Illustration: Jim Cooke/GMG

Imagine this: You’re out at a bar. Maybe you’re there with some coworkers, and everyone is shaking off that crazy conference call and is starting to get a little loose. You’ve had one drink, and now you’re enjoying another. No big deal. You’re feeling good, and why shouldn’t you? Everyone is laughing at your jokes. Your personality is on display, and I don’t mind telling you that you are simply sparkling. Fuck yeah.

Fast forward a few hours. Now you’re tucked safely in bed. You’ve just woken up covered in an icy sweat, mouth is dry, heart is pounding. You’re going over everything you said and you’re thinking: Was I too loud? Was I too quiet? Did I blink my eyes too many times before responding to Jessica? Why was I so braggy—in an explicitly not cute way—about being right about the fact that the song “Dancing in the Moonlight” is sung by King Harvest and not Van Morrison? (It does feel good to be right, but damn.) Why, actually, did I corner Lauren to talk to her about the different tiers of California colleges for absolutely no reason? Am I a man who was overly complimentary to a female coworker in what was, in retrospect, a creepy way? Was it a good idea to abruptly cut someone off mid-sentence to suggest that we “join those other people over there”? Should I kill myself because I introduced myself to someone and she responded, “Yeah, I’m Leslie. We’ve met like five times,” and then walked away?

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Stop right there.

Do not, under any circumstances, think about any interaction you’ve had with another human being for longer than seven seconds. So you got weird at your office Christmas party. Give it a full seven seconds, and release it. Yeah, you did make a weird noise with your mouth when you were alone with someone in the kitchen, and? Laugh about it to yourself for exactly seven seconds and then never think about it again. Anything longer is too long.

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Life is a painful and excruciating misery, made worse by the fact that we have a boundless capacity to put our feet into our mouths. Simply by existing, we’re all humiliating ourselves all the time. Why are you making it worse by replaying that time you called someone Ryan but his name is Matt? Oopsies, you did a weird thing, shove it way down deep down inside of yourself, and move onto the next inevitably weird thing you will do. What you should not do, under any circumstances, is spend the rest of your life loudly saying their name correctly at inappropriate moments to make up for it. You just put your little head down and barrel through life like the maddening idiot you are! You simply do not have time to consider anything you’ve ever said longer than seven seconds.

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(A caveat: do not abuse the seven-second rule. I am not giving you carte blanche to behave inappropriately or like some kind of sex pervert. If you know you’ve been a dick to someone, apologize. The seven-second rule applies only to benign, awkward, even mildly annoying behavior, but not to outright rudeness. A quick rule here is usually: if you have no idea what I’m talking about and have never overthought an interaction in your life, this rule is probably not for you and there’s a good chance you should apologize. To everyone. Right now. Look up from your phone and apologize to the woman in front of you. I assume you are a man.)

For my birthday a few years ago, I bought myself a massage. I decided to make a day of it and right before I left my apartment, I ate an edible. I don’t mind telling you that by the time I arrived at the spa, I was high as fuck. When the masseuse came out to introduce herself, she said, “Hello, I’m Lorraine.” I stuck out my hand and confidently said, “I’m Lorraine.” Wrong.

It’s fine! Weird, but fine. Instead of laughing at this fumble for precisely seven seconds and then moving on to enjoy a gorgeous massage and a goddamned minute of peace, I spent the duration of the service imaging that the real Lorraine was either:

  1. Furious with me for showing up to her place of business baked as hell;
  2. Laughing at me and taking breaks to text everyone she knew;
  3. Had already called the cops; or
  4. Was wondering why I was such a piece of shit daughter/sister/friend and why don’t I call more?

What. A. Waste!

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Imagine if I had known about the seven-second rule then?

Here’s a great example from a friend: While home from college one summer, this friend worked in a video store. One night, an old teacher came in to rent a video. Understandably, my friend just wanted to do his job without having to get into it with this blast from the past. He pretended not to recognize her and when she said, “Uh, John? Hi.” My friend responded, “No that’s my brother.”

Oh, honey! Give it seven seconds.

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Here’s why seven seconds: It’s the exact amount of time you need to remember the thing you said, cringe deeply, and then snuff it right out. Poof, gone forever. You know what seven seconds is too short for? Deciding you’re going to write a long apology email right now that will almost certainly embarrass everyone further. Because the thing is, you probably don’t need to do that. Again, sure, sometimes you need to clarify your actions. You’re dumb! We all are. But for the most part, no one is dwelling on the thing you’re dwelling on because they are too busy dwelling on their own personal queasiness they inflicted on someone else. And on and on forever, like a clammy line of dominoes straight to hell. Worst case scenario, they’ll lightly gossip about you the next day, but whatever. You don’t care about that. It’s not your problem. You’re free! You see in the Matrix code of human interaction, and you are no longer burdened by this shit. Seven seconds is just enough time to process what you’ve done and then it’s over. Which honestly, should be just in time for the next dumb thing you will do or say.

Want one more example? A different friend worked in an office for eight years. Every day he passed the same woman in the hall on his way to the bathroom. This ritual went on for two years. He got up to walk down the hall to the bathroom, and there she was, coming towards him down that same hall. They never spoke, never acknowledged each other. One day while my friend was filling his water bottle, the woman appeared behind him with her own bottle to fill. He turned around, waved his full water bottle in her face and yelled, “Water, water!”

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Oh my god, give that a healthy seven and lock it up tight!!!!

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Hey, you’re saying, that might work for some people, but I really do think I went too far last night when I -

Too long. Seven seconds are up.

Leah Beckmann is an editor at MTV News.