I always mispronounce the word arugula. I’m not trying to be quirky or cute, I just say it incorrectly every single time.
And like many of us with large families, I often struggle to come up with a name, babbling through four or five attempts before I arrive at the correct moniker for the child standing in front of me.
At least with verbal gaffes, we are immediately aware we’ve said something wrong. The look of amusement, confusion, or irritation on our listener’s face gives it away.
But when we make mistakes in the digital space? That’s a different story. The speed and potential scope of our misdeed is exacerbated by the fact that we might not even be aware we’ve made a mistake. There is no immediate physical feedback to cue an apology, correction, or explanation. We might craft an email or post a comment, then log off and go about our life, unaware that our quick quip, unfortunate misspelling, or thoughtless phrase is ricocheting through cyberspace.
Some mistakes can be amusing. I once sent a group text to my teenage Girl Scout troop inviting them on an outing to see an art installation in Pittsburgh. “Heh! Who wants to go see a giant rubber duck on Friday?” Unfortunately, I substituted an “i” for a “u” in the word “duck” … and wondered why they were suddenly such art enthusiasts.
Some mistakes can be embarrassing. . A personal email invitation to contribute to a stewardship campaign addressed to John and Sheila, forgetting that Sheila is John’s ex-wife and that Susan is his current spouse, is awkward, not to mention unlikely to result in a donation.
Some mistakes can have serious consequences. A PR executive – who definitely should have known better – fired off a racist tweet before getting on an international flight. By the time she landed, she had offended a large swath of the Twittersphere and lost her job.
For better or worse, we hold the church – and the people who comprise the church – to higher standards of behavior than we do the general population. When those of us who represent the church make a mistake – and sooner or later we all do – it’s important that we respond quickly, authentically, and effectively. Better yet, we need to do all we can to avoid making mistakes in the first place.
The Golden Rules of Avoiding Mistakes
- Think before you text, type or tweet. If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t put it online. If you wouldn’t want your name attached to it, don’t say it anonymously. If you wouldn’t say it to your grandma or at a church staff meeting, don’t post it.
- Ask yourself who might read or view what you share. Does your post accurately reflect you as a person, even to someone who has never met you? Is this the image you want to share with the world? Does what you are sharing reflect your identity as a person of faith, or as a member of a faith community?
- Ask yourself why you are posting or sharing. If you can’t answer this question, don’t post or share.
- Whether in private digital communication or social media posts, re-read what you type! Every. Single. Time. Every comment, every email, every post, every tweet, and every text.
- Be aware that you are more likely to make mistakes on a mobile device than on a desktop or laptop. Tiny virtual keyboards that are easily accessed anywhere, anytime, allow you to respond quickly and without paying much attention to what you are doing. Thus mistakes.
- Be careful with auto-correct. Although there should be a special word for when auto-correct substitutes a better word than your original choice, auto-correct can make some awkward selections in the process of fixing your spelling. For a good laugh, Google “auto-correct fails.”
- When you text, add a space at the end of your text. This will force the phone to make any auto-corrections before you hit “send.”
Even if you are exceedingly careful, sooner or later, in the digital space as in life, you will make a mistake. Hopefully it is something minor that causes no more than a bit of embarrassment. But what if it’s not? I heard an awful story of a priest who posted a joke about retired folks. Except instead of “retired” the word was auto-corrected to “retarded.” Even if this priest had spent his entire career advocating for individuals who had special needs, this would be devastatingly painful.
So when it happens, as you sit staring at your screen, stomach clenched, heart racing, palms sweating… what then?
When the Inevitable Happens
Don’t cringe and pretend it didn’t happen. It did.
Don’t cringe and assume no one saw it. They did.
Don’t cringe and hope it blows over. It won’t.
- Respond immediately. In the lightning-fast social media cycle, you might be tempted to wait it out and hope that your gaffe gets buried in an ocean of data. But it’s important to remember that while social media is quick moving, it also preserves content forever. If your mistake is out there, it will remain out there. Rather than ignore it, better to respond so that your response may be captured for all posterity as well your mistake.
- Delete it. If you have posted something thoughtlessly, or something that is ripe for misinterpretation, get rid of it. Never assume that it’s gone forever – it may not be. But at least try to mitigate any future damage it might do.
- Apologize and take responsibility for any hurt or damaged caused. This is different from making an excuse as to how something happened. Following up a comment with #damnautocorrect is not an apology. Launching into a detailed explanation of the limitations of mobile keyboards is not taking responsibility. The bottom line is, whatever the reason, the mistake occurred because of your carelessness and you need to admit it. While you may have deleted the offending or erroneous content, the hurt will continue unless you address it.
- Reach out. When we make a mistake, our instinct is to avoid those we may have hurt. And yet this is precisely when we need to reach out to make amends. If you make a mistake in a private communication, pick up the phone or, if possible, address it with the offended party in person. If you make a mistake in a public forum, such as on social media, apologize on that platform. You should also reach out privately to anyone you suspect has been impacted by your mistake. In your public apology, offer to privately discuss the issue with anyone who would like to do so. And if there is public pushback, don’t suppress legitimate criticism. Apologize. Reach out. Apologize. Repeat.
- Forgive yourself. Perhaps this is where we, as people of faith, have an opportunity to really shine. In a world that castigates and shames people for relatively minor infractions, extending grace to others and ourselves can be an inspiring example. Be apologetic. Be humble. But continue to engage.
Everybody makes mistakes. Unfortunately, mistakes in the digital space can do more damage more quickly than any interpersonal verbal gaffe. And yet, this presents us with even more of an opportunity to act with grace, compassion, and forgiveness in a world that is so often lacking in these qualities.
- Lisa Brown
Our goal at Membership Vision is to help churches and other faith communities to tell their stories in the digital space. Each church, irrespective of size, has a living and active story to tell, and technology provides an opportunity to share that story in a way that is welcoming and engaging. We ease the burden of keeping communications current, by leveraging content, and harnessing the many ways that members of our communities connect with each other, both inside and outside of the church walls. We aim to remove technological hurdles and allow churches to communicate online in an effective and sustainable way. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (805) 626-0143 to talk about the ways we can help your church build a digital presence.