How Can I Politely Correct People?
Q. Is it impolite to correct friends or relatives when they’re wrong?
A. If you’re going to point out someone’s errors—whether he or she is a childhood confidant, your second cousin, or (ahem) a prospective spouse who might one day be in a position to write a column referring to the incident—you should proceed with caution. That’s because even when you’re acting with the best of intentions, no one enjoys being corrected.
This is something that a certain man should have considered when he took me out on our first date. It was 1986. We were just getting acquainted over dinner. I was telling him about my aunt who lives in Massachusetts, when he interrupted.
“It’s Massachu-setts,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“You’re supposed to pronounce it Massachu-setts,” he said.
I stared at him blankly.
“You said Massachu-sess,” he helpfully explained.
Reader, I married him anyway. But I never forgot being corrected—and your pal or loved one might not, either. So before you fact-check someone, consider the stakes. How important is it that this error be addressed?
In general, when the mistake is of little consequence and speaking up will cause embarrassment, I suggest you keep quiet. So your girlfriend Jessica will continue to think expresso is the name of a popular Italian beverage. That’s OK. It’s better than mortifying her at a dinner party.
However, if the error could cause a real problem, gently offer a fix. Say someone gives incorrect driving directions in your presence. Don’t stay silent; Google the route on your cell phone, cheerfully explaining, “Hey, I’ve heard about a great shortcut you could try.”
In other situations, you’ll need to be more direct. For example, if you believe that a grammatical foible will prevent your friend, Mrs. Malaprop, from landing a new job or an important client, offer your assistance. Say something like “I’ve always heard the word pronounced reh-zuh-may.” Use a mild, nonconfrontational tone that almost makes it sound as if you’re questioning the quirks of the English language rather than your friend’s intelligence.
Likewise, speak up if it would be irresponsible to withhold a correction. Case in point: If one friend offers bogus health advice to another, chime in. Say firmly, “My understanding is that you should never use a prescription off-label without checking with your physician first. Have you already done that?”
Finally, if you have a friend who makes the same error all the time and it drives you insane, go ahead and say something. But be subtle, and phrase the correction as a question: “Isn’t Mary 49, not 50?” That allows your chum to say, “Oh, you know, you’re right,” as if she had come to that conclusion on her own.