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Ooops! I put my foot in it!

Do you ever regret not having kept your mouth shout ? Have you ever wished to be instantly abducted by aliens and disappear forever from the face of the earth after having made a dreadful blunder ?

Most people tend to believe that once they’ve put their foot in it, there’s no turning back.

Well, not always, some people get away with it pretty consistently. Look at Donald Trump. Despite his numerous blunders, faux pas and downright insults that should have made him toast, he still became the 45th president of the United States !

But OK, you’re not Donald Trump. So, unless you are immensely rich and powerful, harbor no doubt, or answer a visceral need for change, it might be wise to attempt your best to repair the damage as soon as you realize what you’ve done… What should you do?

Here is already what NOT to do:

1. Pretend it didn’t happen. Unless you are certain the other person did not hear you, it is adding insult to injury. Not a great idea if you want to keep a good relationship.

2. Say: “this is not what I meant”. This time, you are taking her for an idiot…even if it was not what you meant (alright, I’ll believe you), you’ve said it anyway, and you better find something else to make the pill easier to swallow.

3. Apologize excessively: yes you must apologize, but don’t lay it on too thick as it amounts to rubbing salt in the wound. Not good.

Here are three classics and how to recover from them, at best elegantly, at worst without irreparable damage.

You have just called your boy/girl/friend the name of your ex. You are mortified! Don’t threat, and reassure your loved one: there is a rational explanation that has nothing to do with the quality of your relationship (well, unless…?). According to brain research, substituting a word for another is linked to linguistic processes rather than psychological processes, which means that habit (you have lived six years with your ex.) or the fact that the names sound somewhat similar, manifest verbally while mentally you are unambiguously thinking about the right person. This explains why my dear friend Shelle’s mum regularly used to call me « Quelinda » - the name of the dog (Quelinda / Chilina), and why I regularly call my daughter Chanelle the name of my stepmother “Fanette” (Fanette has been in my life since I was 8 years old, so both habit and similar sounding names are at work here).

« Ah, congratulations! When is it due? » You have just warmly congratulated a woman you haven’t seen for a little while, thinking she was pregnant. But she tells you she isn’t… This particular blunder belongs to the serious ones, very difficult to repair. The golden rule here is: NEVER congratulate an “expectant” woman unless she has told you herself she was expecting. For one, it isn’t your business, but also she could be suffering from some medical problem, or simply have put on quite a bit of weight, or again she might not want to talk about it. However, this being said, what do you do if you have made the blunder?

First of all, know that you will not be able to recover 100%, unless by miracle you are dealing with an infinitely wise woman, infinitely benevolent, who has totally transcended her ego. Don’t count on it. The only thing to do once she has told you she wasn’t pregnant is to apologize simply and sincerely “Oh, I’m sorry, please forgive me” without making a song and dance about it (frankly, what more could you say? That you didn’t have your glasses and couldn’t see properly? Come on!). The offended will probably answer “It’s OK, don’t worry…” You can now say a genuine “Thank you” with a repentant smile (you are thanking her for having forgiven you), and move on swiftly (for example, you can ask her a question that takes you both elegantly on more neutral ground) : « Can I offer you something to drink? »…

You have just insulted someone inadvertently. For example, you have just declared in front of your new boss that people who like hunting are blood thirsty morons who enjoy killing, and it turns out your boss is a seasoned hunter… “I’m really sorry. It was excessive and thoughtless of me…”. Then ask a question that shows interest and respect for your interlocutor “In fact, I would be interested to find out from your point of view what hunting is about.”

But what can you do when you really go too far, such as making sexist or racist comments? You never do of course. But just in case, should it ever happen, use the following formula:

1. Recognize and own your blunder

2. AND good news (i.e. something positive that repairs the damage)

3. AND good news...

4. AND good news...

Babula Gaur, Indian Minister of Madhya Pradesh, made an enormous blunder when he spoke about rape: « Rape is a social crime that depends on men and women. Sometimes it is wrong, sometimes it is right.” (Yes I know, equality still has a long way to go). Here is how he could have recovered from it using the above formula:

« What I said was totally unacceptable AND there is no doubt whatsoever that rape is never right AND I remind everyone never to think otherwise AND I solemnly commit to support unconditionally all the victims of rape!”(Obviously, the tone of voice, facial expression and body language must be totally congruent with the message.)

So next time you make a dreadful blunder, before throwing yourself out of the window, remind yourself that you are human and fallible: others forgive you more easily if you humbly admit that you are not perfect. And apply the formula. But good luck anyway!

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