Try humble pie after assault with cake


February 27, 1994|By Niki Scott | Niki Scott,Universal Press Syndicate

It's getting on toward Easter, but Sarah is still squirming over a very public faux pas she made at the office Christmas party.

"I never will understand what got into me," she says. "I'd made a cake for the office party, with lots of fluffy, gooey red, white and green icing. When I handed my boss -- who's never been a friend of mine -- a slice, he pretended to sniff it and said the green icing reminded him of rat poison.

"I couldn't resist -- I put my hand against the bottom of the plate and shoved it into his face," she said, hiding her face in her hands at the memory. "Everybody at the party froze, waited until he stalked off to the men's room, then cracked up -- and I'm sure he heard us.

"I handed him a letter of apology the very next day, but he just said, 'Forget about it' and changed the subject. I know he's still mad, in part because he knows that this mess has made me some sort of hero to the people in the office who hate the way he victimizes all of us with his mean, sarcastic wisecracks."

Sarah has tried very hard to put this unfortunate episode behind her by improving her performance and her professional manners. "I don't know what else to do," she says. "But I don't think what I've done so far is enough to get me off the hook."

Another woman I spoke to recently was still reeling from another kind of social blunder.

"I was at a table with three other women in our company's lunch room. We were talking -- well, trading gossip, really -- and I did a really harmful thing.

"I told these people that one of our co-workers had started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the basement of our church. In the middle of running my big mouth, I looked up and saw one of the women across the table trying to get my attention.

"I turned around and there was the woman I was talking about, standing there pale as a ghost," she says, shaking her head.

"She just turned around and walked out, and somebody told me later that she was crying in the ladies' room. I've apologized to her, but she just walks away without a word.

"It's clear to me that I've caused her real pain on top of the trouble she must already be having. I feel terrible. I don't know which is worse: living with this guilt, or having to see her every day."

Dumb pranks, careless talk, mean-spirited wisecracks, jokes that injure or offend -- most of us have been guilty of one or more of these offenses even if we're basically sensitive, kindly disposed and conscious of other people's feelings.

It's easy to see what we've done after the fact; the question is: How can we mend the damage?

First, we need to seek out the person we've offended and apologize, keeping what we say simple, sincere and to the point. The last thing an injured party needs is to listen to a long-winded, excuse-laden attempt at self-justification.

It's better to simply admit that we were wrong, apologize without making a single excuse, listen carefully to what the offended party has to say in reply, then repeat our apology, offer restitution if this is appropriate, and assure that person that we will never be guilty of such carelessness and stupidity again.

Since we usually get back what we expect from others, it's also a good idea to expect the best from any third parties who may have witnessed our faux pas. They've almost certainly made some blunders, too, and we need to give them credit for at least as much understanding and compassion as we possess.

Finally, it's important to get on with our lives. Our co-workers and even our bosses will be far more likely to forget our lapse if we forgive ourselves, then get on with our work as efficiently and professionally as possible.

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