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It was the first week of my first job, and one of my co-workers was showing me around the building.
My boss was the nicest guy ever, my new co-worker told me, and the books he edited — literary fiction, music-related nonfiction — were amazing. I was nervous and a bit embarrassed by the strong implication that my job was better than my co-worker’s, and I went with the first boss-effacing statement that popped into my head: “Well, at least he doesn’t do cookbooks.”
A brief silence ushered in my co-worker’s chilly reply.
“Um, actually, my boss does cookbooks,” she said.
We hear a lot about high-concept faux pas, such as actress Jennifer Lawrence’s stumble at the Oscars, but the truth of the matter is that most of our social suffering arises from smaller setbacks. We inadvertently insult someone, spill a beverage on a date, forget a person’s name at a social function, pass gas during a lull in the conversation, or tell a joke that falls flat.
And then, we wonder, what on earth do I do now?
Experts advise apologizing where appropriate, maintaining your sense of humor, and moving on fairly quickly.
“Don’t take yourself so seriously that you derail the conversation, not with your flub, but actually with your response to your own mistake,” says Jessica Hagy, author of How to Be Interesting (In 10 Simple Steps) (Workman).
It may also be helpful to remember that your faux pas likely looms larger in your mind than in anyone else’s.
“There’s something called the ‘spotlight effect’ — people think that they’re in the spotlight — but everyone thinks they’re in the spotlight,” says Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.
“So in the eyes of other people, one’s actions aren’t being analyzed as carefully as one thinks,” he adds. “I find that to be a great relief. When I put my foot in my mouth or I trip on the street, people notice, but then they kind of move on.”
And now for specific solutions to five of life’s stickiest social scenarios:
● You’ve inadvertently insulted someone:
Essentially, you want to keep calm, acknowledge the mistake, and change the subject, says David Borgenicht, co-author of The Worst Case Scenario series of books and its newest, The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Dating & Sex. If you’ve loudly expressed your disdain for stamp collecting, which turns out to be your gracious host’s favorite hobby, you might say, “Well, that’s just my opinion. Tell me what you find so interesting about stamp collecting.” Or you could try humor: “I’m sorry. That was a stupid thing to say. My father was killed by a stamp collector. I obviously have a lot of issues.”
(I’m thinking I might have addressed my unfortunate cookbook comment in the same style, saying, “I’m sorry. This is my first week, and I’m really nervous,” before moving on with “How long have your worked here?” or “Do you like to cook?”)
● You’ve spilled a beverage on someone:
Apologize, offer to pay for any dry-cleaning bills, and help clean up where appropriate, Mr. Borgenicht says.
If you’re on a date and it’s going well, congratulations! You’re going to be forgiven. If you’re on a date and it isn’t going well, congratulations! You just provided yourself with a convenient excuse to cut the night short.
Whatever you do, don’t panic and jump around excitedly as you try to obtain cleaning materials. You want to minimize an embarrassing incident, not draw attention to it.
● You can’t remember a name at a party:
If you’re called upon to introduce two people and the name of one of those people escapes you, use the name you do know, advises Mr. Borgenicht. Tell the mystery person, “I really want you to meet Jenny.” Let them shake hands and wait for the mystery person to say his name, or for Jenny to ask for his name. If you’re alone at a party with someone whose name you don’t recall, you can wait it out and hope your memory improves, or you can look for someone to introduce you to the mystery person.
● You snort, burp, or pass gas:
We’re human and these things happen, says Ms. Hagy. There’s no real reason to comment, unless someone else does. It may help to remember that this isn’t fourth grade, when “he who denied it supplied it” passes for clever conversation.
“I think for the most part, the more polite the company is, the less this will come up as an actual issue,” Ms. Hagy says.
● Your joke falls flat:
This happens to everyone, including top comedians. Mr. Borgenicht recommends acknowledging the silence, maybe with a one-liner: “Thanks, everyone! I’ll be here all week!” and then moving on to another topic.
Whatever you do, he says, don’t try to repair the damage by telling another joke.