At the risk of sounding like I’m bragging, I am a smart person. That doesn’t make me a jerk, but correcting people constantly sometimes does. I don’t have a good sense of when I should correct the person speaking or when they are going to give me a death stare. If I was saying something inaccurate then I would want someone to tell me. What I’m asking is, when do you correct someone and when do you leave it alone?
I can be the jerk who corrects people without thinking, so I’ve started going through a few questions in my head before I say something:
– Do we all know what they mean even if what they said is technically incorrect?
– Is someone (other than them) immediately harmed by their mistake?
– Is this mistake likely to cause them embarrassment in other situations?
Do we all know what they mean?
Sometimes people use the wrong word, or refer to the wrong thing, but we all get what they’re saying. I may a bit sensitive to this because I once dated a guy (long ago) who would correct everything even if he knew what I meant. If I pointed at the salt and said ‘can you pass the sugar’ he’d correct me – “You mean the salt?” Like yes, dude, I mean the salt. Also, your cooking sucks.
Maybe someone is telling a story and they say the wrong city but it’s not relevant to their main point. Is it really necessary for you to jump in and say “We were in Columbus, not Cleveland” when that fact has nothing to do with the story? The only thing such a correction does is stop the rhythm of the story, embarrass the speaker, and make you look like a jerk.
Is someone harmed?
I’m not talking about someone saying something intentionally harmful — hopefully we all know to step in there. But if someone is sharing a story about a situation that ends up painting someone else in a bad light, and the information they are sharing is wrong, it makes sense to gently step in. The key here is gently.
Steve: “So I ask the supervisor for an update, and she has Lisa send me the numbers, and they’re all wrong!”
You: “Ugh, those numbers SUCKED but I was on that email, and it wasn’t Lisa who sent the numbers. It was Bob.”
Steve: “Right, whatever. Bob.”
I mean, that’s gossip and so probably not the best thing to be sharing anyway, but Lisa shouldn’t be unfairly maligned because Steve forgot the facts.
This also works with generic information. If someone is saying something that is factually inaccurate (as opposed to simply a matter of opinion) that paints an entire group with a broad brush, it’s also okay to step up and correct them.
Steve: “Well, can you blame them? I mean, like 80% of Planned Parenthood’s money comes from abortions.”
You: “I know so many numbers get thrown around, but the real number is only 3%. Surprising, but true.”
Steve: “No way.”
In that instance, even if you have the facts right, you might be stepping into a deeper political debate, where the person you’re talking to refuses to believe the facts if they don’t conform to their world view. You aren’t being an ass if you share accurate information, but make sure your delivery isn’t full of smirky “well actually”s. No one likes that, even if it is totally satisfying to say to someone who you both disagree with on politics AND who is totally wrong on the facts.
Will this embarrass them?
Some people are really good at asking for clarification when they don’t know something. But in my opinion, that number is way too low. Folks like to look smart, and so may at times pretend to be following a conversation topic or know what a word means when they really don’t, and then maybe go on to use that information incorrectly later on. I think in these moments it’s fine to pull them aside and gently correct them so they don’t make the same mistake in the future.
The best example I have for this is mispronunciation of words. Some folks have not heard a certain word spoken out loud before; they’ve only read it. Then they say the word based on what they think it sounds like, and they are wrong. So very wrong. Among friends, whatever, we know what they mean (see my first point, above). But they might find themselves using that word in a business meeting or job interview with someone who is less than generous.
Same goes for other trivia, especially if its something that should be considered general knowledge. Do they think the Civil War ended in 1945? Are they not entirely sure who was president after Reagan? Do they think that reindeer only exist in Christmas songs (and not, say, in Canada)? It’s fine to correct them to avoid making mistakes in the future.