“Will I Be Constipated?” (Recovering from verbal mistakes during the job search process)

I’ve long since forgotten his name, and even what he looks like. But I will never forget our conversation.

It was a gorgeous day in September. My team and I were at the University of Michigan’s Engineering Career Fair. I love career fairs; the sense of excitement, the energy in the air, and the constant activity. Our booth was popular; we had a line of students waiting to talk to us from the moment the career fair opened. As much as I enjoyed the day, however, there came a point in time where my energy started to sag. There were only three of us representing our company, and hundreds of students to talk to. Breaks were few and far between. As the day wore on and my voice grew hoarse, it became harder and harder to maintain my enthusiasm. As I looked across the never-ending line of students waiting to show us their resumes and talk to us about their qualifications, I couldn’t help but wish for the remaining hours to pass by just a little faster.

And then it was his turn at the front of the line. Let’s call him Joe.* My interaction with Joe started off the same as every other conversation with students. He handed me his resume and introduced himself. I reviewed his resume, noting that his major, graduation date and GPA met our qualifications. I looked at his leadership activities and talked to him about his work experience. We discussed the internship program and some of the potential projects interns might work on. The same conversation I had been having with every other student I spoke with that day. Then I wrapped up the conversation by asking if he had any questions for me. Normally at this point, students would ask about the next steps in the process and that would conclude our conversation. Not Joe. Joe asked about travel. A fair question. Nowadays, the ability and willingness to travel are important factors students need to take into consideration when reviewing job opportunities. So I explained to Joe that while interns may occasionally travel as part of their job, it wasn’t the norm. And then Joe asked THE question:

“Will I be constipated when I travel?”

Okay, I’ll admit it: I knew what he meant to say. But I'd had a long day, and I was ready for a change of pace. So, without missing a beat, I smiled broadly and replied, “Well, I’m not sure if you’ll be constipated. I think that’s probably a question only you will be able to answer.” I’ll never forget the look of horror that crossed his face as it dawned on him what he had said. Or the blush that quickly changed his face to a deep shade of pink.

Now, you may be thinking that was unnecessary cruelty on my part, especially since I knew what he meant. But, here’s the thing: his verbal slip-up was an excellent opportunity to watch his interpersonal skills in action. How he chose to handle that situation said a lot about him. He was obviously appalled at his mistake. It can be hard to recover from a verbal slip even in everyday conversations, but in this particular case he had a lot going against him: 1) he was trying hard to impress me, 2) he was competing against a lot of other students, and 3) his blunder involved a bodily function. Joe had several options available to him at that point. He could have let his mortification get the best of him and beat a hasty retreat out of there. He could have completely ignored his faux-pas, and continued on as if nothing had happened. Or, he could have acknowledged his mistake, apologized and gracefully put the conversation back on track.

So, what did Joe do? Unfortunately, Joe had a difficult time with his recovery. He stumbled through an apology – repeatedly apologizing – and then continued to fumble for the word that was eluding him, dragging out our conversation unnecessarily. Obviously, being compensated for any required travel was important to him, but at that point he should have let it go. I had already explained to him that travel was rare for interns (and if it was truly that important to him, it would be a question to ask in an interview, if he were offered one).

What would have been a better response? Or, just as important, what should YOU do if you find yourself in a similar situation?

First, understand that everyone makes mistakes. Especially in that type of environment, where you are talking to one company representative after another, repeatedly attempting to highlight your skills and experiences in just a few brief minutes. You’re bound to make a verbal slip every now and then. It’s okay.

Secondly, acknowledge the mistake and apologize for it. Laugh it off, if the situation is right for that. But don’t make a big deal out of it. I thought Joe’s mistake in choice of words funny, and it gave me a good chuckle. We could have laughed it off together and moved on. But Joe over-apologized and it became awkward.

Thirdly, quickly assess the best next-step. Should you attempt another go at what you were trying to say? Or would it be best to move on and either change topics or wrap up the conversation? In Joe’s case, it would have been better for him to chuckle with me over his mistake and then quickly conclude the conversation. We had already spent several minutes discussing his resume and internship opportunities, we were in the final “wrap-up” stage…he should have recognized his time was at an end and gracefully ended our conversation with a “thank-you.”

Finally, let it go. Yes, you made a mistake. It happens. But whatever you do, don’t carry that with you as you engage in conversation with another company representative. The temptation may be to berate yourself and get worked up over the blunder, but don’t give in to that. Forgive yourself and move on.

Interpersonal skills are soft skills every company is looking for in their new hires. Sometimes, it can be hard to assess a candidate’s skill in this area. The ability to gracefully recover from a blunder, however, can often reveal your ability in this competency. Embrace the opportunities mistakes bring, and don’t shy away from a strong recovery.

*Name has been changed

Photo courtesy of imagerymajestic, freedigitalphotos.net

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