Recovering and Apologising

Released: Monday 29 November 2021

On this episode we talk about what do to when things don’t go according to plan. How can you avoid blundering into social faux-pas and is that even a realistic goal?

Audio version

Text version

Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk to Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet on our communications engine. I’m Alex.

Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.

Alex MacLaren: And this week, we are going to be talking about social disaster first aid. When we are connecting with others and making friends and going to parties, sometimes we put our foot in it, or we feel like something has gone awkwardly wrong. And sometimes when we begin those steps into awkwardness, into the swamp, we feel like we’re going to be swallowed up – or we wish we could be swallowed up and disappear into the ether. And that can be really bad for our confidence.

Tom Salinsky: It’s a sort of devastating feeling, isn’t it? We’re social animals, we need the connection we have with other people, we want to be liked and respected – and we feel like we’ve just said or done something so dumb, or inappropriate, it’s a real physical reaction.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it really is. And also, you’re kind of stuck with it as well. You sometimes feel like there’s no escape, you can find yourself almost glued to the spot. As if you’re kind of caught in some terrible slow-motion accident.

Tom Salinsky: So, go on then. Have you got any? Have you got any horror stories that you’re willing to share in this forum?

Alex MacLaren: I can think of a couple of examples. Sometimes it’s when I feel like I’ve gone too far. Or sometimes when it feels like I’ve been misunderstood. I remember one occasion when I was talking to a friend of mine and her husband. And we were chatting about a third party who wasn’t there. And I know all of the of the people here and I said “So what happened in the conversation?” because my friend was saying how something had been difficult. And then when he described what had happened, and I put two and two together, this man and this woman talking about this subject, I said, “Oh my god,” I said, “what with you and her together socially, this is a disaster.” Now, of course, I was thinking, this is sort of a gentle ribbing of people I know and love, but it was met with absolute silence. And I was kind of like, oh god, I’ve really offended somebody, or I’ve maybe have disclosed some of my feelings about the people involved, which actually could be quite hurtful, when being received on the other side, you know what I mean? So it was one of those situations when I felt I’d just kind of gone too far. And then of course, I feel sort of like, desperately embarrassed, I could feel the blood running to my face. And I find it’s very difficult for me to string the next few sentences together. Because my mind is stuck in this panic state, trying to reflect on what I just said, and also wondering precisely how has it been received? And then I started asking myself, so – do I need to confront this now? Do I need to apologize for this now? Or is the panic only mine? Am I overreacting? So there’s a huge amount of work going on inside me in that situation. And it’s a total disaster. Very difficult.

Tom Salinsky: Part of it is that we imagine that we are very good at reading other people. So we say something and we see a reaction, and it’s not the reaction we were hoping for. And now all of our worst fears start to manifest themselves. I’ve insulted this person. I’ve belittled this person. I’ve said something completely inappropriate. But you are just guessing at this point. And then you start second guessing yourself. And then because we think we’re so good at reading other people – which we’re not, we are just guessing – we also imagine that we’re totally transparent, and that your shame and humiliation is transmitting itself effortlessly and in high fidelity to everybody around you. And that’s not true either. That’s not to say of course, that people don’t make social faux pas. Of course they do. But the extent to which it’s crucifying you inside may not be read by other people and the blank look on the face of the person we’re talking to might be they’ve just remembered that they didn’t let the dog out

Alex MacLaren: Distraction, or worrying about something else. And for all you know, they’re feeling agonized about the fact that they didn’t listen to what Alex just said.

Tom Salinsky: Wouldn’t that be nice?

Alex MacLaren: Wouldn’t it? You know I think genuinely in social situations, there is a huge amount going on. There’s a lot of work that goes on into social connection. And I think that that’s something which has really hit us during the pandemic. I mean, for those of us who are socially sticky like me, personally, the idea of being sort of locked in my house with only my – I mean, I absolutely adore my family. But I also I need to connect with other people. And I need the fears and the excitement of meeting new people. But there’s many people who would classify themselves maybe as introverts for whom not having to expend all of that energy has been an absolutely massive relief. And I think that for everybody, some of the energy required in social situations is about managing these potential contre-temps and the difficult feelings we have about when things don’t go precisely in the way that we expected them to. I’ve certainly had people give me accounts of experiences when they were so traumatized by the feelings of exclusion when they said something, they literally had to go to the toilet, and sit there and kind of get themselves together before they go back in. And I know that there will be people listening to this who will say, Yes, that’s happened to me, definitely happened to me.

Tom Salinsky: I don’t think it’s such a bad strategy. If what you need in order to recharge your batteries is just some time away from all the people just to collect yourself, lower the stakes, remind yourself that this isn’t life or death, then that’s a fine thing to do. I think why keep piling on the pressure, if you can open the escape valve?

Alex MacLaren: I think that’s true. It’s funny, there’s a very famous Christmas party song, Jona Lewie singing, you’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties, that I’m no good at chatting up. And yet, Tom, so many of the cool conversations at parties happening in kitchens. And the reason that they happen in there is first of all, you can hear the conversation because the music is in another room in the house, okay? And it means that not only are you less anxious, because you can genuinely hear what people are saying to you, but you know, you can be heard by other people, which will tend to lower your stress levels. Also, have you ever had that experience when you’re at a party and it’s great, but then when you go into the kitchen, you kind of think – Oh god, the real party is happening in there! And so it’s all very well for rockstars like Jona Lewie to say, I’m shy, I’m in the kitchen, but people want to be in the kitchen with him because it’s a great place to be.

Tom Salinsky: So let’s sort of get down to brass tacks. You’ve said the wrong thing. Or at least you have good reason to think that you might have, you’re not getting the reaction that you hoped for. Maybe something very explicit, someone has actually said to you, I am highly offended by this. Actually, that’s not my name, you’re talking to the wrong person, whatever it is. What do you do?

Alex MacLaren: Okay, so I think if somebody actually calls you out on, there’s an error or a mistake, I’m always incredibly grateful for starters, okay? Because if there is a kind of a glitch somewhere in the machine, if somebody actually points it out, then I can start to repair it. If somebody, out of politeness, lets me persist with that error, or that glitch, for ages then that is much more embarrassing. And I could sometimes wonder, in retrospect, god, I really should have built a relationship in which it was possible for people to say, “No, I’m called Jeanette,” because that’s really what you need. But people won’t do that if they feel that it’s not safe.

Tom Salinsky: There’s a gag in Brazil, where Michael Palin’s boss calls his wife by the wrong name. And then the next time we meet him, he’s still calling her by the new name. And Jonathan Pryce says, “You aren’t going to keep calling her that, are you?” and Michael Palin says “Do you not like it? Do you not think it’s a nice name?”

Alex MacLaren: It’s awful. I mean, I find I’ve got I’ve got a name problem, which – okay, I’m gonna make a bet that he won’t hear this – which is my postman. So, when I moved to my current house, I introduced myself to the postman. And when we swapped names, I mentally made the note that his name was Gary. And then later I realized that somebody else called him Darren, so I didn’t know whether his name was Gary or Darren. So I ended up calling him mumble was unbelievably embarrassing. I eventually I managed to get it absolutely sorted. I found out from a third party at for whom his wife had been doing some work. His name was Darren, and I wrote “Darren” on a Post-it note and I stuck it on the inside of my door so that whenever he delivers a parcel, I know that it’s Darren. But weirdly, it doesn’t actually reassure me. It’s kind of like a reproach – you have forgotten this man’s name. And so although I do know what his name is, it doesn’t actually make me feel more confident about it. It’s terrible. But I wish that he called me up on it straight away. “Listen, just to let you know, my name is Darren,” because actually hearing it from him would have made me so much more comfortable. So in fact, as well, if you’re on the receiving end of a social faux-pas or a contre-temps, the earlier that you name it, the better.

Tom Salinsky: And what about if you merely suspect that you’ve put your foot in it? If you’re getting kind of weird vibes, but no one’s actually said, you’ve made this mistake, let me spell it out for you, now we can repair it together. What do you do in that situation?

Alex MacLaren: Well, I think that here’s a distinction. I think sometimes calling something out quickly or mentioning, oh, gosh, there’s an awkward vibe here, sometimes calling out an awkwardness makes the assumption that there is one when there isn’t necessarily and so it can multiply exponentially the problem or create one where none existed

Tom Salinsky: Don’t run if you’re not being chased.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, indeed, so much of these things that are  very subtle and maybe nonverbal or related to just maybe pauses or, or moments in the – not the content of the conversation, but the architecture around it.

Tom Salinsky: I think it depends on the context as well. Let’s say for example, that you are part of a team doing a new business pitch, and it comes to the Q&A portion, and you’re asked a kind of combative question, a question which appears to have the subtext, “You have totally misunderstood the brief.” This may simply be a kind of hazing, you know, a kind of test. It may simply be, “what are these people like under pressure? What if we challenge their assumptions?” And so I think you can kind of play that with quite a straight bat, you can respond just by saying, “These are the assumptions that we’ve made. This is the way our thinking was going. If that’s not the case, we’re happy to revisit this. But based on the information, we had this is our best guess.” In social situations is all much more slippery. And I agree, I think if we’re feeling not completely confident and happy in the situation to begin with, and we start getting a weird vibe from somebody, we can start thinking this weird vibe must be my fault. And the only thing I can do is immediately fall on my sword and start apologizing. And this may in fact, create a problem when none existed.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, there’s a tremendous Englishness about apologizing in those circumstances, we want to be so clearly about establishing “I would never dream of saying something that crossed the line,” so we apologize early, and we get kind of advanced apologies in which can I think create more problems than it solves.

Tom Salinsky: Yes it’s often said that the English are the race who, if I step on your toe, you will apologize to me.

Alex MacLaren: It’s true. It’s funny, I was thinking how some of this is about – again, going back to Englishness – it’s about manners. And that actually applies in all sorts of cultural situations. I always think sometimes that politeness is the bit before the friendship. And so I hold very precious friendships I’ve got, which began very quickly to get into a teasing situation. I’ve got a friend in my hometown, who, when I was very new to the place, and I went along – and so effectively, it was all networking at first because I didn’t know anybody. I remember a party in a garden with lots of toddlers from the playgroup. And when I introduced myself to this woman, she said something, and I very quickly, I can’t remember why I had such a quick reaction, I must just got a vibe that it was going to be okay. And I made some joke. And she straightaway, she held my eye, and with a twinkle, she absolutely ripped me to pieces. And I And of course, we’re still great friends, now you know each other, we look after each other’s dogs, but, but I just remember thinking, gosh, that’s a very exciting quality. I really enjoyed that. But I also do know that there are people who have always found her intimidating, and continue to find her intimidating today. The fact that she’s so quick to get to a place of playfulness will mean she’s never short of friends.

Tom Salinsky: But this is the risk, isn’t it? You know, we can stay in that place of politeness and deference, and everything’s very calm and businesslike – and we’ll never really forge meaningful friendships that way. Or, we could take the risk, and try and tease someone a bit or make a joke, and know, some of the times when we do that. It’s going to go badly, it’s going to blow up in our faces. I think this is where maybe you and I do have an advantage because of the improvisation training that we’ve had. One of the first things we teach people is how to fail. And that strikes a lot of people in the business world as bizarre because they dedicate their lives to never failing. But you could only avoid failure, guaranteed, by not participating. I can absolutely make anyone listening to this podcast now, a cast-iron 100% guarantee that they will never socially embarrass themselves ever again, very simply. Never talk to another human.

Alex MacLaren: Never risk it!

Tom Salinsky: Exactly, never take the risk. But being alive is taking those kinds of risks. And I think the way in which you deal with the failures is more important, perhaps, than your ability to avoid them in the first place.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, I think that’s really important. I remember when I was doing some work with a client, and we needed an extra person to come along. And we asked a really excellent actor and workshop leader who we both know. And I love this man dearly, and so does everybody who knows him. But he also has a tendency for treading on people’s toes. And he’s said, “I’m like this, I always cross the line, I always go too far. It’s awful.” And as we were discussing this, he was kind beating himself up about it. I remember asking him, but are you short of friends? And there was this amazing pause. And he went, “No, no, I’m not.” And I think that that is true, that actually tiptoeing around the edge of the pool may mean that you don’t get anybody else wet. But what people really want is the sensation of being surrounded by the water and splashing about and when you go in the water is lovely. So I’d say that the biggest problem with social faux pas and social disasters isn’t causing them, it’s fear of causing them. How do you even know that you have screwed up? That’s really the question. And very, very seldom is it an explicit indication from the people that you’re engaging with that you’ve done so. I think maybe one really key thing to think about in this is, how do you let go of it? I know for me, part of it is about converting those experiences into a story that I can then share with other people. They stopped being just sort of painful parts of my past, but they start being things that have processed and become a good narrative, or even better a lesson. And so if you have screwed up with one person, remember, this is just good material for a conversation with a third party,

Tom Salinsky: Yes. What’s horrifying to me today will be deliciously entertaining to someone else, tomorrow.

Alex MacLaren: It’s extraordinary. I like nothing better to hear about somebody else’s putting their foot in their mouth with somebody. Because, of course, it’s a generous thing to share that with other people because you’ve experienced it, so they don’t have to. So for your homework this week, when thinking about your social faux pas…

Tom Salinsky: Find somebody very important and just insult them to their face. And then you’ll know that it’s survivable. Is that what you were going to say, Alex?

Alex MacLaren: We’re laughing because we discussed this earlier. How can we give people homework to do about putting their foot in it!? So your homework basically, is to think about a painful social faux power from your past, one that you made with somebody who is still in your life. Okay? So this is one which is from your personal history that you’ve had time to process. And then the next time you encounter that person – not straightaway, but at some point in the conversation – just say, “Listen, I just need to discuss this with you because I’m trying to follow something up. Okay? Do you remember that occasion when dot dot dot, and ask them if they remember it, and what their side of that interaction was.” Now I know that this will be valuable. First, it won’t be a problem for them because they are still in your life. Or if it is, it’s a good thing to surface it and try and find out what nature of problem it caused and then you can do something about repairing it. But I’m also going to make you a bet. The likelihood is that they will not remember it at all. And they will find it delightful that you still have such a traumatic memory of an encounter with them, and that you still persisted with the friendship and the relationship. So go find that person and broach it and see their reaction. Let us know what they say.

Tom Salinsky: I’m sure that’s true.

Alex MacLaren: We deliver training days people in business, in person or via Zoom, on all of these topics to do with connecting with people, client meetings, better negotiations, presenting with confidence, storytelling, networking, and lots more. And to discuss your company and its needs, send an email to us at Or you could give The Spontaneity Shop a call on 020 7788 4080.

Tom Salinsky: And we’d love to hear from you on the podcast as well. If you tried today’s homework, then let us know how that went. If there are topics that you’d like us to discuss, then let us know. If you’ve got war stories that you want to share. We’d love to hear those as well. You can either send us an email which we can read out or you can record your thoughts in a voice memo and we might play it on a future show.

Alex MacLaren: Until next time, I’m Alex.

Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.

Alex MacLaren: Thank you very much for listening and goodbye.