When Something's Wrong in Public

What do you say when you notice something is wrong with someone's appearance? Do you ignore it and say nothing? Do you tell the person that something is wrong? If you want to say something, do you know the right words in English?  Alan gives examples of several embarrassing things that can go wrong in public.

We’ve all been in this public situation. Some person—a co-worker, a client, or a stranger—has “something wrong” with his/her appearance. You notice he has food in his beard. The tag on the back of her blouse is sticking up. What do you do? What do you say?

There are two ways of thinking about this problem. One way is, “It’s not my problem. I won’t say anything.” The second way asks, “Would I want someone to tell me if I were in this situation?

My niece told me a (now) funny story about an embarrassment that happened to her. A while ago, she was working in an office building and went to use the restroom. Upon leaving the women’s room, she failed to notice that she had tucked part of her dress into the top of her panty hose. She spent the next hour working without noticing something was wrong. Finally, a customer pointed out her wardrobe malfunction—something she was both horrified and grateful to hear. 

If, like my niece, your answer to the above question is yes, I would want to be told, there are specific ways to express “what’s wrong” in English.

Here are a five awkward situations that sometimes happen. Some of them have happened to you. Do you know the proper English words to alert someone to this situation?

How about this situation?

What about this one?

Or this one?

And this last one: what do you say in English for this?

I suggest you share these situations with your American friends and ask whether they would point out any of them to someone in public. Maybe it depends on who is involved: a close friend vs. a stranger vs. your boss. This can be an interesting conversation.

If you’re the kind of person to speak up, remember to practice these new warning sentences (see list below).  And before you head out the door today, check yourself in the mirror!

1. Your zipper is unzipped.  (or: Your fly is open.)

2. There's toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

3. You missed a belt loop (in back).

4. Your shoe(lace) is untied.

5. Your shirt is untucked.

6. You have spinach in your teeth.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.