Face-saving strategies for common―and embarassing―social gaffes.

By Sarah Humphreys
Updated June 02, 2005
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Credit: Frank Heckers

Saying What You Think (Without Thinking First)

Real-life example: "While talking to my friend's girlfriend during a New Year's Eve party, I launched into a long tirade about my distaste for the Republican Party," says a woman from Washington, D.C. "It turns out her father was a big fund-raiser for George W. Bush."

How to remove your foot: Whether you've just denounced single-sex education to a Smith College alumna or SUVs to a Chevy Suburban driver, the best way out is to laugh and chide yourself. Caroline Tiger, the author of How to Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners for the Socially Challenged ($13, amazon.com), suggests softening the blow with a line like "Oh, I should have listened to my mother when she told me not to talk about controversial subjects at parties!"

Regardless of the situation or subject, resist the temptation to automatically apologize. "It's obviously something you feel strongly about, and backtracking would sound insincere," says Tiger. Listen politely if the person counters with her philosophy, then segue to a neutral subject.

In the future: You don't need to censor yourself, but expect―and respect―dissenters. "Sure, going off about something can leave you in an awkward situation," says Nick Morgan, the founder of Public Words, a communications coaching company based in Arlington, Massachusetts. "But it's disagreement and differences that make life interesting." Of course, very controversial or potentially hurtful views should be kept to yourself, unless you're among close (and forgiving) friends.

Gossiping With the Wrong Crowd

Real-life example: "At a dinner party, I ranted on and on about a local company's president who'd had an affair with his secretary," says a woman from Rhode Island. "Then I looked around, and no one was reacting. So I said to the man next to me, 'Now go ahead and tell me the secretary is your sister.' He said, 'No, it's my mother.'"

How to remove your foot: Don't try to explain yourself―you might only make things worse. Just apologize earnestly and say, "Please forgive me." If you're griping about someone who, as it happens, overhears you, you need to own up. "Blame it on yourself," says author Caroline Tiger. "Say, 'I'm sorry. I'm having a really bad day. I don't know what got into me.'" Peggy Post, the author of Emily Post's Etiquette ($38, amazon.com) says, "One of the greatest acts of kindness is to be a gracious forgiver. Hopefully the person will let you off the hook"―or at least not gripe about you.

In the future: "The standard advice would be to not gossip, but you're going to anyway―it's human nature," says communications coach Nick Morgan. "So just make damn sure that you know the person you're gossiping with." And always be aware of who is within earshot.

Mistaking Plumpness for Pregnancy

Real-life example: "This happened to a friend of mine," says author Peggy Post. "She ran into a business associate she hadn't seen in a while at a meeting and said, 'It's so nice to see you! When are you due?' To which the woman replied, 'I had my baby months ago.' My friend was so embarrassed, and it was extremely awkward between them from then on."

How to remove your foot: "In this instance, groveling is in order," says author Caroline Tiger. "Apologize profusely, say how stupid you feel, then move on. Don't dwell on it or make up excuses." If the person is a friend or a colleague whom you see often, Post suggests writing a note to further smooth things over. "That being said, it's awkward to write a note, too," she says. "Just keep it simple: 'I can't believe I did that. Please accept my apologies.'"

In the future: If you aren't 100 percent sure, don't say anything. Chances are, a woman who's expecting will bring up the topic herself.

Flubbing a Figure of Speech

Real-life example: "I was talking with a woman who had recently had an abortion, and I used the phrase 'pregnant pause,'" says a Massachusetts woman. "It was completely out of context, but I felt terrible anyway."

How to remove your foot: In most cases, you can just continue your conversation. Although you may be horrified that you said "See what I mean?" to a blind person, for example, he most likely didn't pick up on it―and if he did, he probably knew you weren't being hurtful. "Don't tie yourself up in knots over the literal meanings of common expressions," says Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies ($22, amazon.com). "Oftentimes your behavior and comments affirm the person's dignity―you don't view them as different." But if you stumble upon a sensitive subject―say a friend's mom has died and you start cracking "yo mama" jokes (which, you should know, stopped being funny in the late 80s)―acknowledge the gaffe with an "I'm sorry, I clearly wasn't thinking," and then quickly move on.

In the future: Short of stripping all slang, figures of speech, and colloquialisms from your vocabulary, there isn't much you can do to avoid what may be the most common foot-in-mouth situations. So relax: They happen to everyone.

Misfiring a Scathing E-Mail

Real-life example: "I was upset with my boss one day and rattled off an e-mail to my coworker about how our boss should not bring stress from his home life into the workplace," says a woman from New York. "But because I was so consumed by the situation, I typed my boss's name into the 'To' line instead."

How to remove your foot: Whether your e-mail maligned a boss or a friend, own up to it immediately. Don't hastily type another note to apologize, since it could be interpreted as insincere, and become further fodder in forwarded e-mails about you. Rather, call the person and say, "I cannot believe I just did that. I am a complete idiot. I'm so sorry."

If you were expressing genuine frustration in your e-mail, as opposed to general cattiness, Tiger recommends gently addressing it: "In some situations, this faux pas could offer a starting point for discussion."

In the future: "The speed, anonymity, and brusqueness of online writing provide the perfect breeding ground for major mishaps," says Patricia T. O'Conner, coauthor of You Send Me: Getting It Right When You Write Online ($18, amazon.com). "The best way to deal with this kind of thing is not to let it happen in the first place. Stop and think before you click Send, especially when you're sending radioactive material."

Spoiling a Surprise Party

Real-life example: "When I was a teenager, I was invited to a surprise Sweet 16," says a New York woman. "A few days before the party, I excitedly asked the surprise honoree, 'Are you going to your party on Saturday?' Oops!"

How to remove your foot: 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 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: The closer you are to the surprisee, the easier it is to slip. Try to limit contact with the guest of honor as the party approaches, and have a credible and airtight excuse prepared if she asks about your plans for that evening (out of town visiting your parents, dining with a friend she's never met).