CHARLESTON, W.Va. --- When someone finally told me, I wanted to cry from embarrassment. I had just walked through a huge parking lot past throngs of people, through a large building, and into a crowded elevator when I heard a woman's voice from the back say, "Honey, the back of your skirt is tucked in your pantyhose."
My whole back side was exposed for the world to see and I didn't know! Why didn't someone tell me before I walked all that way? I just wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.
Since that humiliating event, I have received numerous questions asking how to inform others of situations that may be embarrassing, such as their fly is open or they have food stuck in their teeth. Other questions range from how to tell someone that they have bad breath, something in their nose, toilet paper stuck to their shoe, or that a critical button is unbuttoned.
The answer is (and I believe that most etiquette experts will agree) if the situation can be discreetly fixed, then by all means say something. While it may be momentarily embarrassing for the person being told, it would probably be more mortifying for them to see themselves later in the mirror, gasp with embarrassment and wonder how many people saw them in that predicament. And, as in my case, wonder why someone didn't tell them.
If you encounter someone with food in their teeth or on their face, try to make eye contact with the person, and inconspicuously gesture toward the area of the face or mouth that corresponds. If that doesn't work, then quietly tell them.
You might say something like, "I know how disappointed I would be if someone did not tell me ..." While some may be embarrassed at first, most will be grateful they are able to remedy the situation without further embarrassment.
For those who come into contact with someone with bad breath, you could offer a mint; however, if the person doesn't take the hint, then nothing more should be said or done.
Telling someone their fly is open or a button is unbuttoned is a little trickier, especially if you are the opposite gender. In those cases, it is better to ask someone of the same sex to relay the news. Even though it may not be as discreet if the action was between just the two of you, having it come from someone of the same gender may be less awkward for all. Again, the key is discretion.
So the answer to these potentially embarrassing situations is quite simple, if it can be fixed, then by all means, say something. Put yourself in their position. Would you want to know? Be discreet and quickly move on to another conversation.
People usually aren't as embarrassed if they feel that the other person doesn't consider the situation a big deal. Dwelling on it only makes it worse. I know from personal experience, and I wish someone had told me!
Pam Harvit is a certified corporate etiquette and protocol consultant. She is employed by Merck and Co. and lives in Charleston. If you have questions for her, e-mail her at phar...@suddenlink.net.