ATD Blog

Welcome to the Socially Awkward Workforce

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

If you think your social skills have atrophied, you’re not alone. After nearly two years of working from home, and much less social activity outside of work, we’re likely to commit more unintentional lapses in etiquette, or social gaffes. This is true whether your organization is trickling back into the office or still mostly working remotely.

Heather Vough, associate professor of management at the George Mason University School of Business, argues that gaffes can create lasting damage to workplace relationships and, ultimately, team cohesion.

According to her research, once we realize we’ve committed a gaffe, we can react with embarrassment, shame, or guilt. Shame is probably the least helpful response because it leaves us with no recourse. Shame causes us to interpret the gaffe as an extension of some flaw in ourselves rather than as an understandable misstep. Too much shame leads to psychological disengagement and eventual withdrawal from our colleagues and the organization.

Embarrassment tends to inspire damage-control efforts that are more about saving face than making amends. For example, we may try to show off our intelligence, sensitivity, or whatever quality we feel was thrown into doubt by the recent gaffe. If the others around us don’t recognize what’s occurring, or didn’t notice the gaffe in the first place, they may think we’re merely self-involved.


Guilt-based reactions are rooted in an awareness that our gaffe may have hurt someone else. The natural next step is to try to right the wrong either by addressing the gaffe directly or by showing emotional support to the victim by, for example, offering to pick up a shift or extending a lunch invitation. Since recipients of such gestures will almost always appreciate them, it doesn’t matter whether the gaffe was noticed.


Vough suggests some general advice, derived from her research, for dealing with social gaffes:

  • If you commit a gaffe, don’t ignore it. There’s a strong possibility that a minor gaffe will go unnoticed, but it may also loom large in the mind of a victim.
  • At the same time, don’t be ashamed. We owe ourselves and each other some forgiveness and understanding for the gaffes we’ll almost certainly commit.
  • Next, ask yourself whether the gaffe had the potential to hurt someone else or if it only wounded your ego. People who take self-interested steps to repair their reputation after a gaffe may end up confusing or repelling the person they’re trying to impress. Your best bet is to let it go.
  • For more straightforward gaffes, the most direct approach is usually best. A simple apology delivered as soon as possible should go a long way toward clarifying your intent and establishing goodwill.

Remember that there are differences between relatively innocuous gaffes and more serious incidents of disrespect or incivility. When in doubt, the victim’s experience should be honored.

About the Author

Benjamin Kessler is the research communications and outreach officer for George Mason’s School of Business. Previously, he was the web editor for INSEAD Knowledge, the “business school for the world” conducting research and innovation for transforming business and society.

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