you point me to somebody that can help? So sorry to bother!"

- Correcting them or pointing out a flaw
"Oh man, I used to ALWAYS confuse X and Y because they look/smell/taste/sound so similar! Here's how I keep them straight now..."

As for pointing out a flaw, I find complimenting something that distracts from that flaw (or counteracts it) consistently can make it disappear, if I'm dedicated enough (provided it's clothing, behavioral, or something superficial, like a hairdo). If it's a one-time thing, like spinach in the teeth, suddenly say: "Tooth check! Tell me if I have anything stuck in my teeth, okay?" then open wide and let the person check. Then say, seriously, "If I ever have anything stuck in my teeth, PLEASE tell me - it's what I'd expect from a friend." Then offer to do the same for the other person on the spot.

- Getting them to acknowledge they were wrong
This one's super-easy. Either acknowledge something you did in the past that was wrong out of the blue and say, "When was the last time you realized that you were mistaken about something that you thought you for sure were right about?" or say, "Man, I'm so glad I'm mature enough to admit when I'm wrong about something. It gets so much harder to learn and be the bigger person as you get older and more set in your ways."

I think the key is using the right tactic with the right person, because there's no universal politeness filter that'll "trick" people into thinking or doing what you want... even if it's the right thing to do. I expect corporate trainers, college professors and counselors have more of these hacks in their arsenals than ANYBODY.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 1:01 PM on January 8, 2011

I'm not always great with names, and one tact hack that usually works for me is, "How do you spell your name again?" Here is when it doesn't work:

"Uh, it's J-I-M." (Though I can usually save myself with, "Hey, this is Berkeley, you never can be sure!")


"How do you think it's spelled?" (I assume I get this when I'm not being as smooth as I think I'm being, and at this point I usually 'fess up all good-natured and embarrassed-like.)

The Appeal to Outside Authority works well for me, too, though I've learned that "I'm just following the rules" is specifically a bad thing to say, at least around here. It seems to make people angrier, and encourages them to challenge me (either by demanding I explain the rules in great detail to them so they can rules-lawyer or by yelling at me for enforcing bad rules) or ask me to bend the rules just for them.
posted by rhiannonstone at 5:30 PM on January 8, 2011

An old classic is the Compliment Sandwich, which seems to work even when the other person knows it's being used: say one positive thing, then make the criticism/suggest the improvement/whatever, then say another positive thing.
posted by rhiannonstone at 5:36 PM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

This might sound obvious, but when I worked front of house at a small theater, we always reminded the ushers and ticket sellers to gesture with their whole hand when giving directions. I did find that generally, if you point a finger, people recoil, even if the finger is not pointed directly at them. It's a small tact hack.
posted by Malla at 8:45 PM on January 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

When I'm blocked by slow walkers who are unaware of my presence (e.g. because of distraction), I'll sometimes scrape my feet enough to make them notice me. (If done when I'm still a few yards away this also helps prevent startling people who otherwise wouldn't hear me until I'm right behind them.)
posted by lunchbox at 9:36 PM on January 8, 2011

One tactless expression I always recoil from is the 'girls like us' phrase. It's used as in solidarity but serves as an unpleasant reminder of something that one would much rather ignore. Common usages:

"I hate wearing dresses, but big girls like us need to hide our thighs somehow!"

"I know it's Friday, but low-level employees like us can't afford to take off early."

"I know he's not your type, but single girls like us can't afford to be choosy!"
posted by amicamentis at 1:45 AM on January 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Point being: even if your conversational partner shares some of your traits, do not assume that they take kindly to hearing about it. The tactful thing to do is not complain about something if the other person is (fatter, older, lower-paid, single-er, less experienced).
posted by amicamentis at 1:51 AM on January 9, 2011

This is a bit different, but I've found that you can often get a whole lot out of customer service people if you don't walk in assuming that they owe you something. Phrasing things like, "I know it's not your fault, and I know you don't have to, but I'd really, really appreciate it if you could do me a favor and try to help me out," and thanking them profusely, can have a huge impact. Most people are willing to go out of their way to help if they can feel like they're doing a good deed and it'll be appreciated; and most people sure as hell won't put any extra effort in for entitled jerks.
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:41 PM on January 9, 2011

The "this is a common mistake thing" works even better if you know why it's a common mistake. I teach freshman comp, and I try to research why common writing mistakes happen, so that I can say "oh, this happens all the time because native english speakers xyz." It stops them from getting defensive.
posted by Ragged Richard at 3:14 PM on January 9, 2011

I notice I generally include myself in a problem, even though I am not the cause, and I want the other person to be the solution. "What should we do next time to avoid that?" "Before we try that again, we'll have to..."
posted by littleflowers at 1:56 PM on January 10, 2011

I've found that admitting a weakness often can ease subsequent issues with that weakness, though obviously there are times and places for everything. In my case names go through me like cheap beer, and when I meet someone (in casual contexts) I just let them know up front: "Please don't take offense if I cannot recall your name at some point. They go in one ear and out the other. There's a reason I call my wife 'sweetheart'--I have no idea what her name is!"

If I see again someone whose name escapes me, I give them my name preemptively, over a handshake: "Hi, remember me? maxwelton. You'll have to forgive me, I know we've met but your name is lost in the echoing vault in my head where other people have memory installed." Or similar. If you can remember something about them, try that tack: "Hey! You're the guy with the two collies! Leave it to me to remember your dogs but misplace your name."

The only time this is at all tricky is if it's someone whose name you should absolutely know--in my case someone I worked with for four years but hadn't seen for five. In that case I screwed up--I tried to cover for the fact that I knew their name would eventually reach my conscious mind, which it did, ten minutes into the conversation, whereupon I used it sixty times in twenty seconds. This just underlined what had happened. It would have been better to just look surprised when we met and say something like "Remember the problem I had with deadlines? Apparently it's now spread to names of friends I haven't seen in awhile." Look panicked. "I didn't forget my pants, too, I hope?"

I also never--never!--take offense if someone doesn't remember my name. It's a very common issue and you relieve people of a lot of anxiety if you help them out.

You have to be a bit careful in a business or client relationship, of course. In that case, I try to get a card or record their name in my notes from the meeting.
posted by maxwelton at 4:19 PM on January 12, 2011

Don't call me buddy. Please.
posted by philip-random at 5:11 PM on January 12, 2011

You also have to remember to be tactful while being tactful.

With a lot of these examples, I can imagine people getting offended if they realize what you're doing.
posted by jykmf at 2:57 PM on January 14, 2011

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