We've all had those moments. You know the ones. You are moving along merrily and suddenly something happens, something so embarrassing that you want the earth to open and swallow you whole. But it doesn't. You have to stand, planted firmly on this planet, and live through the horror.
Although we can't entirely prevent these glitches from happening in our lives, we can learn some strategies for coping with them by hearing others' situations. And there is some perverse pleasure in knowing of others' humiliation. Maybe because we can identify. Or maybe because it is not happening to us. At any rate, if the lessons learned from someone else's embarrassment can spare us the same fate, it is well worth our attention.
Think on Your Feet
Dick had an interview at a prominent university. He was prepped and pressed and ready to go. Knowing the importance of first impressions, he had peeled off his favorite jeans and t-shirt and showed up for a full day of interviews wearing his trusted gray worsted wool suit, a neatly pressed shirt and his favorite tie. All went well for the initial greetings and sturdy hand shakes. When Dick sat down to begin the first interview and he felt the inseam of his pants ripped completely open. Yep. From his crotch to his knee, his favorite suit just let go. He was fifteen seconds into his first interview with eight more breezy hours stretching before him.
Dick suggested to his interviewers that the room seemed a bit warm so he took off his suit coat and draped it over his lap. When he completed the first interview and was escorted to the room for the second interview, he carried his jacket in front of him, allowing it to dangle nonchalantly from his figures, hoping upon hope that no one was approaching him from behind.
When he was finally granted a break in the interview schedule, he borrowed the nearest stapler and headed off to the restroom. His repair was temporary, but secure. For the remainder of the day, Dick was literally on pins and needles. Sore of thigh but calm of mind, he landed the job.
There are some disasters that you just cannot prevent. But it may be that you have been preparing for these situations for much of your life. Do you remember the thrill of an overtime press from your sports victories? Maybe you had a brilliant rebuttal during a debate. Wasn't there a test you aced without really studying? Did you ever keep your raft afloat during the crash and tumble of the white waters? Each of these situations required that you keep a cool head, dip into your reserves of adrenaline, be creative, take quick and decisive action. These are the skills that allow you to think on your feet and to quickly stabilize yourself through any earthquakes that might shake your reality. Remember when you told your mom that it was better to play basketball with your friends than to come inside and do your homework? Maybe you weren't entirely shooting air balls.
Learn the Culture
Rachel was charged with organizing a Veteran's Day breakfast for her huge corporation at their Washington, D.C. headquarters. Part of her task was to identify any associate in the company who served in the Armed Forces, past or present. When she set up the intranet site, Rachel asked for their name, military branch and location. It was only when she received responses that said "Iraq" and "Germany" that she realized that she was way off in assuming that "location" would mean their corporate office. There was definitely no office in Iraq. It took hours to clear this up and send invitations to the correct addresses. All the while, Rachel was being very closely managed. She could feel her supervisor's breath coming from just over her shoulder as she searched for the address of each and every veteran.
Go With the Flow
A work culture on the other end of the formality continuum would be the outdoor outfitter store where Paul worked for a short time after graduating from college. To his great surprise, he noticed that the others who worked there were open and unabashed about releasing their gaseous waste. They just let them rip. No "excuse me" or embarrassment seemed to follow any of these eruptions. This was a very crunchy crowd who took living with nature to a whole new level. Paul never got "relaxed" enough to join in, but he did enjoy the lesson of how different work cultures can be in terms of acceptable behavior.
Paying close attention to the behavior norms at your job is extremely important. Every place of employment has its own unique idiosyncrasies in terms of appropriate behavior. Things that might be acceptable in one environment would definitely not be okay in another. Becoming a student of those norms can save you heartaches and headaches. Learning the culture is a powerful preventative measure that you can take to avoid the glitches before they happen. If you are uncertain about appropriate dress, language or behavior, find a safe person who has keen social awareness and ask specific questions.
Liz heard some interesting news from a friend about the government program that her institution supported. The news was not malicious or personal, but did include some information that was not public. Never one to hold back, Liz emailed her team of six colleagues and included a subject line that read, "some juicy gossip." Accidentally, Liz sent the message to a ListServ that included all of the New York and New Jersey managers and directors of that government program. When Liz realized what she had done, she rushed to the information technology specialist and begged that she somehow retrieve the message. When pleading and hoping failed, Liz crawled humbly to her supervisor and asked whether they should send out an apology. Together they decided that might call more attention to the private information and exaggerated the negative effects of the mistake. They decided to allow that email to live its own, hopefully short, life in cyberspace. Liz did return to her friend and confess her mistake. Although the friend was not happy, she was gracious and forgiving.
Similarly, Jenny had an IM blunder. She worked in an environment in which instant messaging was the most common form of communication even though everyone sat very close to each other in small cubicles. On one occasion, Jenny attempted to IM Anne, making fun of Barbara who sat beside them. Of course, instead of IM-ing Anne, Jenny sent the message to Barbara.
Jenny quickly and quietly got up, went to Barbara's cubicle, leaned over her while she was busy on the phone, and deleted the IM from Barbara's computer without saying a word to her. Perhaps an apology might have been in order.
In Kusy and Essex's book Breaking the Code of Silence, the authors give good advice on the importance of correcting your mistakes. As evidence of the power of this skill, they point out that the popularity of President John F. Kennedy increased after the Bay of Pigs debacle. When he assumed responsibility for his mistakes, people saw him as more human and his approval ratings shot up. It is noteworthy that his popularity after this mistake rose more dramatically than after his success with the Cuban Missile Crisis or even after his assassination.
The authors go on to explain the four components of a successful apology:
1. Acknowledge the mistake made, framed in the past.
2. State how your action affected others.
3. Say you are sorry.
4. Indicate how you will rectify the situation.
Using this framework is effective because it allows you to take clear responsibility for your mistake and identify with empathy how it has affected the other. There is power in actually saying the words "I'm sorry" or "I apologize." And finally, by describing what you will do differently in the future, you acknowledge your own learning and help the other person feel comfortable that the mistake won't happen again.
Tell the Truth
Jonelle is a vibrant professional. She speaks with an air of certainty. Like Bill Gates, when Jonelle speaks, people listen. Early in her career, Jonelle was interviewing for a position in San Diego where she had recently moved. Her potential job would require a working knowledge of the city. Her goal was to convince her interviewers that her newness to the city would not impact her performance. Like most of us, Jonelle engaged in an internal dialogue while answering the interview questions. She thought about how she was pretty green to San Diego, but that she was not afraid of the task at hand. She wasn't a chicken! After this internal dialogue, however, what came out of Jonelle's mouth was the statement, "I want you to know that I am not a green chicken." Her clear and assertive delivery left her listeners puzzled, but silently so. Her own shock and horror at the tangled words that had escaped left her numb and unable to further clarify. That statement just hung limply in the air.
Jonelle went home shocked, horrified and embarrassed. And then she rallied. She quickly wrote a thank-you letter to her interviews and explained, "I am not a green chicken. Nor am I a complete idiot..." She explained openly and honestly about tangling her internal voice. She urged them to enjoy a good laugh at her expense; she certainly had. In the end, Jonelle landed the job. Her interviewers trusted her honesty and her ability to solve problems.
What your parents told you when you were a kid was right: The truth is your best option. Exposing yourself can feel risky, but the ability to take that risk is a trait of great value. As in Jonelle's case, the embarrassing situation may even be a moment of victory, if you create an opportunity to show who you really are.
Let Go of It
Dee was doing a consulting job for a small but prestigious liberal arts college. She had a packed day of interviews scheduled. The morning went well; she was fully engaged. At noon she gazed into the beautiful room where she was to meet with the president and his cabinet. An elegant lunch was spread on the table. Sunshine poured through the picture windows and framed the view of the manicured shrubs just outside the building.
As she was entering the room, Dee suddenly felt a little shaky. She thought for a second that she might faint, so she quickly dashed outside the building to breathe a little fresh air. To her horror and disappointment, she didn't faint, had she done so, she would have missed what followed. Rather, with full awareness, she threw up all over those perfectly manicured shrubs while the people on the other side of the window looked on in grim amazement.
Dee excused herself for the day and went quickly to a hotel with her flu and her humiliation. After about twenty-four hours her stomach calmed, and she realized that the only thing to do was just to let go of it. These things happen. Move on.
None of us is perfect. And even in our times of perfection, the world keeps tumbling around us in an unpredictable fashion. Ghastly, embarrassing, cringe-worthy moments are always going to happen. But you can manage these times with grace and finesse.