Correcting Others: How, When, and When Not to Correct Someone

Correcting others over small things is rarely called for. For this reason, it’s important to know how, when, and when not to correct, and also what to say and do when the criticism is aimed at you.

Correcting Others: How, When and When to Let it Slide

By: Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor

“It is much easier to be critical than to be correct.” ~Benjamin Disraeli

Nit-picking — it seems to be almost a national sport the way some folks participate in it so frequently and enthusiastically. It’s sad that sometimes, when people speak, their words seem more spit out than thought out.  These are the words of the “correctors,” “nit-pickers,” and “accusers.”

Correcting others over small things is rarely called for, it seldom wins anyone friends, and on the rare occasion when it is called for, it’s tricky to accomplish politely. For these reasons, it’s important to know how, when, and when not to correct someone.

We have a family member who has mistakenly pronounced Miami as—”My-am-a” her whole life.

Do we correct her? No way!

Now 90 years old, and a Florida native and life-long resident, she’s enjoyed visiting Miami many times. She no longer travels, but the word comes up fairly often in her conversations because she delights in sharing stories about visiting there when she and her late husband were newlyweds, and after World War II when they would vacation in beautiful “My-am-a” with their two young sons.

I was told that years ago, family members would correct her: “Aunt Sarah, it’s Miami.”

But she likes her way of saying it. Somewhere along the way, it became her term of endearment for the city. I believe she purposefully never changed the way she says it. And now that she’s 90 years old, we wouldn’t think of bringing it to her attention and causing her embarrassment.

At 90, I think you deserve a free pass on being corrected for just about everything.

When family members did correct her, it was privately, gently, and from a place of love.

Most of us aren’t so fortunate.

Stories abound, and it has happened to me, about being called out in person in front of family members, coworkers, friends, and anybody and everybody else for minor things, from incorrectly quoting a movie line, to saying something happened on a Tuesday when it occurred on a Wednesday, to getting the name wrong of the restaurant an incident occurred in while telling a great story (“We were waiting on a table in the lobby of Olive Garden, not Red Lobster.”).

Have you been there? Let’s all say “ughhhh” together!

Correcting Others: How, When and When to Let it Slide

Is it Better to Correct or Not Correct Details?

Correcting sets the person “straight,” but it comes at the price of embarrassment. So should we correct someone over things that don’t impact others?

If we do correct someone, whom do we correct?

Whose infractions do we ignore?

If you do need to correct someone, how do you do it in a way that the person wants to thank you instead of resent you?

The answer to all these questions: well…they vary depending on who the person is in relation to you, the time and place, and whether the correction will have a positive impact. Here’s how to decide how, when, and when not to correct someone.

The Golden Rules of Correcting Others

First, let’s take a look at the commandments of correcting those around us.

•  Correcting, even when it’s our children, should take place privately. When correcting an adult or child in public, the person remembers the embarrassment they felt more than the “correct answer” to what they were corrected for.

•  “Um, actually…” Whatever follows these two words usually doesn’t bode well for the other person. Think before saying them, because they tend to be the currently most used precursors to correcting someone about the most trivial bit of information. For example, while binge-watching “Sherlock,” you mention the lead actor’s name, and the person watching with you says, “Um, actually…his last name is Cumberbatch, not Cumberhatch.” A more polite way would be to say, “I saw him interviewed, and he was introduced as Benedict Cumberbatch. It is rather a tongue twister of a name.”

•  Before correcting others, especially when correcting them publicly, ask yourself this question: Will the information I give by correcting them bring about enough “good” to offset the embarrassment they will feel? Only if the answer is yes should you proceed.

•  Corrections that result in the person thanking you instead of resenting you are ones that you made: privately, gently, and with an explanation of why you feel the correction was needed. (Examples of how to do this are below in many of the other bullet points.)

•  Whom do you have the responsibility to correct? Your children and your employees. (Coworkers are sometimes, but not usually, included. See more about this below.)

•  Whom can you correct in love without it probably hurting your relationship? Your spouse, blood relatives with whom you have a positive relationship, in-laws with whom you have a very positive relationship, and your closest friends.

•  What’s the best way to correct your children? Simply state the correct thing they should have said. When the correction doesn’t take place right away because there are others around, and depending on your children’s age, you might need to remind them of what they said that was incorrect, but if that part isn’t needed, it’s best to skip it.

For example, let’s say you and your son are in the family room as he describes something that happened at school today: “…and then Mom, she jumped out of her seat again and went to the pencil sharpener for the third time during the test!!! After that, Mrs. Alexander taked her out in the hallway to talk to her about it. When she came back, Laurel didn’t look happy, but she didn’t jump out of her seat for the rest of the day.”

You would correct him simply by using the word he should have used at your first opportunity in the conversation: “So, Mrs. Alexander took Laurel out in the hallway to talk to her privately. Since she didn’t jump out of her seat again, I guess it helped her understand how getting up during the test was distracting others from being able to concentrate.”

•  What’s the kindest way to go about correcting your spouse, relatives, best friends, and such when you’ve determined the correction is needed? When no one else is around, you mention what the person stated incorrectly, that you happened to notice, and that you thought you’d bring it to the person’s attention because, if it were you, you’d appreciate knowing. When possible, end on a positive note.

For example: “Uncle Dave, I heard you mention at the party tonight that Mom and Dad will be celebrating their thirtieth wedding anniversary this year. It’s actually going to be their fortieth. I mention it because Robert and I are both over thirty, and Mom would be embarrassed if others thought she had two of her children years before she was married. Not to worry, after such a long time, dates are easy to mistake.”

In the above example, the niece could, and probably should have, corrected her uncle on the spot since his mistaken remark could set off a whole slew of people “wondering” about things. Whenever possible, soften the correction with a little humor. If humor isn’t your thing, or you just can’t think of anything at that moment, go ahead and correct, but just make sure to be gentle, as we’ve already determined.

Your tone of voice will convey as much of your heart as your words will when correcting someone.

Your goal is to clear up misinformation that matters.

In this case, during the party as the niece overheard her uncle, she could have said something like, “Mom and Dad are going to be celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, everyone! Isn’t it amazing how after a while decades seem to fly by as quickly as years?”

In this example, she didn’t use humor, but she corrected the information gently, she didn’t make fun of her uncle for misspeaking, we can imagine that her tone was kind, and she brought up another subject to talk about — how fast time flies. These tactics deflected the focus of her words from the correcting of her uncle to the new topic of time flying. Savvy!

In case people around you tend to gossip more than correct, this post on Gossip: How to Protect Yourself and Others offers solid help.

How to deal with the nit-pickers and correctors in your life!

How to deal with the nit-pickers and correctors in your life!


How and When Do You Correct Someone In Front of Others?

When is it better to correct someone publicly than to let it slide?

•  Any time someone’s incorrect information would directly impact the actions of others and cause them to make a mistake or hold a mistaken belief.

For instance, if I say from the podium or lectern that our next meeting will be held on the fifteenth of the month, but it’s on the twentieth, you’d want to say something so that everyone doesn’t show up on the wrong date.

If you can state why or how you know, it’s always good to add that in because it helps people decide which person is correct. “Excuse me, Maralee. Next month’s meeting is on the twentieth. I remember because I typed next month’s newsletter and got it ready to email yesterday.”

•  If a coworker is giving incorrect information to another associate or a client, you’d speak up for the same reasons, and in the same manner as in the above example. For coworkers who frequently are incorrect, you’d want to chat with them privately as a friend. If that doesn’t help, then take the matter to your boss.

•  If you’re out and about and hear strangers talking, and one is giving incorrect information, you can interject in order to keep someone from making a mistake. Let’s say you’re in Starbucks when someone asks for driving directions. The man he asked tells him to take a right on I-75 to get to his destination; however, having lived in the area for years, you know that he needs to take a left, or he’ll be heading in the wrong direction.

Say something like, “Hi, I apologize for interrupting. I just happened to overhear the directions. You’ll want to take a left on I-75. I interrupted because I’ve gone the wrong direction before, and the next exit is a good fifteen miles out of your way!”

The driver will thank you! In fact, he’ll thank you for miles, and miles and miles!

What To Do If Correction Turns to Criticism

•  First, assume the best of the person(s), especially if this behavior is out of their norm. Maybe they’re mad at their spouse and their anger is causing their tone to be harsh. You usually can defuse this by saying something along the lines of, “Have I done something that’s causing anger? I’m hearing a harsh tone.” If you notice, I didn’t use the word “you” in the example. Anytime you can give an “all I” statement, it comes off as less accusatory.

•  Are you pretty sure they said what they did purposefully to embarrass or anger you because, alas, that’s the way they are? Using good manners means we’re quick to lay out the welcome mat for others, but it never suggests we’re to make ourselves doormats.

Stick up for yourself, but take the higher ground. The view is better from up there. 🙂

Say something like this: “Was that statement meant to embarrass me?” or “Was that meant to make me look like I didn’t know what I was talking about?” or “Is there a deeper issue at play here?”

These statements, when said non-threateningly, help them understand that you’re still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but that you’ll stand your ground. It’s probably just the right question to get them to realize they’ve overstepped, or to get them to say something that gives you insight into the real issue they have.

•  When someone begins to degrade, criticize, talk sharply, or use a raised voice to you, it’s perfectly fine to speak up in front of everyone present and say, “This is a private conversation that needs to continue in private. I’ll be happy to talk more about it when things are calmer.” When possible, excuse yourself and walk away.

Putting some time between the heat of the moment and when you finish the conversation gives the other person a chance to calm down, and it gives you the opportunity to examine the situation and figure out what you want and need to say.

If you have some critics in your life, here’s a post about The 5 Manners of Dealing with Difficult People.

What’s Next?

The nit-pickers, the correctors, and the accusers will always be with us, but now we know how best to handle them. That’s one of the benefits of manners. It gives us best practices for situations so that the next time we encounter that situation, we can replace “What am I going to do?!” with “Yes! I’ve got this!”

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Until next week, keep doing what you were put here to do! Bless those around you by being you…at your best!

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Correcting Others: How, When and When to Let it Slide

Maralee McKee

About Maralee McKee

Maralee McKee is the founder of Manners Mentor. With her best-friend style, sense of humor, and knack for updating etiquette to meet our modern sensibilities, she has been referred to as "Sandra Bullock meets Emily Post!" Maralee shows you how to become the best version of yourself. No fluff. No pretense. Just you at your authentic best! The person you were always meant to be! To learn more about Maralee click on the "Meet Maralee" or "New? Start Here" links at the top of this page.

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