“Not Elegantly Stated.” What to Do When It Happens to You


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Forty-seven percent of Americans think “they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it,” according to Mitt Romney. Adding, “My job is not to worry about those people.”

That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. Romney later said that his comments were “not elegantly stated.” Can we at least agree that he gets points for honesty? “Language is not innocent,” said psychologist Dr. Florence Kaslow. “We usually say what we mean.”

Not surprisingly, there’s a gloat-fest over Romney’s remarks, and Democrats have rushed to join it. They forget that President Obama apologized after he jokingly compared his bowling abilities to the Special Olympics. And in 2008, he said that when small-town Pennsylvania voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion.” It doesn’t stop there. You can add comments from Joe Biden, Todd Akin, Harry Reid, and Rick Perry. Gaffes, from the left and right, ad infinitum. Oops!

But all this rancor has me thinking. In 25 years of selling, what have been my biggest gaffes? There was the time in a sales call that I remarked that my company’s product was used to track prison inmates—before learning that the VP-Operations sitting across from me was recently released from jail after serving time for tax evasion. Then there was when I made small talk with a female colleague during lunch about an interesting Washington Post editorial regarding a sexual harassment case court ruling. I subsequently learned that she had filed a harassment complaint against a co-worker just the day before. “Ah! That explains her stony silence!” Stuff happens. No doubt you have your own fond stories.

Like politicians, salespeople are challenged to avoid saying stupid things. By nature, many of us are friendly, chummy, and we enjoy the company of others. Danger Will Robinson! We want to be liked in return. So we make assumptions. We let down our guard. One VP of Sales I met with told me over drinks that his wife, a flight attendant, loathed the New York to Miami route because of the high proportion of [a certain ethnic group] traveling that segment. The VP couldn’t trouble himself to consider that I might belong to that same group. In one sentence, he gave me all the information I needed to know about him. In vino, veritas. I’m quite certain that the Romans were aware of the truth-inducing properties inherent in beer and mixed drinks, too.

For politicians, gaffes have a long shelf life, thanks to social media. Today, most people in Virginia readily associate the Macaca Moment with Senate candidate George Allen, from one of his 2006 campaign rallies. While salespeople typically won’t find their conversational transgressions spread virally on YouTube, Mr. Allen would probably tell you that such mistakes are not career enhancing. One reason he’s running for Senate this year, and not for president. Oh, I should mention that he lost in 2006.

Kiosks and vending machines can perform millions of transactions without offending anyone, unless they accept money without returning a product. But if you’re human, you’ll inevitably say something to a customer you’ll wish you hadn’t. Here’s what to do when it happens:

1. Own up to insensitive remarks immediately and apologize for them.

2. If you offer political or social views that are diametrically opposed to someone else’s, don’t apologize for your views, but acknowledge that you should have been more circumspect before airing them.

3. Don’t spend time explaining yourself or attempt to reinforce the reasons for your position. The damage has been done, and further discussion won’t mitigate it.

4. Move on, if you can.

The humorist Sam Levenson had the best advice of all. “It’s so simple to be wise. Just think of something stupid to say and then don’t say it.”

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Michael: thanks for your note. With Romney, what’s concerning to his supporters and detractors alike is the ‘fact pattern’ that’s emerging from his gaffes. With others, I think the ‘occasional lapse in judgment’ can be dealbreakers when a particular line has been crossed. For me, that’s when a blatantly mean-spirited prejudicial or racist comment has been made. There’s no place for that in selling, politics, or anywhere else.


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