What to do when you put your foot in your mouth

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Behaviour Apologizing for social blunders is best option

Joy Vezina had no experience handling infants when she adopted a newborn baby, so she asked a public health nurse to come to her home and show her how to bathe her 10-day-old boy.

"Do you have any real children?" the nurse asked her.

"No, just this little fake one," Vezina retorted.

Twenty years later, Vezina can laugh about it, but she still wonders how anyone could ask such a question.

TORONTO -

Joy Vezina had no experience handling infants when she adopted a newborn baby, so she asked a public health nurse to come to her home and show her how to bathe her 10-day-old boy.

"Do you have any real children?" the nurse asked her.

"No, just this little fake one," Vezina retorted.

Twenty years later, Vezina can laugh about it, but she still wonders how anyone could ask such a question.

Social blunders are part of life. You give some, you get some. Usually they lose their sting and get added to the barrel of amusing anecdotes exchanged at family gatherings. But not always.

"In a complex world, not everybody knows the rules and there are plenty of opportunities for blunders out there," says etiquette expert Louise Fox of Louise Fox Protocol Solutions.

Technology is making the situation worse, Fox says. People will write online, in e-mails and in text messages what they would not say in person. The practice spills over into face-to-face interactions, when people who are out of practice blurt out whatever comes to mind.

"We've lost the art of conversation," says Fox.

Questions are a common social blunder, she says.

"Today there is so much gossip and speculation about people, politicians and celebrities in the media, we think we are entitled to know everything about everyone."

Or, like Gail Silva, we comment on another person's shortcomings.

Silva was a catering employee for Universal Studios in 1973, running to bring Paul Newman a beer at the wrap party for 1973 film "The Sting." She stopped in front of the actor, panting, looked up and blurted out, "You're short!"

Fortunately, Newman - who Silva says stood about 5-foot-7 - had a sense of humour. "I'm sorry," he said, and everyone laughed because he did.

Mortified, Silva took refuge behind a fake schoolhouse on the back lot and, thinking she'd be fired anyway, popped the tab on the beer intended for Newman. It exploded all over her.

"I still feel like dust when I think about it," she says with a laugh.

When confronted with a social screw-up, it is tempting to be rude right back. Instead, Fox recommends answers like, "I am surprised you are asking me this question," or, "Why do you ask?" or, "I'd rather not answer that, thanks."

People are sometimes thoughtless, not necessarily ill-intentioned or rude, she says.

What if you're the blunderer? Apologize, says Fox. Profusely.

Death seems to bring about blunders that leave both offender and offended feeling distraught.

Two months after her husband of 54 years died, Joyce Bond was asked how she liked living alone.

"I laugh now, but it wasn't funny then," she says.

Mississauga, Ont., teacher Jo-Ann Hartford Jaques remembers her grandfather's death when she was eight.

"My mother was in the den crying. To cheer her up, I entered the den and said, 'Just think, Mom, next time we go to Grandpa's house, it won't smell so smoky."'

When she realized what she had done, she cried herself to sleep.

Gossip is another surefire way to get in trouble. Burlington, Ont., mom Lynn Crosby remembers the awkward silence after she witnessed a whopping social blunder. She was standing with two other mothers outside the small independent school where their children were attending kindergarten.

"There is a boy here who failed junior kindergarten at his old school," one mom said. "I mean, how bad do you have to be to fail junior kindergarten?"

The other mom spoke up. "My son failed junior kindergarten."

After a lifetime of collecting slights, digs and withering remarks - like the time a woman asked her when she was due (she wasn't pregnant) - Oprah magazine writer Lisa Kogan decided to make a fresh start and meet clumsiness with equanimity, compassion and kindness.

She succeeded. Sort of.

Her column on the topic was included in her book "Someone Will Be with You Shortly," and is the column most often commented on by readers, says Kogan.

"It really resonates for people. I think it's because we all have one of those stories. Everybody gets praise, but I think it's human nature to remember the slights and insults and the mean-girl stares," says Kogan, 49.

It happened to her recently on a bus in New York City, where she lives. Her six-year-old daughter was talking to her when a stranger turned around and told the little girl to "shut up."

"My initial instinct was to reach out to this woman and using my thumb and forefinger, crush her windpipe," says Kogan, whose humour is one of the hallmarks of her writing.

"But I took a breath. My daughter was in tears. I said to her, 'You know what, sweetheart? It's not personal. This woman is just having a very bad day and she's incredibly cranky.' And I've learned to say, 'You know what, sweetheart?' to myself, too."

Kogan admits she said it loud enough for the offending party to hear.

"I am definitely a work in progress."

Organizations: Universal Studios, Oprah magazine

Geographic location: TORONTO, Mississauga, Burlington New York City

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  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:21

    The word is the most powerful tool we have as a human . We have to be impeccable with our word . The greater problem we may face, is the lack of a FILTERING SYSTEM .....

  • Chris
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    An article which is laughable but is so true. A lot of young people could use to read this article or better yet the book actually even some adults.

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 20:05

    The word is the most powerful tool we have as a human . We have to be impeccable with our word . The greater problem we may face, is the lack of a FILTERING SYSTEM .....

  • Chris
    July 01, 2010 - 19:48

    An article which is laughable but is so true. A lot of young people could use to read this article or better yet the book actually even some adults.