Utne Blogs > Science and Technology

The Science of Sticking Your Foot in Your Mouth

 by Bennett Gordon

Tags: Science and Technology, faux pas, foot in mouth disease, New Scientist,

Oops! Every December, people walk into office holiday parties or family gatherings and say exactly the wrong thing. Concentrating on not mentioning an embarrassing fact—say an infidelity or family secret—makes it more likely that you’ll mention the very thing you wish to avoid. The more taboo a thought is, the more difficult it is not to mention it, according to the New Scientist. That’s because some part of your brain has to concentrate on the thing you don’t want to think about.

Here’s an example from the New Scientist: “Think of the word ‘aunt’ for a moment. You now have 10 seconds to name me 10 other sorts of familial relationship. Go!”

When a person’s brain is under stress, say at an awkward social function, the part of the brain tasked with avoiding a topic is more likely to error. This can create a serious social faux pas.

If you want to avoid foot-in-mouth disease, the New Scientist offers a few pieces of advice. Practice the situation beforehand, making yourself comfortable with situations where you’re likely to slip up. Focus on the positive: Instead of saying, “don’t mention the war” think instead, “mention the food.” And finally, lay off the booze. Alcohol makes it more difficult to keep your brain functioning correctly.

The key is to try (but not too hard) not to be like Basil Fawlty:

Source: The New Scientist 

Image by Mel B., licensed under Creative Commons.