Did you know that you flub workplace and social interactions all the time? You do. So do I. So does everyone, says Ovul Sezer, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina. She studies so-called “impression mismanagement” and the social bellyflops by which you offend, insult or create distrust between yourself and others in the workplace, often unintentionally and obliviously. It’s all entirely avoidable.
Here are the common offenders, so you can steer clear of them from now on.
What it is: Praise that draws comparison with a negative standard or stereotype.
Example: “You’re funny for a woman.”
What’s the problem? You just insulted her entire demographic.
Do this instead: Give the praise without the qualification. “Compliments go a long way,” Sezer says. “They’re an incredible social glue, and often make you feel very happy for giving them, not just receiving them.”
What it is: Sharing good news or self-compliments under guise of a complaint or false humility.
Examples: “I didn’t even put makeup one — I don’t know why all these people are hitting on me.” “The mail is so unreliable — I didn’t get my Harvard acceptance letter until yesterday.”
What’s the problem? It comes off as insincere, as well as fake. Even nice, well-meaning people, such as you, humble brag. For example, in a job interview you might “spin” a negative question positively, answering that your biggest weakness is your insistence on doing the right thing.
Do this instead: If you need to share, complain, or brag, do it directly. If it’s self-congratulatory, try, “Do you mind if I pat myself on the back for a moment?” Sezer says, “People really want to see a genuine approach.”
What it is: Advising or explaining to a recipient who knows more about the topic than the explainer. This is very common in the corporate world, where executives commonly opine long-windedly to underlings and (cough) female reporters.
Examples: “I’m explaining to you in great detail how to operate this machine that you designed.” “Welcome to the company. I’m going to tell you all about the topic in which you have a Ph.D.”
What’s the problem? The speaker mistakenly assumes he has more experience or status. (Fun fact: Mansplaining is not actually driven by gender, despite usually presenting in gendered form.)
Do this instead: Before you launch into an explanation, quickly ask your listener about her experience on the topic.
What it is: When a woman explains a (usually) non-work topic the listener already knows about, such as child-rearing or housework.
Example: “Daughter-in-law, let me tell you how to raise your own child.”
What’s the problem? The recipient did not ask for this information. Also, she’s the world expert on her own child.
Do this instead: Loosely broach the general topic, and don’t expound further unless your listener specifically asks for your input.
What it is: Casually mentioning high-status people or institutions in an effort to associate yourself with classy, competent, fun or connected people.
Examples: “Zuck really wanted me to stay at Facebook.” “I used to eat a muffin every morning at Yale.” “I was at a BBQ with Shaq and ...”
What’s the problem?: You come across as fake. Name-dropping is a particularly common error in networking, where people quickly try to communicate status.
Do this instead: If you must name-drop, do it in the context of work or organizational connections, which is more socially acceptable than bragging about social ties. For example, “Oh, I used to attend Mark Zuckerberg’s weekly publicity team meeting.”
What it is: Humor about something one of your listeners is too unfamiliar with to understand.
Example: (Co-worker says in a voice imitating a manager): “Come on y’all, where are the crayons?” (raucous laughter)
What’s the problem? The outsider feels awkward, left to either ask why crayons are funny, or pretend to laugh at the word “crayons.”
Do this instead: Only crack jokes that all listeners can understand. “Humor is a tool that brings people together, but with inside joking, it is dividing,” Sezer says.