I have a couple of stories for you to slog through before this post has a point. They’re mildly funny, though, so it shouldn’t be too painful.

Story #1.

A couple of days ago a friend of mind said he’d gone to a meeting at work and – for no reason he could think of – brought along a Pathfinder character sheet. (In case you’re unfamiliar with Pathfinder, as I suspect most of you are, it’s a role-playing game akin to Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, it’s based on the same rules, just with some modified intellectual property so it doesn’t step on Wizards of the Coast’s copyrights.) So down he sits, with no more than two other people, says “Ok, let’s get started”–and pulls out this game sheet.

So he tells me he was embarassed, and shoved the sheet to the bottom of his pile, and went on with the meeting. “Fortunately,” he tells me, “The guy I was meeting with is a cool guy. He doesn’t care about that kind of stuff.”

“You know what you should have said,” I replied. “You should have said, ‘Ok, we’re here to discuss the Pathfinder character creation system and how it’s better or worse that D&D. Oh, wait – that’s not this meeting, sorry.’ And then gone on.”

“Ha!” says my friend. “Yeah, that would have been great.” It was at this point that I told him a story of my own.

Story #2.

When I was 10 or so, I bought myself a Christmas present – a Revell model plane. I wrapped it, put a tag on it that said ‘To: Anthony, From: Santa’, and hid it, figuring that I could stick it under the tree and my parents would figure it came from one of the many family friends that always came by. Yes, in case you were wondering, this was a stupid idea and would never have worked. What do you want? I was ten.

Problems arose when one of my younger brothers, aged 3 and 5 at the time, found the present. I think it was the 5-year-old; he could read enough to recognize my name, but managed to pull the ribbon and tag off the present and brought it to me, fingers covering my name, to ask me what the name was on the From: part. Problem #1: he still believed in Santa. Problem #2: my scheme was blown to hell.

Now, he was thinking he’d found a secret gift, and didn’t want my parents to find out he’d located it, and just couldn’t read the tag. Naturally I didn’t think of that. I freaked out, yelled at him, after which my parents got involved and my scheme actually was blown to hell. I told my parents I’d planned to give the model to a friend, and that’s what I ended up doing. I’m sure they didn’t believe me, and just let me go on because I wasn’t getting what I wanted.

The point.

If I hadn’t freaked out, I probably would have thought to say, “Scott Cross” or something similar to my brother, and he would have put the thing back. I still would have gotten in trouble when I opened the present, but at least the original situation would not have been a mass of drama. Same goes for my friend with the game character sheet; had he kept his cool, he could have laughed it off, and probably given the other people in the meeting a good laugh too.

Of course, keeping your cool isn’t always that easy. I’ve long been known for a self-deprecating humor that, if I’m honest, stems from a childhood defense mechanism against recurring and persistent bullying. Two decades of martial arts helps, too; every style I’ve practiced tries to teach its students not to tense up when faced with a fight. Aikido defines it best, in two of the four ‘Principles to Unite Mind and Body': Controlled Relaxation, and Settle Down. Deceptively simple ideas, difficult to put into practice.

Our fight or flight instincts kick in very quickly, and it’s the talented individual who can shut those instinctive reactions down and keep a clear head. Nevertheless, it’s not impossible; many of the people we meet and admire for their quick wit and ability to stay calm in tense or embarrassing situations are doing just that.

So here’s my challenge to you. Think about situations where you were embarrassed or reacted dramatically. How could you have handled it if you kept your cool, kept your sense of humor? Even more important; what are you going to do the next time you’re faced with that kind of situation?