How to Remove Your Foot from Your Mouth

iStock_000005574412XSmall_1_.jpgby Liz O’Donnell (Boston)

President Obama ran one of the most well-executed, thoughtful campaigns in history. Aside from a quick news cycle covering his unfortunate “sweetie” comment, he almost always said the right thing – on message, positive and inspiring. But less than 100 days into his presidency, Obama made a gaffe on the well-watched Jay Leno show when he mentioned The Special Olympics in reference to his campaign bowling excursion.

“We all put our foot in our mouth,” says Lee McEnany Caraher, president of Double Forte, a marketing and communications firm. “Sometimes we know right away, and sometimes other people bring it to our attention.”Genevieve Haldeman, vice president, Corporate Communications, for Symantec, agrees. “As much as we try to be careful, I think we’ve all said something that we immediately regretted. I think how I have handled it has depended on each situation. I may make a statement to apologize or clarify my intent immediately, or may follow up after the fact to make a more personal apology. It depends on each situation and whether or not a public apology is the best way to go. “

Most professional women concur that everybody’s done it said something that alienated others without meaning too. So why are some people able to apologize and move on while others are haunted by their inappropriateness?

“I guess it would depend on who the person was that said it — if it was uncharacteristic of them,” says a woman who works in marketing for software company Meditech. “If a person was nervous and trying to be funny, I would be a little more forgiving than someone who said it intentionally, because people make mistakes.” Says Haldeman, “There have been plenty of people who have said offensive things in front of me. I think my opinion of them after that really hinged on my opinion of them before what they said. If they had a solid reputation and not a history of bad behavior, it is easier to forgive or excuse a slip of the tongue. However, if they have a history of this type of comment, I think it is much more difficult for them to recover.”

Caraher says the best way to deal with a verbal offense is to offer a sincere apology. “The fastest way to make it go away is to first ‘get it’ and then say ‘I’m sorry”’ and mean it. Ignoring the foot protruding from your mouth is a) painful and b) stupid.” “Why? People notice and make even a bigger deal about it. Once you own up, you can move on, but until you do you’re stuck,” she says.

So don’t beat yourself up if you find your foot halfway down your throat. Recognize your mistake, admit it, apologize and move on. If you have a solid reputation, you’ll recover. If you don’t the verbal gaffe won’t be the reason you’re ostracized. Your cumulative behavior will be.“I always say that it is not necessarily the crisis that determines your fate, but how you deal with the crisis,” adds Haldeman. “I think it is inevitable that all of us will say something that we wished we hadn’t said or done something that we wish we hadn’t done. In my mind, it is what follows that determines the future respect that individual can expect. Do you recognize the impact of what you’ve said or done? Are you empathetic and remorseful? Are you making amends the best way you can? Are you more careful and sensitive in the future?”

And if you have bad dreams after you make the offensive statement, know you are not alone. According to dream expert Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, one of the most common side-effects of foot-in-mouth syndrome is dreaming your teeth are falling out. “It’s one of the top ten dreams we all get and is the result of allowing something out of your mouth that should have remained in there permanently, like your teeth. People who gossip, people who say things without thinking get this dream quite a bit,” says Loewenberg.

So how are you sleeping these days?