It’s said that to err is human and to forgive is divine. However, sometimes it can feel impossible to forgive our all-too-human selves for things that go wrong.
Like the time you invited a pal to a birthday lunch and somehow left the house without your wallet. Or the time you griped about a coworker’s mopey expression and general listlessness – and then learned that her mother had died.
Who can forget the big party you had last month, when halfway through the evening you realized you had forgotten to invite a close friend? Inviting them right then would mean admitting you’d forgotten them, so you did nothing; unfortunately, some guests were livestreaming the event, and your friend was quite hurt.
Some of these boneheaded stunts happen when no one is watching, so you don’t have to backpedal or try to explain yourself. Others are embarrassing only in the moment; no matter how mortified you feel, it’s likely that everyone will forget about it.
However, some embarrassing mistakes could also have serious personal or professional repercussions. But let’s start with the minor mishaps. Here are several mistakes everyone makes.
1. Regifting gone wrong
In 2005, I was a broke college student battling through a protracted midlife divorce, but I still wanted to give holiday presents. One of my several part-time jobs was writing for the college newspaper, whose editor gave me a book about the history of cinema.
Perfect gift for my movie-mad best friend! Unfortunately, I failed to check the inside front page, where the editor had written a nice note to me. Ack.
Before you regift something, be absolutely sure that there aren’t inscriptions, gift tags, or anything else that identifies it as having come to you first. Best example I’ve ever heard: A woman who gave a cookbook as a wedding gift, with a $100 bill tucked inside — and received it back at Christmastime, with the $100 still there. Many happy returns, indeed!
2. Wardrobe malfunctions
After a midday gym break, you come back to work with your shirt on inside out. Or you spend at least half of a party with your fly open. Or you return from the ladies room with your skirt rucked up in the back.
Maybe a kind person will let you know. Or maybe your pals think it’s hilarious that you’re walking around unzipped, and spread the word not to tell you until the end of the evening.
When you’re getting dressed, or re-dressed, take a few extra seconds to make certain that you’re completely presentable both front and back. Don’t forget to check for spinach in your teeth, either.
3. Leaving things on the car
You’re carrying a bag/briefcase, a smartphone and a cup of coffee back to your vehicle. So you set the coffee atop the car in order to unlock it. Then you drive away, forgetting the beverage until it bounces off the windshield — or until you think, “Wait, didn’t I just get some coffee?”
One solution: Put the coffee on the car’s hood, so you’ll see it when you get into the driver’s seat. Another would be to avoid trying to carry so many things at the same time.
This mistake could get expensive: My former boss once set her wallet on top of the car and drove off. Fortunately, a very honest person found the wallet and returned it. You might not be that lucky.
4. Inadvertent shoplifting
Ever walked around a store with an item in your hand/cradled in one arm, and forgotten that it was there? And then walked out without paying for it? And then run back inside, red-faced, and joined the line at the checkout?
Avoid those unintentional five-finger discounts by always getting a basket or a shopping cart. They’re good reminders that yes, you did want at least one thing.
I’ve also done a form of reverse shoplifting: Bagging my items while chatting with the checkout clerk, and then leaving without the things I just bought. Real smooth.
5. Mistaken corrections
Someone mispronounces a word, uses incorrect grammar or makes a statement that you know is wrong. You can’t stop yourself from correcting them.
Then it turns out they were right and you were wrong. Bonus bonehead points for prefacing your mistaken correction with, “Well, actually…”
Be sure you’re right before you tell someone else they’re wrong. Or consider saying nothing at all, especially if it might embarrass that person in front of others.
Not all mistakes are easily laughed off
Not every mistake is just about you; sometimes, other people’s feelings are involved. Or maybe it’s a question of your personal or professional reputation going down the tubes because of something you did or said.
That’s why it’s a good idea to develop a personal filter and also learn the habit of thinking things through before you speak or act. Here are a few examples.
6. Criticizing within earshot
You just had to badmouth the boss, right there at the Christmas party or an after-work night at the brewpub? Blaming the hooch only makes things worse: Self-identifying as an indiscreet drunk could torpedo future promotions.
Or maybe you’re a couple of beers along at a house party when you catch a glimpse of someone you don’t like. For some reason you talk about why you don’t like them, realizing too late that they’re close enough to hear you.
Here’s a rule favored by elementary school teachers: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it helpful? If not, maybe it should be left unsaid.” And maybe you shouldn’t drink quite so much, either.
7. Accidental humblebragging
You closed on a new home and set a wedding date. Or your kid won a full-ride scholarship to a great college. Or you’re going to be able to retire early thanks to that bequest from Great-Aunt Hermione. And you can’t wait to tell everybody.
Some folks are genuinely happy for you. Other times, though, you realize the person you’re talking to can’t qualify for a mortgage and/or just broke up with their significant other, will have trouble paying for their kid’s community college, and in fact might have to work until the day they die.
When sharing bits of your life, consider the audience – and then consider dialing it back a bit. Not every piece of news needs to be aired.
8. Forgetting an important occasion
Here’s an easy way to land in the doghouse: Forget to wish your dad a happy birthday or your mom a happy Mother’s Day. Or if you’re happily partnered, be sure to forget your own anniversary — that move always makes for drama.
Yes, we’re all busy. But calendars exist for a reason. Whether yours is paper or electronic, it’s a simple thing to write down the important occasions. In fact, write it down a couple of weeks in advance, to give you time to find just the right card or plan a special way to celebrate.
It doesn’t necessarily have to cost a lot to recognize occasions that are special to the people you love. To paraphrase a greeting-card ad, they might never forget that you forgot.
9. Remote work mishaps
You’re wearing a suit and tie or an elegant blouse for the Zoom meeting — but you’re not wearing any pants. No one can see, right? Maybe not. Or maybe so.
Or your beloved pet wanders into the room and you forget to hit “mute” before you start baby-talking your fuzzy-butt-bestest-boy-in-the-whole-world.
Here’s a simple tip for remote meetings: Always assume that you can be seen and heard.
10. Messaging the wrong person
A woman I know spent several years in a fairly mind-numbing job. (Think: “Classified ad taker but really wanted to be a reporter.”) One day, she used in-house messaging to rant about the lousy gig, her even lousier pay and the fact that there was no room for advancement.
She accidentally sent that message not to her sympathetic coworker, but to the entire office — including her supervisor. Whoops.
Never send a text, an email or any other kind of message without checking and double-checking the recipient. You can’t un-ring that particular bell.