“Foot in Mouth” syndrome and the “Curse of Considerate Clarification”

I’ve been told a few times that I make people think exactly what I didn’t want them to think. Let me explain. For some reason, in addition to putting my foot in my mouth by accident, I manage to make others suspicious of hidden agendas in my words because of the very things I say.

Here’s a stunning example of “Foot in Mouth” syndrome:

I was at the art opening of a gifted photographer last night. We had been students together in graduate school. During our visit, I recalled that he had recently been married. I was preparing to ask how things were going when I recalled a previous experience with the same artist. Not three years earlier I asked, “How’s Suzzy?” after having met his girlfriend weeks before. He awkwardly replied, “We’re not together any more.” UG! The artist–being a quiet man–had nothing left to say, and I–dumbfounded–had nothing to say either. The next three years were filled with many uncomfortable visits in which I could never establish a good speaking rapport with this nice man.

So, here I am preparing to ask after his new wife, thinking, Oh dear, what if they didn’t get married or they’re divorced or something? I didn’t want to have the awkward silence again. All these thoughts were spinning in my mind as I said, “So, are you still married?”  Still?!  STILL!!!!???? Not, “How’s your wife?” or “How is it being a newlywed?” or “I heard you got hitched. How’d it go?”  Nope. STILL. I can’t believe myself sometimes. Perhaps I should strike the word from my vocabulary. Luckily he chuckled and said they had been married just a few months, and I backed out of it by joking I had no faith in marriage apparently. My husband comforted me later by saying it was nothing, but there it was. My foot. My mouth. Not what I had hoped to eat that night. I only had room for cereal when I got home after that feast.

And then there is the “Curse of Considerate Clarification,” or the 3-C problem as I call it:

I think I learned from my mother to be very mindful of my words–how were they making others feel, how do they sound to others? I have become very sensitive to peoples’ expressions, responses and actions in reply to my words, which often sends me in a day-long analysis of where I went wrong or where they misunderstood. This is very exhausting.  Changing the way you think is hard, but I’m trying to change the habit. Especially since my consideration for others has back-fired in my face.

Like last night. It didn’t backfire, but nearly so. Jake and I went out to dinner at a great Mexican-Irish restaurant (yup–and it’s an awesome pairing). The five-year-old joint is just a half block down the street from the New York favorite Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, which had just opened. Naturally the barbecue restaurant was packed every day. And we were benefiting, as here we were eating at this very popular place without waiting for a table. Surprised I asked the manager who seated us, “So, have you noticed your business dropping due to the new place down the street?” Immediately, as I glanced at the numerous empty tables I thought Oh crap, she might think that I think they are losing business, or that they are too slow for a Saturday! Quick! Tell her that’s not what you meant! So I said, “Oh! I hope you didn’t think I meant you guys would be losing business to them. I’m sure you won’t be affected–it being such a different market.” The manager smiled, agreed by citing how busy they had been thirty minutes before, and then went to seat another couple. I was relieved! It is this kind of situation that so many times has prompted the reply: “Well, I didn’t think you meant that originally, but now that you brought it up that’s exactly what I’m going to think.” Go figure!

What I’ve learned is that I need to trust that others will ask me to clarify what I meant if they took it negatively. I should hope they will consider my character and intent. I should also remember to pause before I speak to think of what I want to say.

But finally, if I feel like I need to clarify, I can avoid the 3-C problem by restating. Instead of: “I hope I didn’t make you think…” I can say: “Let me clarify. What I meant to say was…” or “That didn’t sound right, let me rephrase that.” By rephrasing what I say I remove the possibility that the listener will suspect me of ill-intent or veiled malice. I certainly won’t wind up prompting them to doubt my intentions! And perhaps with any luck I will spare myself a little exhaustive worry!


75 thoughts on ““Foot in Mouth” syndrome and the “Curse of Considerate Clarification”

  1. Pingback: “Foot in Mouth” syndrome and the “Curse of Considerate Clarification”

    • Thanks! I feel like I am there ALL the time! ha-ha! Thank you for stopping by! I had no idea I was “freshly pressed” but I saw it on their RSS feed list. I’m delighted! 🙂 If it weren’t for your comment I would’ve had no idea!

  2. Pingback: 闲来话话 » “Foot in Mouth” syndrome and the “Curse of Considerate Clarification”

    • LOL! YES! That happens to me so often! If I could watch myself try to explain my way out of a F-I-M situation, I think it would be pretty entertaining. I’ve dug some pretty big holes in my time!

  3. I think you’re just too sensitive. Maybe the manager didn’t think that at all. It’s kind of presumtuous to think you know what other people think — and it seems to me that when you “correct” yourself, that’s what you’re doing — presuming. Your very last paragraph made the most sense to me — saying “let me clarify”, etc. That sort of puts the burden back on you, not on the other person whom you have now decided thinks you had some sort of ill intent, when in fact you don’t know whether they think that at all, you just think you know.

    I have stopped assuming I know what other people think about what I say. I say it and let it go. Sometimes I am considered “too blunt”, but that’s me. There is no malice behind my words and people know that. If I see someone looking pained I’ll say, “Did I offend you?” If they say no, I leave it alone. If they say yes, then I’ll ask how, and apologize if necessary. Otherwise, it’s all just a guessing game and conversations become so convoluted that you’d never enjoy them again if you keep wondering what people really think about what you just said.

    The idea of foot in mouth is funny, but honestly, I didn’t think your examples were extreme at all. “Still”? Okay, maybe a little, but hey, the guy didn’t seem to be upset, did he? And the first example? The next time you saw him if you had joked about the marriage (“Silly me, I can’t keep track of anyone’s marital status any more, could you just remind me whether you’re married or not?!”) I’ll bet that would have made you both feel a lot more comfortable. And who knows whether he ever felt awkward or not? You’re making an assumption. All we really know is YOU felt awkward, which is because, as I said, you’re too sensitive.

    Just say what you mean and stop second-guessing. And hey, if you’re too sensitive on occasion, give yourself a break. Most people are just the opposite, so if you use it (sensitivity) sparingly, you’ll probably be known as the most compassionate person around, which is a very nice label to have.

    • Thanks Jule, that is such a thoughtful reply. I have always been a sensitive person, so in that regard I am always a work in progress. The benefit of my tendency to over-think my words is that it has caused me to naturally try to think of the other person’s side of the story when I’m offended or frustrated or someone says something “off” to me. That has helped me avoid some possible arguments (especially at work!).

      It’s a good point you have, and I had never thought of it that way (putting the burden on others when I assume I offended them–assuming I know their feelings). I will definitely think about what you suggested. And you are correct, I did feel awkward! 😉 Surely that made the situation seem greater than it was.

      Thanks for stopping by with such a considered response!

      • I have to agree for work it’s different. Sometimes you really do have to think ahead about what you say to make sure no one is offended, or at least the ones “above” you stay happy. Work can be a sticky situation.

        In real life though, I think you should let the chips fall where they may. We all have different styles of communicating and really, if we’re all adults, is there any reason to be so sensitive?

        I appreciate your desire to consider the other person’s side of things, and all I’m saying is I think it’s okay to let them state it, and take responsibility for their own thoughts and feelings, rather than “interpolate”, if you see what I mean (which I think you do).

        I’ve put my foot in my mouth a number of major times but you know what, as embarrassing as it is, you survive! You have to. 😉

  4. Heh, I suffer from foot-in-mouth all the time. Commenting on blogs exaccerbates it since on occasion I feel a poster is just asking for a blunt response – hey, you post it for the world, be prepared to defend your thoughts and beliefs.

    More often than not though, what I say and what I intended are not the same. As my step-mother likes to say, “Listen to what I mean, not what I say.”

    • Yes, that is what I hope people will do: look to the intention. Other variables are also the mood of the listener. And of course, there is the opposite when someone says something that should have good intentions, but their intentions are cloaked in less good motivations.

      Thank you for coming by! Bluntness isn’t a bad quality necessarily–being frank is so important sometimes! We all have our gifts, perhaps that is one of yours. 🙂

  5. I’ve had my foot in my mouth on numerous occasions, like when I assumed a woman was pregnant and asked her when the baby is due. (In my defense, it was a VERY convincing faux-baby bump.)

    I’ll be reading more of your blog for sure.

    • Oh I have absolutely had that happen to me almost, but I avoided it. That time I managed to steer the conversation to a place where she could say she was pregnant but instead she spoke of losing weight! PHEW! I almost asked if she was about due. Thank God I didn’t!!!

      Thanks for reading, and I would be flattered if you stopped by again. 🙂

  6. I also have this chronic problem 😉 I agree with your end analysis;) constantly staying one step ahead of what you think someone might be thinking is exhausting and the worried day long analysis to follow is more so. This should also be titled – the burden of making others understand my good intent or the burden of reacting to reactions;) I soooooo hear ya’ =)

    • LOL, thanks! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one out there.

      Someone today said perhaps I should repeat what I want to say multiple times in my head before I say it, but then I think I’d be mute for life! ha-ha!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  7. No doubt you’ve touched on something extremely relatable. That’s the worst feeling when something slips out and you realize it instantly. I would rather be the type who tramples people without realizing it. But then I’d be a jerk. Hmm… Now that I think about it you’ve made me think exactly what you didn’t want me to think 😉

    • HAA HAA!!! Oh my goodness, you made me laugh so hard!!! LOL! I am personally aiming for the middle: not jerky, not overly considerate. I am going to try for perceptive and confident. Wish me luck!


  8. I think we all think we do this. I think you may be extremely sensitive…I am like that, I always imagine what the other person think. I guess we can’t do that or we’ll make ourselves crazy. Let it go after you say something, or don’t say as much…that’s what I’ve learned.


    • Yes, the “don’t say so much” is always a good option too. I think there are definitely more stellar examples of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth–these two tales didn’t upset me for too long thank goodness.

      Thanks Evie for stopping by!

  9. Isn’t it embarassing? I’m forever doing it, too: the foot in mouth and then the scurry to clarify. It’s good to know I’m not the only one!

    • Definitely not! I think it’s worth a pat on the back for trying to clarify. Many just pass on that part of the deal, but I am in favor of it. Well done!

  10. My first reaction to the above was that you are simply over-thinking things at the wrong time—a bit like walking becomes very hard to do when one deliberately tries to walk “normally”.

    In particular, I see some risk that your attempts to “repair” a situation are what makes the other party pay attention to the problem in the first place. There is, e.g., a fair chance that the still-married man would not actually have noticed your unfortunate formulation—nor is there any guarantee that he would even have remembered your earlier misstep. (For that matter, depending on the exact circumstances, he may not even have thought that misstep worth mentioning.)

    • I would agree. The man in question is a very generous, kind person. He probably thought nothing of it. And of course, as artists we have both heard such harsh criticisms that this little verbal misstep was probably hardly something to blink at. One criticism I had my middle year in grad school was, “Your personality is SO much more interesting than your work.” Ouch! LOL! I got over that one–at least they enjoyed my personality!

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment (I liked your walking analogy–good point)!

      • Jen, your personality is so fantastic I doubt anything could trump it! I wish more people could meet you and see how fun you are – even in words and pictures you are hilarious and entertaining!

    • Ha! That is hilarious. That must be my favorite meal then, as I too have it often! I’m sure your F-I-M was quickly forgotten.
      Thanks for commenting and reading Pollonais!

  11. I think we’ve all definitely been here before. Do you live in NYC, or another part of NY? I would definitely want to check out an Irish-Mexican restaurant! Guinness and guacamole! Who WOULDN’T want that?!?

    • Yes, there’s nothing like having your table served up with fajitas and corned beef and cabbage! Quite a place indeed. Not in NYC unfortunately, I’m in upstate NY. But luckily where I am has a delightful assortment of eateries, though not as diverse as the city!

  12. Aaargh. Such a funny post. I’m always afraid to say things outright to people because I have a lousy track record. So I totally overthink things. I end up talking around things like, “Oh, and how is everything else in your life going?” and the person will then say “You mean because I told you I was getting married last week?”

    • LOL! Well, better to play it safe than to get it wrong I guess! At my wedding I was speaking with my great aunt, who I hadn’t seen in years, when I mistook her for a different aunt (can you believe it?!) and asked after her granddaughter. She was confused because her granddaughter wasn’t named Jessica, and I immediately realized I had the wrong family! Oops. That will happen when I have over 150 immediate relatives there!

  13. Oh the connotations of words! I am learning this all to well since moving to China to teach English. I say the wrong thing to my hosts all the time. Thankfully, they forgive me, but still!

    • Well, certainly you deserve a tremendous amount of forgiveness! What a very different culture! My cousin recently returned from teaching in China. I believe it was constantly entertaining to find the differences (and similarities!) between our two cultures. I would be so nervous to speak Chinese, as I know inflection is EVERYTHING in that language. I would make so many errors! You, Rachel, are a very brave lady in my opinion.

  14. I do that too. I just get nervous around other people and the words sometimes come out all wrong. And sometimes I am not so great at being diplomatic. And other times people are looking for insult where none was offered. I used to get all wound up about the same feelings and concerns, but mostly I don’t now. If someone expects me to read their mind and be 110 percent accurate everytime, make no faux paxs and be practically perfect in every way, then they don’t know me and probably if they do, they don’t like the real me–so why bother?
    Be good to yourself. Cut yourself some slack. Be less specific. Instead of making a comment on the amount of business, just ask, “How’s business?” or to your artist friend, offer compliments on the work at hand just ask “how are you.” Let them tell you their story. At least if the telling of it is wrong, it won’t be your fault then.

    • True, true. This artist is VERY quiet. So, if I ask “How are you?” it is typically a one word answer. So, me being a chatty-cathy I just chatter. He’s very friendly though in his demeanor and expressions, so in that way he is a very responsive conversant.

      You are right though, we can’t be 110 percent accurate. Someone reminded me once (and I try to tell myself this all the time), it is the other person’s responsibility to tell you if you have hurt them or confused them, or to ask for clarification. It’s something I definitely work on daily!

      Thanks so much for your sweet words. Less specific, yes. That is a good idea!

  15. When I was a kid, I was so shy. I didn’t want to look or sound stupid and was so afraid I would say something dumb that would just bring attention to myself that I did not want. So many times, I would say nothing, or very little in group conversations. That can make you feel just as dumb!

    Finally, when I was in my early twenties, I met a man who I ended up dating and marrying later who helped me out of this shyness. He took me to so many places and social functions, and I would watch how he could light up the whole room with his stories and personality. And the one thing I noticed about him when he spoke was that he seemed to talk only about the things he knew about, listened (so he could learn)to the things he didn’t, and was always able to laugh at himself or make a joke about himself if he made a mistake. He just took everything in stride.

    I learned to copy his manner of speaking and it has helped me immensely in many ways and all situations. And I always have a few “rehearsal” questions or conversation topics ready to go, depending on the situation. I do, mainly, try to think before I speak. But, every once in a while, we all slip up!

  16. Oh, I am so glad to hear that there are others that suffer from this disease!
    Not…that I enjoy other’s suffering…..I mean, I am a sufferer just like you….not that I am presuming to know what you are feeling….

    I like the picture

  17. I love this! However, I’ve been reclusive a lot of my life. I’ve only now started to come back from the bone yard. I don’t have FIMD a lot, but once in a while something does come out incorrectly so I can relate to it.

  18. There’s a french saying “qui s’excuse s’accuse” (he who excuses himself, accuses himself). I think also (in line with some of the comments to your post) that the tendency to be clarifying your words raises more suspicious upon you and the real (mostly unconscious) sense of your words. It’s an interesting exercise to identify those lies from people who often reveal their true meaning by that mechanism of preventing it.
    I enjoyed reading the article, thanks for it Jane.

    • Very interesting Ignacio–I had not heard that French saying. It was a surprise to me when I had first heard from someone that my behavior could indicate a malevolent intention–I had been behaving that way all my life. But I think the by-product of the experience is growing me into a more confident refined person. For that I am very grateful!

      Thank you for your comment Ignacio!

      • Jen, yes it may sound intriguing but I’ve learned to get found of the truthfulness of that phrase. The theory is that our mind has underlying process which manifest without our direct awareness. Sometimes it allows me to observe even my own behavior: in the mist of a heated argument, I may catch myself saying something along the lines of “this is not a direct criticism of your behavior, but…”. At that point the alarm bell rings making me reconsider my own thoughts or feelings, the “preventive-clarification” might be suggesting otherwise; alerted and recognizing the duplicity at its very formulating stage, I then own the benefit of that insight, and so, could change the nature of the discussion into more fair and honest grounds.

  19. Pingback: “A great Mexican-Irish restaurant” « The Death of Glitter

  20. I think you need to belong to a big, noisy family: there one learns to roll with the noise-drowning,foggy dialogue. Or grow up in a family where a parent has not learned English and kids have lost their mother tongue or first language fluency: a family has to function by trusting the other family member.

    Or be in a foreign country where you barely understand anything and rely on specific cues so that you aren’t overly offensive or too innocent from being hoodwinked. Talk about lack of clarification.

    • Very interesting Jean! Actually I do belong to a large extended family (40 first cousins), and one of those fun divorced/remarried parents families. And oddly enough I don’t have this issue with my family. It crops up mostly when I don’t feel overly confident or comfortable. I would agree with the loud family part–you definitely learn to ignore anything weird or goofy!

  21. Hi Jen! Great post, and congrats on making FP!

    Rest assured, there are a lot of people on the planet suffering from foot in mouth syndrome; perhaps we all do, at some point/s in our lives (depending on our mood and/or mental state). You are not alone.

    Also (from what I gather in this post), I admire the premium you put on being nice and gracious. Not a lot of people make the effort of being polite as much as humanly possible these days.

    Lastly, I agree with what you said: we get into a misunderstanding (be it from what was said, written, or done), we should trust the other person to ask for clarification before passing judgment.

    Communication IS built on trust, after all.

    • Thank you so much Jedo. Your words are very kind, and I am grateful for your praise. Trust is the most important thing, isn’t it? Trusting ourselves, having confidence in the maturity of others. I think society can forget this “honor code” that is so important to a peaceful existence….

      Thank you for coming by!

  22. Thanks for such a wonderful post Jen.

    I am a lot like you when it comes to worrying about conveying the right intent. Often, when I think about a conversation after it is over, I would have thought of a lot of wonderful things that I would have said but didn’t, and I would be kicking myself for that.

    I occasionally use the “What I meant is” technique to clarify myself. But apparently I don’t use it as often as I would like to. Thanks for the “let me rephrase” phrase 🙂
    I am going to put it into practise!

  23. Pingback: Princeton interviews « serving in oxford

  24. I find I’m a culprit when it comes to this as well. I’m queen in inserting my foot into my mouth. You think this would make me really flexible by now. But not so.

  25. oh yes! I finally found diagnosis of what is going on with me and my mouth! You know, when I watched Bridget Jones for a first time, I thought – OMG thats me! I dont even know how to stop it, as English is my second language and my mentality isnt exactly so restrained (free spirit type) I tend to get into the trouble quite often. X

  26. There is a specific brain circuitry issue possibly in play in “foot in mouth” disease.
    Most people process thoughts and then speak. We with f-I-m given enough time to process and then speak do ok. Talking extra milliseconds here.
    You see our brain prefers to hear what we say, understand it and keep talking, processing and speaking. Once on a roll it’s hard to stop.
    We with foot in mouth have our embarrassing moments when WE feel put on the spot and have to answer right away. We panic. Also happens if upset, a fry or confronted.
    We don’t know what to say and blurt out what comes to mind. We hear what we say and are mortified. The clarifications come fast and furious. We may end up digging ourselves deeper in the hole. Or as I do in my workplace, I just leave.
    Only understood this when I saw my oldest sibling, brilliant in every way consistently suffer with
    f i m.
    I searched for an answer online few years ago.
    Forgot the citation so was searching again and found your blog.
    It is a specific cognitive defect.
    Gotta find the name.
    Maybe you can join in the search.

    • How insightful- you are absolutely right!!! I always said I understand my thoughts better when I think out loud. You have me curious- I will try to find the name for it. Glad you enjoyed my post, and thanks for the insight!

  27. Oh! It is a relief, in a way, to know that there are other people out there who have suffered from the same problem as I. I have been guilty of doing both, verbally and in written correspondence. I have made too many enemies from putting my foot in my mouth and the ‘Curse of Considerate Clarifcation’. You want to apologize to those you offended, but that just makes it worse. Sometimes, it feels nice to not be obliged to talk. I try to think before I speak or write, but it is a life-long struggle. Sometimes, I try to compensate by being blunt or forceful, which just comes across as obnoxious to others.

    It feels like some days you can’t win, even if you are silent.

    • I totally know what you mean, Emily! Since writing this post I have gotten a bit better at it but still I often mess up. These days I tend to laugh more at myself when I do it, and try not to assume I am upsetting others. It seems to have made a difference. I trust people will hopefully know my intentions were positive and if it was still upsetting I trust they will tell me. It has saved me a lot of worry. 🙂

  28. I sympathise, I don’t do actual foot-in-mouth as such myself (or don’t think I do), but I articulate poorly at times, because I don’t like to “spoon-feed” my points, so can be vague as I am not mindful of the fact that the other person is not necessarily on my train-of-thought and so they often misconstrue what I mean and then with my equally vague and unthorough explanation I make it worse and often “frame” myself by turning it into an actual foot-in-mouth in the process by addressing the misunderstanding as if it was valid, so as not to make the other person feel foolish, if any of that makes sense lol (I’m no expert and all :S). I really need to work on it, because maybe it is a better thing for the other person to *possibly* feel talked down to than almost certainly feel offended due to my not making myself clear enough upfront. Arghhh@self. And I fully agree that the clarification can often make things worse even if it is detailed enough, because it can come across as over-elaborate, gift-of-hindsight damage-control fakeness… *rolls eyes*

I want to hear your thoughts! Please share....

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s