I created small homemade gifts for a few close work colleagues. I left one for “Shirley,” clearly tagged with her name, on her chair in her private office. A few hours later, “Shelley,” who sits near Shirley’s office, thanked me for the gift and described it in detail. At first I thought it might have been my mistake, but I did leave it in the right place. I wasn’t sure what to do and simply nodded and smiled at Shelley. Thoughts on how I handled the situation?
D.M. / Melvin Village, New Hampshire
Relatably, is how you handled it! The facts didn’t make immediate sense, so you went along with the other person’s construction of reality — especially when the alternative would have been confrontational. That doesn’t make you a pushover, it makes you a product of thousands of generations of evolutionary selection for social cooperation. On a less epic time scale, it’s a few weeks past the moment by now and it would probably be too awkward to say anything.
In the future, though — and this goes for everyone — remember that when you agree to something or fail to speak up in a moment of surprise, you aren’t obligated to stick with your initial response or lack thereof. You can do backsies! (Within, say, a 24-to-48-hour window for ordinary situations.) No accusations or apologies necessary, just a simple “I wasn’t thinking/I was so surprised, but I should have said . . . ”
It may inconvenience people. And it can be awkward to tell your friend you can’t actually drive them to the airport, or your project leader that you do in fact have some questions about the Macguffin portfolio, or Shelley that the gift was actually meant for Shirley, and can she please pass it on to her. But that will help you develop the habit of speaking up in the moment. And chances are Shelley has done the same thing herself and will feel empowered to realize that she too can do backsies as necessary. Anyone who reacts very badly is giving away their game — that they were relying on surprise to get your compliance.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.