Social situations are a minefield in which the slightest misstep can result in things blowing up in your face. I picture the situation as a narrow path – the “safe” area in terms of what I can say or do – with increasing danger of stepping on a mine – upsetting somebody – the farther I venture from the path.
Since I am risk-averse I do not often test the boundaries of what people find to be acceptable behavior – mapping out the danger area – and when I do, I tend to do so carefully and deliberately in the hope that any negative reaction will be small enough for me to handle.
I find it difficult because different people have wildly different standards of what they deem to be acceptable. Not only that, but the boundaries move depending on context. There is only a small patch of common ground on which the majority of people I encounter socially can agree.
My starting position with somebody I have not met before is to play it very safe – speak when spoken to, no slang or swearing, no physical contact. Over time I will observe how they act towards me and others, and slowly begin to introduce those behaviors that they demonstrate – the assumption here is that they are less likely to be offended by something that they do themselves.
This is not an infallible method. That’s people for you – they’re not always rational, logical or consistent. It can be a case of “do as I say, not as I do” – how confusing! But slowly, gingerly, I can explore the envelope and work out just how far I am able to take things with those I know reasonably well.