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The Aftermath of a Faux Pas

Little or big, handling a mistake with grace calls for equal parts apology, sincerity and common sense

Fingers in a peace sign

With everyone from radio host Don Imus to Grey’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington to Seinfeld’s Michael Richards spending their days of late back-pedaling out of a flurry of racist and homophobic comments, it brings into focus how quickly ignorant actions lead seemingly normal, thoughtful individuals into concessive acts of damage control.

Celebrities and power players are generally equipped have a team of highly paid and experienced PR professionals to control and spin their social errors – a luxury most of us do not have. And while the average person’s damage control has less to do the offending large groups of people and more to do with accidentally sticking foot in your mouth, the challenge remains how to gracefully navigate a faux pas.

Anna Post, an etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute and author of “Emily Post’s Wedding Parties” (Harper Collins, 2007), says that whether it’s as innocent as forgetting an anniversary or as complex as getting caught in a lie, recovery isn’t about how to weather the storm – it’s how you can correct an egregious error.

You forgot your spouse’s birthday

Post says the general rule here is start with a genuine apology. “Acknowledge the situation and don’t pawn off the responsibility. Say something along the lines of ‘this is entirely my fault. There is no excuse. I am so sorry.’”

To cushion this particular faux pas, Post advises to follow up with a card, cake or gift. “Something edible can go a long way when you’ve forgotten someone’s birthday.”

You made a joke that crossed the proverbial line

Post says to take these situations very seriously. “Do not make an excuse. Say to the person (or people) you offended, in a direct way and humble way, ‘I am so sorry.’”

After you’ve apologized, Post says to put the onus on yourself to fix the problem by asking, ‘Is there anything else I can do to help ameliorate this situation?’” Offer to take any course of action to better the situation in hopes of restoring the offended individual(s) sense of self and well-being.

You break a friend’s prized possession

Post says the first thing not to do in this situation is to sweep the pieces under the sofa. “Instead, apologize as soon as it happens, and then try to replace it.”

However, if it’s a priceless teapot, you won’t be able to replace it. In that case, Post advises that you ask, “I can’t replace your $4,000 antique tea pot, but is there anything else I can do?”

However, if your mishap doesn’t cost in the four-figure range (i.e. spilling wine on someone’s carpet), Post says you definitely should offer to foot the bill.

You repeatedly call someone by the wrong name or, worse, forget his/her name

Post says this is one of the most common faux pas, but can be easily glossed over if you say, “I am so sorry. I have a terrible memory; please remind me of your name.” The idea is to just be direct and quick, and then move on.

The slightly more embarrassing version of this social tic is calling someone by the wrong name.

Post advises those with this chronic problem to say, “I can’t believe I have been calling you ‘Meg’ and your name is Sarah. You have been so gracious with me this whole time. I just must have gotten you in my head as a ‘Meg.’’’

Hannah Seligson is a writer based in New York and the author of “New Girl on the Job: Advice from the Trenches” (Citadel Press, 2007).

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