How To Handle Making A Social Mistake

One of the core fears of shy, insecure people is that they'll make a social mistake. They believe that not only will it feel humiliating in the moment, but going forward everyone will remember their gaffe and look down on them. They tend to dwell on their blunders. Sometimes they'll still cringe over things they did a decade ago. This article will cover how to recover from the social mistakes you might make.

Questions to ask yourself if you've made a social mistake

If you make a mistake ask yourself these questions. You won't be able to deeply contemplate each of them if you're still in the middle of a conversation, and not reflecting on one after the fact, but you should be able to figure out enough to go on.

Did you actually make a mistake, or just feel like you did?

Some shy people are so hard on themselves they worry they could be doing something wrong, when they're actually having a totally normal interaction. For example, they're sharing their opinion with a group while thinking, "No one seems interested. I must be rambling and boring them. It's so self-absorbed of me to hog the spotlight and babble about stuff none of them care about. Okay, okay, how do I recover from this? Should I apologize for nattering on?" In fact they weren't talking that long, and their friends wanted to hear what they had to say. Everyone just had neutral facial expressions, rather than looking fascinated, so they assumed the worst.

Some other things that aren't really mistakes:

Physical responses to nervousness or embarrassment like blushing or trembling - Of course, no one wants to start a conversation and turn beet red or break into a flop sweat. That can make you feel self-conscious, or sometimes cause people to make insensitive comments. Physical signs of nervousness are their own issue to deal with, but they're not social miscalculations.

When people react negatively to you through no fault of your own - For example, a co-worker seems annoyed at you for being in a lighthearted, joking mood. They may be acting that way because they're stressed out, and peeved at the idea that someone is acting cheerful. Or maybe you shared a perfectly respectful, reasonable opinion, but were talking to that one-in-a-million person who had a strange objection to it.

Uncontrollable, random events that could happen to anyone - For example, our stomach has a mind of its own, and occasionally we'll end up burping a bit as a we talk. That might make us feel a bit embarrassed, and we can say "Excuse me" to address it, but it didn't happen because our decision making went wrong.

Is the mistake okay in that context?

For example, interrupting and talking over people is usually seen as rude, but during a rowdy, excitable group conversation it's more acceptable. The unspoken rule is that everyone is competing for their chance to speak, and if you're too restrained and polite you won't get a word in. Another example is making crude, offensive jokes around people who obviously like that kind of humor.

If you know you made an actual mistake, how serious was it?

Not only can shy, insecure people think they've made mistakes when they haven't, they also tend to see their minor gaffes as being worse than they are. There are different types of social missteps, some more serious than others. These are loose categories that blur into each other, but they're fine as a rough gauge.

Things that make you seem a bit socially clumsy or nervous, but aren't hurting anyone - A few examples are:

Yeah, in an ideal world we'd never have an awkward or bumbling moment, but like I said, no one is harmed when we do these things.

Social behaviors that might make you seem lame, like you lack judgment, or which may make someone feel uncomfortable - Such as:

Social behaviors that are inconsiderate and irksome, but are usually done more out of thoughtlessness than ill will

Mistakes in this category get more serious when you do them a lot. Interrupting someone once because you were eager to talk is forgivable. Never letting them finish a point during a half-hour conversation is another story. It's also possible to be thoughtless to the point of being more hurtful, like if you obliviously comment on someone's physical flaws.

Actions which deliberately insult, disrespect, or hurt someone


Think about the last time you were around someone who seemed a tad socially anxious. I doubt you cared that much. What about the last time someone was a jerk to you? You may still be grouchy about it. The irony is that the world is full of shy people who beat themselves up for doing innocuous things from the first category. Meanwhile the type of person who's casually toxic and disrespectful to everyone often doesn't know or worry about how they come across.

How would you feel if someone else made the mistake around you?

This is another way to put things in perspective. We're often much less forgiving with ourselves than we are to other people. If you're about to get down on yourself for a mistake, think about how much you'd care if someone else did it to you. If your answer is, "I wouldn't mind it all. It's no big deal" then apply that same standard to yourself. If you do conclude "Yeah, I'd be a bit upset", then you can plan your response accordingly.

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Options for handling your social mistakes

Do nothing

If you're still in a conversation, let it move on. If you're thinking of a mistake you made from earlier, by all means learn what you can from it, but don't mention it to anyone.

This is the best move if the error you made was very minor and inoffensive, or wasn't a gaffe at all, and just simple nervous behavior. Sometimes it creates more awkwardness to stop and acknowledge a "mistake" no one else noticed or cared about, then to continue on as if nothing happened.

Your average, reasonable person understands that we all make tiny social missteps from time to time, and that it's not the end of the world. Also, if you act as if nothing is amiss, other people will tend to follow your lead and act accordingly.

I know it can sometimes feel like if you do something even a little wrong you have to try to smooth it over, but that's not always the best impulse. If you feel a strong urge to bring up an inconsequential, forgettable little flub, do your best to resist it.

Laugh the mistake off with a quick joke or comment

This lets you acknowledge you made a minor faux pas, while also showing you can laugh at yourself and aren't going to unnecessarily dwell on what you did. Some examples:

Quickly explain yourself, then move on

For example, this can be an option if you're noticeably nervous or bumbling, and want to at least address it. Use a casual, no-big-deal tone, then continue with the conversation.

Make a brief, light apology

You could do this if you know you've done something that's a bit irksome or inconsiderate, or accidentally put the other person in an uncomfortable position, but the mistake wasn't that bad. You acknowledge what you did, but don't pointlessly bring the interaction to a halt or be overly serious about the whole thing. It would be odd if you grovelled or begged for forgiveness over an everyday screw up. A few examples (said in a quick, casual tone):

For the most part you'll be giving these short apologies in the moment, but on occasion you may feel it's appropriate to give one after the fact. For example, the next time you see a friend, you could say, "I was thinking about the party last week and realized I kept talking over you. Sorry about that."

Give a more-sincere, heartfelt apology

This is the right thing to do if you know you've made a more-hurtful mistake. For example, "I want to apologize for earlier in the night. The jokes I was making about you were mean-spirited. I'm not sure what I was thinking. I won't do it again." or "Sorry, I really should know your name by now. I know lots of people say they're bad with names and all, but that's no excuse."

Like with any proper apology don't try to dodge the blame or give rationalizations. Once you've said sorry, move on. Even if you made a more-serious mistake, you don't need to linger on it or bring it up again down the road.

If you really, really think you've hurt someone, it's okay to apologize weeks or months later. At best they'll be happy you owned up to what you did, even a while later. The most realistic worst-case scenario is they'll appreciate you felt the need to make amends, but tell you it's really not that big a deal, and you didn't need to say anything.

Poor responses to making a mistake

It's clear these aren't ideal responses, but a fair number of people have done them so I'll mention them quickly:

Feeling better about your mistake afterward

Insecure, socially anxious people often dwell on their social errors, even the tiny ones. The first way to feel a little less down on yourself about them is to realize that no one else likely remembers or cares about your mistakes as much as you do. I know that's the kind of thing you've probably heard a thousand times, but it's true, so I have to say it again. Think of a few people who know, then reflect on the social mistakes they've made. Odds are you can't even remember that many, and you don't feel all that strongly about most of the ones that do come to mind.

The other thing is that if you're an otherwise sociable, likable person, the occasional mistakes aren't going to sink your social standing. You have to do a lot of annoying little things before people start seeing you as inconsiderate or obnoxious. A bigger mistake can harm your reputation more easily, though that can be mitigated if you quickly catch it and give a sincere apology.