How to Politely Correct Someone

When and how should we politely correct someone?

Trent Armstrong
4-minute read
Episode #122

We can't deny it: We often see people behaving a certain way and are just dying to tell them they’re wrong. Most of us have set a standard for ourselves (or adopted someone else's standard), and we expect others to at least meet that standard--even if they don't even know it! The problem is that there are so many things to keep up with: How loud can someone be when they walk? Where should someone's dog be able to relieve itself? How should someone's children behave in a restaurant? I may not get to each of those questions right now, but I will take a look at when it's appropriate to offer correction and how to politely go about correcting other people’s behavior.

When Is It Appropriate to Correct Someone?

When is it appropriate to correct someone? Well, we all know that parents must correct children, employers must correct employees, and teachers must correct students. So those of you who are only bosses, parents and teachers may skip to the how part.

For those of us who are friends, coworkers, family members, or strangers, it's important to consider a few things: The person to be corrected, our relationship to said person, the situation, and the level of necessity for the correction. If someone is driving full speed down the wrong side of the highway, there should be no hesitation. You should correct this person right away by flashing your lights and honking your horn--and be as loud as you can about it. But most questions of whether or not to correct others aren’t so cut and dry.

When Shouldn’t You Correct Others?

You are certain to be around someone at some point who is just plain wrong about something. Before correcting this person, it's necessary to go through your check list. Is this person's mistake going to harm them-- like stepping into a busy street after looking the wrong way for oncoming traffic? That situation does require correction. Is your dad one hundred percent sure that the famous football player's name is Bert Favour? That's probably not life-threatening.

Your motives are of utmost importance when you consider correcting someone. If you get a rush out of catching Grammar Girl in a grammar flub, you should put the brakes on. Evaluate your motives and make sure you are pointing out the error in humility, because you will look that much more silly when your terse comment includes your own grammar mistakes.

Is It Impolite to Correct People in Front of Others?

What's the setting? Correcting someone in front of a crowd usually indicates that you have no respect for the other person. However, correcting someone in a meeting where the wrong information could cost time and money is critical.

Something that could raise your stock as a friend, or just a human being, is to secretly offer a correction in private when it will potentially save the person from future embarrassment.

How To Politely Correct Someone

Being mannerly does not mean correcting everyone else's behavior to show how mannerly we are.

When you've evaluated the situation and determined that correction is in order, it's important to gauge the way you offer the correction. Yelling in anger is never appropriate. Correcting someone publicly out of pride--or the desire to embarrass that person--is simply unmannerly. Again, evaluate whether it's necessary for you to correct this person, and then correct them privately.

If you are humble and matter-of-fact with your correction, you will find that your comments are more likely to be heard and taken to heart. "Hey, Tony. I noticed you were using your dinner fork for your salad. It doesn't matter that much, but you might start on the outside and work your way in. If you want, you can watch what I do." Helping someone avoid further embarrassment is honorable.

Correcting someone should be for their edification and not our own. Being mannerly does not mean correcting everyone else's behavior to show how mannerly you are or to make everyone follow your rules.

And be assured that not everyone will accept your correction. That is another area in which to keep your ego under control. Don't take it as a personal affront. If that person needs to learn their own way, let it be. Just maintain humility when that person comes to the realization that you were right.

It's important to be constructive in any correction. Be sure your motives are pure when correcting and reflect that in your language. Understand there are situations where correcting someone will only lead to frustration. Sometimes it's just best to not correct someone if it will cause you harm or cause them public embarrassment. If you are putting the other person's feelings ahead of your own, you will know the right time and place to correct.

Thank you for joining me for this installment of The Modern Manners Guy's Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Polite Life.

If you have any comments or questions, e-mail manners@quickanddirtytips.com and let me know what's on your mind. You should also join the discussion over on my Facebook page and follow me on Twitter! Stop by and get involved!

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