A few years back, a friend of mine experienced a classic foot-in-mouth moment. “Congratulations!” she said to a coworker, who dryly replied, “I’m not pregnant.” An embarrassment like that makes you want to crawl under a rock and never show your face again. Tempting, but it’s probably healthier to recover from that moment.
I’ve had my share of embarrassing moments (I swear, the above example was a friend!), and I’ve been on the flip side of the coin too. Sticking your foot in your mouth is never fun, but how you respond to it can make the situation considerably better or worse. In general, it helps to own up to it, avoid dwelling on it, and, depending on the situation, laugh it off. But here are some additional tips to keep in mind with specific moments of embarrassment.
Mistaking Someone for Being Pregnant
I should probably add a disclaimer here: never assume a woman is pregnant if you don’t know for sure. Even if she is pregnant, I figure it’s not really my business, anyway, until she decides to share that fact with me. She might be dealing with some medical issues; she might not be ready to announce it.
That being said, I asked my friend how she recovered after making this mistake. “I apologised, then avoided her as much as possible until she quit, years later,” she told me.
It’s certainly a natural reaction, but it might not be the best long-term solution. Immediately after it happens, it’s best to quickly apologise, and then put the misunderstanding on you. Manners expert Adam Lowe recommends a self-deprecating joke:
Use some humour or self deprecation to show what you said wasn’t mean spirited…tell her that you’re blind without your glasses and that you failed biology twenty times.
Another friend of mine was on the other end of this scenario; someone assumed she was pregnant. I asked her how she felt about it. “The woman kept apologising every time I saw her,” she said. “It was annoying and embarrassing.”
Grovelling seems natural too. And it’s important to offer a genuine apology. But you don’t want to say I’m so sorry to the point of annoying the person. This can be a little selfish, because it forces them to reassure you.
If you really feel bad about the situation, offer to make it up to them in some way. Everyday Life suggests:
If your embarrassing moment involved hurting someone’s feelings, make an extra-special effort to go out of your way and make it up to your co-worker, such as buying him lunch or covering for him on his break. This helps build up a good rapport so your blunder can be sooner forgotten.
It takes a little courage, but approaching the situation in this way probably makes it easier in the long run.
Calling Your Partner Your Ex’s Name
It’s the stuff of sitcoms, but this mistake happens all the time. I once called a new boyfriend the name of my last long-term boyfriend, and I immediately panicked. Instead of addressing the fact that it was purely habit, I said: “Well, that was weird.”
Of course, this was not comforting. It suggested I wasn’t sure why it could happen, and that maybe there was some deeper, Freudian reason behind it. There wasn’t, but I was scared, and I’m terrible on my feet, so I blurted it out.
I’ve been on the other side of this one too. A new boyfriend called me a different name, then said, “Whoa. That was, like, two girlfriends ago.” Also not the best response. There are a few additional responses that don’t work well immediately after this mistake:
- I can’t believe I did that. I hate my ex so much: Yeah, we get it. You’re not in love with your ex anymore. But this suggests there are still some feelings there.
- I promise I’ll never do that again: Makes it worse if you do it again.
- Let’s just pretend that didn’t happen: Even if it works short-term, your partner will wonder about it at some point.
There are a number of perfectly understandable reasons why you might call your current partner your ex’s name. When you’re doing damage control, focus on those. Maybe the names sound similar. Maybe it’s just habit. Research published in Psychological Science points out that a slip of the tongue often happens simply because our brains think faster than our mouths:
…aside from environmental intrusions, word-substitution errors reflect problems stemming from linguistic processes rather than extralinguistic ones like visual attention…These cases constitute objective data to support the subjective sense that speakers know what they wish to say at a conceptual or message level even when the words that they say are wrong.
It’s why my mum often mixed up my name with my brother’s (and our dog’s and cat’s, unfortunately). The bottom line: instead of trying to cover up your mistake, it helps to make sure your partner understands why it happened. After offering a rational explanation, here’s what psychologist Michael Wiederman suggests:
…it may be worth focusing on soothing the underlying source of his anger or frustration when you slip up: uncertainty. That is, when it happens, simply reassure him that there’s no one you’d rather be with than him, and then let it go and focus on something else. Also, as your relationship matures, the occasional slip-up will mean less, as there will be a more solid history that provides reassurance that the mistake has no emotional meaning.
If it keeps happening, Wiederman suggests a workaround: come up with a nickname for your current partner that sounds nothing like your ex’s name.
And if there is some deeper, Freudian stuff going on there, and you think you might still be in love with your ex, well, that may be a different post altogether.
Ruining a Surprise
To this day, I get nervous at the mere suggestion of a surprise party. It all goes back to high school, when I asked a friend what time we were meeting up for her party, and she said, “what party?”
If you find yourself in a similar situation, Etiquette Survival tells you how to deal:
You can’t stuff the cat back into the bag, but you should handle it with care once it’s out. “If you collaborate with the person for whom the party is being thrown, you won’t ruin it for the host, too,” says author Peggy Post. If the host finds out the surprise is blown, however, Post recommends admitting to the mistake and doing your best to make up for it, either by helping to get ready for the party or by sending the host flowers.
In the future, they add, you might want to limit contact with the guest of honour as the date approaches to avoid any spoilers.
Sending the Wrong Email
Gmail’s undo feature is a godsend, but mistakes still happen. At work, it’s a bad idea to talk smack in general. But let’s say it happens, and you send an email to a coworker (or worse, your boss) that includes a complaint about them. Business Insider says it’s best to address the complaint, rather than sweep it under the rug:
if it does offend the recipient, it’s best to confront the situation immediately and as the sender, you should be the one making the first move. This way, you are not waiting for the other party to come to you, but you are bringing it up first because it’s your wrongdoing.
Or maybe it’s not an offensive email. Maybe it’s just personal. Either way, own up to it and follow up with an apology email. Make it simple and to-the-point. You don’t want to draw more attention to the situation with a long, drawn-out explanation.
Try this template from PR Pro Peter Shankman:
My apologies – I just sent you an email that obviously wasn’t for you. My sincere apologies.
And we’ve got some additional tips on how to avoid this in the first place.
Passing Gas in Front of Someone
It’s less a slip of the tongue and more a slip of other bodily functions, but the point is that passing gas can be mortifying.
It’s not limited to tooting or belching either. Maybe your stomach won’t stop growling during a meeting. Whatever the scenario, recovering from a bodily function mishap can be tricky. Do you own up to it, or do you avoid drawing attention to it altogether? Workplace Diva makes this suggestion:
The more obvious the bodily malfunction, the more you should just own it. If you fart in a staff meeting and everyone heard it, point the finger at yourself (or have someone pull it) and have a sense of humour about the whole thing.
If you’re not quick on your feet, steal this line from an old story Abraham Lincoln reportedly told about a man who passed gas at a dinner party. Let’s see if I can’t cut up this turkey without farting.
Humour works well, but depending on where you are or what your workplace environment is like, it might not be appropriate. If it’s really obvious, you might have to fall back on a simple “excuse me”.
Of course, every bodily function story is different, and your mileage may vary. I once sat down quickly at my desk while wearing a skirt. My legs rubbed against each other, causing an unfortunate sound. I was horrified. I wasn’t quite sure if everyone heard, but one coworker definitely did, because she turned to look straight at me. In that moment, I almost stopped what I was doing to explain to everyone in the room what actually happened. But I knew my explanation wasn’t much better, so I completely ignored it and kept on working. No one ever mentioned it, and even when we became friendly lunch buddies, my coworker never brought it up. It was one of the best snap decisions I’ve ever made.
You usually know when ignoring a situation only makes it more awkward, so use your best judgment and diffuse only if necessary.
It takes a little effort, but it’s typically better to recover from an embarrassment than simply pretend it didn’t happen. We all do stupid things every now and then, so people are usually more understanding than you think. Addressing the flub makes it easier to face coworkers, friends or loved ones in the future. It will also help you move on from that moment and forget it ever happened in the first place.