10 Ways to Fix Embarrassing Work Gaffes

We’ve all said something we wished we could take back. Here’s what you need to do next time it happens to you.
June 19, 2013

Better a slip of the foot, Benjamin Franklin said, than a slip of the tongue. Slips of the tongue are almost unavoidable. Research shows that we make on average one or two errors for every thousand words we speak. We lightly refer to some of these errors as Freudian slips—inadvertent mistakes, whether in speaking or writing, that supposedly reveal an unconscious thought.

Slips of the tongue come in many varieties. Here are two common ones: Malapropism is when we use an incorrect word instead of one that is similar in pronunciation, such as "He's a wolf in cheap clothing." Eggcorn is a word or a phrase that results from mishearing or misinterpreting another word or phrase, such as "mating name" instead of "maiden name." Whatever label we give them, these unintentional blunders can attract negative attention. History is replete with examples of embarrassing verbal gaffes from politicians, media professionals, celebrities and business executives. 

Here's how you can manage these personal bloopers in business settings.

Don't mispronounce people's names.

Most people with foreign names are accustomed to having their names mispronounced. Still, it is noticed and it doesn't do anything to make that person feel special. As Dale Carnegie said, "If you remember my name, you pay me a subtle compliment; you indicate that I have made an impression on you. Remember my name and you add to my feeling of importance.” It pays to honor the person by going out of your way to ensure you have the name right. A simple question such as, "Am I pronouncing your name right?" is always well received.

The site How to Pronounce Names from Around the World gives an audio pronunciation for thousands of first names from Armenians to Zimbabweans. You can even request a name pronunciation if you want to prepare for a meeting with an important foreign client.

Stop cursing so much.

Today, it's not unusual for someone to drop the F-bomb in the workplace. In some teams, the liberal use of profanity is part of the down-to-earth, relaxed attitude, meant to signal that we are a close-knit group and we don't have to watch we are saying. It's the verbal equivalent of casual Fridays. But not everyone reacts the same way, of course. Harvard College professor Steven Pinker, who studied the cognitive neuroscience of swearing, says that taboo words activate brain areas associated with negative emotions.

Whether taboo words are used to let off steam or just adopt a cool pose, there is always a danger that someone will be offended. Profanity can be like an unguided missile, not knowing where it will land and what collateral damage it will cause. A habit of using swear words in a casual setting can lead to a slip of the tongue in the wrong setting. The best way to avoid such slips of the tongue is to mind one's tongue as a personal policy while at work.

Keep important emails in draft form.

The latest IRS scandal—where a misfired email was sent to a much larger group than intended—is a fresh example of the importance of briefly quarantining important emails in your draft box. This gives you an opportunity to reread the email with fresh eyes. Most people have encountered a situation where they wrote something in an email about a person and, because they were thinking of that person, placed their name in the "To" line, with embarrassing consequences. By placing a sensitive email in the draft box before sending it, you will never commit this blooper. Double check to see if there is anything that is better left unsaid or rephrased, and that you have added the required attachments.

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This is infinitely better than trying to recall a message after it has been sent, which almost never works.  Another policy for any email is to write it first, check it and add the recipient's name at the very end when you are ready to send, rather than at the beginning when you first set out to write it. If you're using Gmail, enable the "Undo" feature, which allows you to undo an email within a few seconds after you have sent it.

Manage your social media comments carefully.

Nowhere are unfortunate slips more dangerous than on social media sites where they leave a permanent footprint. Many of us do our most careful proofreading of our social media comments after we've hit the "send" button. In our Zeitgeist of electronic missives, we have daily opportunities to slip up. It's easy to commit a digital blunder when texting or tweeting, which is almost always done in a hurry. When you post an update on Facebook, use the "Only Me" feature. Posting it initially in that mode gives you a chance to quickly review how your posting looks before changing it to "Public" or "Friends." LinkedIn gives you a few minutes to edit your entry after you have shared it. Take a moment to reread what you've just typed to make sure it is exactly as you want it to be.

It also pays to know the difference between snarky and clever: It's bewildering to see people add comments that reflect poorly on them on sites such as LinkedIn, where the sole purpose is to build a network for success, and not to blow up bridges with potential, valuable connections.

Recover from a disfluency.

A speech disfluency includes a number of involuntary things we do when we speak, such as cutting off sentences in midstream, hesitating, adding fillers (e.g., "uh" and "um") or restarting the same phrase several times. In short, disfluency is a false start when we speak. It makes us lose the flow of the thought; what the listener experiences is disjointed and hard to understand. This can sometimes happen during a presentation, if the presenter is anxious, tired, distracted or hasn't prepared well enough. It can happen to anyone on occasion—even the most seasoned presenters. The best way to recover from this is to simply stop and say: "Let me rephrase this," or "What I meant to say is ..."  

Temper zeal with discretion.

Say you've done business with someone virtually for a while but have never met him or her personally. One day, you meet in person and you notice that the person on the website photo and the one you meet are not identical twins. The person in front of you is no longer as young or perhaps as slim. Without forethought, you find yourself making an innocent remark such as, "You look very different from your photo" or "I had imagined you taller." You may notice from the person's expression that your comment made him or her uncomfortable. If this happens, it's best not to draw attention to the remark by trying to explain what you meant. Just move on and genuinely do your best to strengthen the trust in the relationship.

Avoid automated greetings.

This idea comes from Joe Pulizzi, marketing consultant and owner of Junta42, who configured TweetDeck to automatically greet his new Twitter followers. This generated a negative response; the lack of personal touch made followers view this missive as a form of spam. It's a type of unintentional faux pas that's easily avoided. If you want to acknowledge people for following you, it's best to take the time to send a quick, personal thank-you note.

Take swift action after a major verbal blunder.

Even with our best intentions, it's easy to slip on occasion and commit a major verbal blunder. It's best to rectify the situation with an immediate, private, face-to-face apology. If face-to-face is not feasible, pick up the phone. If the verbal transgression was witnessed by others, the apology must be public. By making it public, we help the offended party save face. Above all, the apology must be genuine, and expressed with care. Writer G. K. Chesterton put it best: "A stiff apology is a second insult ... The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt."

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The apology should be the end of the story. However, there are times when third parties—who are neither the instigator nor the one at the receiving end—inflame the situation and keep the fires burning after the two main protagonists have moved on. This does nothing but pollute the environment for everyone. The best course of action, in this case, is to let the issue die down.

Lighten up.

Most minor gaffes fall between the cracks and no one notices them, or if they do, they don't dwell on them. The majority of people are understanding, as they have been on the same slippery path at one time or other. Unless the gaffe is egregious, do nothing. Just let it slip and be extra careful in the future. If you must refer to it, use a dash of humor by poking some fun at yourself: "I am sorry, my mouth has a mind of its own today," or "I seem to suffer from a bout of foot in mouth disease." A little bonhomie in these situations signals that there was no malice in your approach.

Don't underestimate the value of grace.

Grace is a word that we don't think about too often. It's a tactful handling of people; it's being aware of the impact that our words and behavior have on others; it's executive poise. Ultimately, it's the emotional maturity that helps us bite our tongue and exercise restraint. Grace can sometimes mean the difference between winning a client or losing one.

Read more articles on leadership.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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