Foot in Your Mouth?

Adults with ADHD sometimes commit social blunders and offend people without ever realizing it. Learn how to catch your mistakes quickly, and participate in the unspoken give-and-take that makes for a positive conversation.

Woman with ADHD is sending signals to her husband
Woman with ADHD is sending signals to her husband

For the socially awkward, faux pas may seem inevitable — your tongue gets tied, or your mouth goes into overdrive. To complicate matters, it is generally regarded as impolite to point out social errors, so it is seldom done. Thus, the unintentional offender may never know that she did anything wrong. But imagine trying to learn math if no one ever told you when you had the right or the wrong answer. How could you?

Read Body Language to Identify the Signs

The first step is to look for clues that you may have committed a blunder or put your foot in your mouth. One client I worked with complained that his wife often got angry and left the room, slamming the door, without any warning. I asked Gary to look for clues that she was getting angry, to see what, if anything, led to the slamming-the-door stage. I was sure that she must have given some verbal or nonverbal indications that she was getting upset.

A week later, Gary returned, very excited. “Doc, you were right. I never noticed it before, but her eyes got squinty, her face got red. She clenched her teeth and pressed her lips together, and her voice got high-pitched. Then she left the room, slamming the door. It was great. I never actually saw her get angry before. I always thought she just slammed the door.”

[Read: What I Wish My Partner Knew About My ADHD / ADD]

Thus, I had to work with Gary on changing or explaining his behavior to his wife while he still could. By the time she reached the slamming-the-door stage, she was usually no longer willing to talk or listen.

Awkward ADHD Socializing in Action

Mary’s perspective
Last night I invited my friend, Lisa, to my house. When she arrived, I greeted her at the door and complimented her on her outfit. I tried to start several conversations, but Lisa didn’t say much, and she left after only an hour. After Lisa was gone, I wondered what was wrong with her. Truthfully, I was a little angry about her rapid departure.

Lisa’s perspective
I was pleased that my friend, Mary, invited me over for the evening, but when I got there, she said, “Hey, you don’t look fat at all in that outfit!” I was mortified. My flushed face and sullen mood made it clear that she had hurt my feelings, so I wondered why Mary didn’t say she was sorry. When she still hadn’t apologized after an hour, I just decided to go home.

Lisa was the victim of the ADHD equivalent of the 1-2 knockout punch.

1. Mary said something hurtful, albeit unintentionally.
2. She failed to notice her friend’s nonverbal language, which would have indicated that she had committed a faux pas.

If Mary’s or Gary’s situations sound familiar, you, too, may be throwing those involuntary 1-2 punches. Use these strategies for reading the clues and smoothing out your interpersonal relationships.

[Click to Read: Open Mouth, Insert Foot]

Saving Social Graces

  • Be on the lookout for nonverbal clues. People may be sending you nonverbal clues to indicate their displeasure. These include body language, such as moving away from you, cutting conversations short, or crossing their arms or legs. Also note facial expressions, such as red faces, scowls, tight lips, or hurt or angry eyes.
  • Review the scene. Play back the conversation in your mind to recall whether you did or said anything provocative.
  • Solicit input from friends. Ask whether you said or did anything offensive. If you’re having problems with your spouse or someone else who is close to you, request that person to articulate her anger instead of sending only nonverbal clues.

Even if, like Mary and Gary, hurting someone was not your intention, hurting may happen all too often. But, with careful observation and some persistence, you can learn to stop these 1-2 punches before they hit the unintended target.

[Free Download: 8 Ways to Get Better at Small Talk]

Michele Novotni, Ph.D., is a member of the ADDitude ADHD Medical Review Panel.

Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.