You think you're being a fabulous conversationalist, only to discover later that your blind date/job interviewer/fellow partygoer/ child's new friend's mom found you aggressive.
"One person's assertiveness can be another one's aggressiveness," says Susan Fee, a licensed professional counselor and the author of Positive First Impressions: 83 Ways to Establish Confidence, Competence, and Trust ($5, susanfee.com). "But the true definition of aggressive communication is violating the rights of others." Monopolizing conversations, not letting others speak, interrupting―if you're guilty of these violations, you have a few good options.
Do better next time. "We all make these mistakes," says Amy Dickinson, who writes the syndicated advice column Ask Amy. "And because we realize that, we tend to give people a couple of passes before giving up on them." So when next you meet that mom who thought you were pushy, hang back, let her direct the flow of conversation, and show that you are interested in what she has to say. Prove that your misstep was a fluke.
Cast your behavior in a positive light. With a bad job interview, you may never get a second chance unless you act. Send a friendly follow-up note, saying something like "I hope I didn't come across as too aggressive. I'm just very excited about this opportunity," advises Camille Lavington, the author of You've Only Got Three Seconds: How to Make the Right Impression in Your Business and Social Life ($15, amazon.com). But keep it brief and easy.
Stop pretending you're something you're not. That's usually at the bottom of this kind of behavior, says Tom Jaffee, who, as CEO of a nationwide dating service, has seen plenty of it. Consider the case of Clark Kent: No matter how hard he tries to act like a regular Joe, there's something strange and off-putting about him―because he's hiding something! "Your best hope is to be honest with the person," says Jaffee. "Admit you were just trying to make a good impression." And next time be yourself, and be proud of who you are.
Let it go. Cut your losses, but let the experience be a wake-up call, a reminder to temper your behavior in the future.
2 of 5Monica Buck
Told a Joke That Flopped
It's hard enough to recover from a bad joke, but what if the joke offended someone? Take your crack about that creepy guy, which might have been funnier if you hadn’t unwittingly made it to his wife.
Bite the bullet and apologize. "We all wish we had a van following us around with men in white hazmat suits to clean up after us," says Dickinson. "Unfortunately, we have to do it ourselves. Rather than running screaming into the night, you have to just smack your head and say, 'I'm a doofus, and I'm sorry.'" An asset many women have, says Lavington, is "being able to read people visually. So when you realize you've goofed, stop and make an apology as quickly as possible."
Don't overdo it. "Making sure people know that you know they didn't like what happened helps them heal," says Fee, "but more apology is not better. It draws attention to your mistake and places an added burden on the offended party: Not only did you insult her but now she has to make you feel better about it." Once you've said you're sorry, "move on, change the subject," says Dickinson. "It's a huge mistake to dwell."
If you have a hard time apologizing face-to-face, do it by e-mail. "It eases the pain and keeps you from bleeding all over everybody," says Lavington. If you don't think fast on your feet, it also gives you time to come up with something more gracious to say than whatever you might have blurted out.
3 of 5Monica Buck
Drank Too Much
At a party at your husband's new office, you started the evening nervous and eager to impress but ended it stumbling and slurring.
Follow an insider's lead. "Your husband knows best about his office's politics and personalities and what the impact of your actions is likely to be," says Fee. So consult him about what steps to take. The same tack can help in similar situations―say, if you overindulged at a block party in your new neighborhood. "First apologize to the host, then ask his advice on how to proceed with the neighbors," Fee says.
If you offended someone, e-mail an apology. "E-mail's great for this," says Dickinson. "It's immediate, not too formal. Say, 'I understand I upset you, and I can't tell you how sorry I am. Obviously I wasn’t at my best.' Then add something positive: 'Your good opinion means a lot to me.'" Humor can't hurt, she adds: "Making light of your foibles indicates that the behavior was an anomaly." Perhaps sign off with a new motto: "Less vodka, more tonic." If the party was at someone's home, e-mail the hostess an apology, then consider sending a small bouquet and a note thanking her for inviting you. "But don't go for the huge apology bouquet," says Dickinson. "It’s embarrassing."
Follow up a bad interaction with a series of good ones. If you just embarrassed yourself, "lie low for a while," says Fee, "and next time, be on your best behavior." Try to have conversations with everyone to show yourself in a better light. "And don't constantly remind everyone of the incident by bringing it up. Positive interactions over time will outweigh that first impression."
4 of 5Monica Buck
You show up at the door in your pink bunny outfit and find that―oh, gosh, didn't you hear?―it's not a costume party after all. Or you wear a sundress to a garden party that turns out to be a black-tie affair. There's just one thing to do:
Go with it. First, be sure you're even making a bad impression. Ann Demarais, a coauthor of First Impressions: What You Don't Know About How Others See You ($16, amazon.com), points out something called the spotlight illusion, in which a person's natural egocentrism leads him to think others are paying attention to him when they're not. In fact, most guests are probably more concerned with their own appearance than with yours. And even if you do stick out, "focusing on it will only make you more self-absorbed and less able to connect with others," says Demarais. Rather than trying to hide, act confident and show that you see the humor in the situation. "Acting as if everything's OK takes a certain amount of courage, and people respect that," says Dickinson. The people who make the best impressions are those who are comfortable in their own skin―even when it happens to be dressed, however inappropriately, in a bunny suit.
5 of 5Peter LaMastro
Shyness Was Mistaken for Rudeness
At a party, you overhear a woman you’ve just met talking to someone about how cold you seem―when you’re really only shy.
Shyness is a peculiar burden. It can make social situations uncomfortable, even painful. To make things worse, because you're so worried about what others think of you, you can come off as aloof. If you hope to change this woman's bad impression (and prevent others in the future), there are a few things you can do, right away or the next time you see her.
See yourself as others do. The first step is “knowing that the neutrality you think you’re projecting is coming across as negative,” says Demarais. Then, although you can't expect to suddenly "change from an introvert to an extrovert," she says, you can begin to make small adjustments.
Tune up your body language. With little changes, you can send entirely different messages: Try to smile instead of frowning, Demarais suggests, or hold a glass of wine rather than keeping your arms crossed.
Ask questions. Obvious subjects include family, job, and hometown, but the point is to take the focus off you and get people talking about what's important to them. Ask open-ended questions instead of yes-or-no ones: not "Do you like your job?" but "Tell me about your job"; not "Who is your wife?" but "How did you meet your wife?" To feel more in control, Fee says, try to have three things prepared that you can talk about. Maybe it will always be a challenge for you to talk in social situations, but everyone loves to be listened to―and Lavington says, "you can become the world's best listener."