Correcting Others Makes YOU Look Bad

Have you ever misspoken, only to have someone correct you right away? Are you thankful that the person cared enough to point out your error to everyone within earshot? Some people just can’t resist pointing out other people’s errors, regardless of who’s present and how minuscule the error is.

I once knew someone that would jump at the chance to correct everyone at every chance he could. From grammatical errors to pronunciation mistakes to misspellings in email messages, this guy couldn’t resist adding his two cents and showing everyone how smart he was and how dumb everyone else was. How did people like this person? They hated him.

You might think that “hate” is too strong a word or inaccurate but it was the word most commonly used to describe this person by the folks who fell victim to his corrective-ness. It goes to show you that 1: people don’t like being corrected in public and 2: this guy would have been much better off just keeping his mouth shut.

From elementary school all the way up through adulthood, I’ve come across people that felt the need to correct others. Some had seemingly innocent intentions while others were excited at the opportunity to show everyone present that they were smarter than someone else. Regardless of their intentions, what they’ve accomplished through their corrections has ranged from ticking someone off to ruining a friendship.

Why people don’t like to be corrected:

First of all, it’s embarrassing to have someone point out your error; especially in front of a group (this is why many people are deathly afraid of public speaking). In many cases, the error is minor enough that most of the people listening didn’t catch it and the ones that did still understood the point. For example, you might be talking about a movie and say that you liked the Ferrari that the main character drove and someone might say “don’t you mean Lamborghini?” As a car fanatic that loves Italian sports cars, I can say that the cars are quite different but in the context of the conversation, everyone gets the point.

If someone was giving directions and said to take Maple Street instead of Oak Street, then that’s a good reason for correcting them. But pointing out in public that someone used incorrect grammar, pronounced a word wrong or said one thing but meant another is tactless – it adds no value to the conversation and all it does is embarrass the speaker.

Why people correct others:

Some people get their kicks and feel powerful by cutting others down so this correction can sometimes be considered a form of bullying. Others are honestly trying to help, but just lack the tact for doing it right. And still others are perfectionists and can’t help themselves. You’ve probably been in group conversations where someone had made the same mistake over and over again. I can think of a few of these such situations where everyone knew the person was making a mistake but still got the point, yet someone in an effort to help the person, pointed out the mistake and therefore embarrassed the person. Is it more embarrassing to realize you made a mistake that some people may have caught after the fact or to have someone point it out mid-conversation so that you know everyone listening now knows you made the mistake? I’d say the latter is much more embarrassing.

How to correct someone:

If it’s something small and there’s no harm done, pretend it never happened. I’ve seen people start to correct themselves but before they could, someone else jumped in to do it for them. So give the person at least a sentence or two to discover and correct the mistake on their own. If they keep making the mistake, then you might want to point it out in private. If the mistake they’re making can cause a problem (such as bad advice or wrong directions), then you can step in right away.

In either case, you want to make sure you handle it carefully. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t make a big issue out of it. Casually refer back to the conversation and then correct yourself.
  • Say something like “yeah, I get them mixed up too and people are always correcting me.”
  • If you have good rapport with the person, make a joke out of it but do so in a delicate manner.
  • Never be harsh, condescending or say anything that would hurt the other person’s feelings.

Again, with the exception of your own school-aged children (and even then, be polite when doing so), avoid the temptation of correcting people over minor mistakes. We’re all human and we all make mistakes from time to time so treat it the way you’d want others to treat you if you made a mistake.

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4 thoughts on “Correcting Others Makes YOU Look Bad

  1. James

    At the risk of sounding exactly like the type of nitpicker your article wishes to discourage, I think it’s important to point out that some people, particularly those learning a new language, appreciate having grammatical errors pointed out, though obviously they also care about the way in which such commentary is delivered. Even most native speakers of the language in question wish to speak without errors, hence the roles of Grammarian and Um Counter at a Toastmasters meeting. Do you believe that every person who takes on these roles at a club meeting and attempts to correct people is making himself or herself look bad?

    As of course you pointed out, there is a time and place for pointing mistakes out, and a way of doing so with tact and dignity, just as with evaluation and feedback in general; I would have liked to have seen your article emphasizing this more, instead of the rather discouraging tone it took towards pointing out mistakes at all.

  2. James Post author

    Hi James,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment – you bring up some valid points.

    I think the key here is to know when someone wants to be corrected and when they’d be embarrassed by it. Giving a speech (or participating in virtually any role) at a TM meeting includes feedback by definition. You can go up to someone after the meeting and point out areas they could improve and you’re doing a good thing. On the flip side, telling a colleague that’s nervous about speaking to begin with that they had 7 um’s during their presentation in front of everyone else in the room makes you look bad. Does that make sense?

    As for people learning a new language, they are often for looking for constructive feedback so it’s okay to correct them – and personally, I’d avoid doing it in a group setting. If someone posts something on a blog that allows comments, then they are by definition looking for feedback (so you’ve done a good thing).

    Perhaps in another article I’ll get more into feedback – that’s a good suggestion.

    Thanks,

    James

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  4. JW

    I get highly annoyed with people who take advantage of every opportunity to correct others. That is one of my biggest pet peeves. A former coworker of mine used to do that to me and other employees. One day, she rudely interrupted me and corrected me when I accidentally called a manager the wrong name. That was the last straw for me. I would have simply corrected my mistake if she hadn’t seen fit to butt into my conversation. I definitely felt embarrassed by her behavior, and I began to loathe her because of her behavior. I think the worst, and maybe even the funniest part of this situation was the fact that this coworker who loved to correct others, also had a lot of flaws in my opinion. She was loud, nosy, domineering,had a cackle of a laugh, and was just generally annoying. But I had to hold my tongue around her because of her sensitive nature.

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