A common trope in romantic comedies is the humorous misunderstanding, or the Not What It Looks Like.
A couple teetering between Will They or Won't They? has gradually started to slide toward "they will". But wait! The girl sees the guy's old crush/ex-girlfriend/other person who's previously expressed a romantic interest in him (or vice versa) go into his apartment, hotel room or whatever, and stay for a suspicious length of time.
The girl is convinced that he and the other woman have gotten together, and goes through intense doubt about her own relationship with the guy. However, she'll hardly ever confront him about it, instead preferring to stew in her own insecurity or make veiled mean comments to the guy, who's usually completely clueless as to what's going on because the other woman just wanted something completely banal, like someone to vent to after her latest boyfriend dumped her. The scales even out, the status quo (i.e., Unresolved Sexual Tension) is restored, and the fans tear their hair out and scream at the writers for some progress, dammit! note
Often the other woman will catch on to what's happened after a while and tell the girl what really went on, clearing the way for a slide toward "they will" again. In most of these situations, the other woman is a relative, "proving" to the girl that nothing untoward was happening.
This can also apply to non-romantic situations, such as one person thinking another person has committed (or is planning to commit) some heinous act, or misinterpreting a harmless situation into something scandalous. Mistaken murderers involving accidents with sharp utensils and bottles of tomato sauce are surprisingly common. Or more sinisterly, the person may be discovered at the scene of an actual murder, making them look like the killer; that trope is The Corpse Stops Here.
The name of the trope comes from what is usually the first line the guy says afterward, often followed by, "I Can Explain!" This line is also the first line uttered by an Accidental Pervert.
Supertrope to Mistaken for Cheating which is this trope applied to perceived infidelity. Can provide the grounds for a Second-Act Breakup or Third-Act Misunderstanding. See Innocent Innuendo for a more sexual-related variant of this trope, and Abuse Mistake for a more violent variant. If the whole thing could be cleared up by one simple statement that nobody ever thinks to say, it's probably an Idiot Plot. Compare That Came Out Wrong and Grossout Fakeout. If the guy looks at the girl dead in the eye and says "This is exactly what it looks like", see Not Even Bothering with an Excuse.
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- This series of Ameriquest ads, based around the tagline, "Don't judge too quickly. We won't.":
- The first one, in the trope image, depicts a man preparing dinner for himself and his wife. While the man is chopping vegetables, his cat drops a pot of red soup the man was cooking. The man frantically picks up the cat... without putting his knife down, making it appear that he was trying to kill his cat.
- The second one in the compilation depicts a father driving his teenage daughter and some of her friends to a concert. The daughter wants to buy some gum, so they pull over to go to a convenience store. The father tries to give the daughter money from inside the car so that she could buy the gum she wants, but the way the daughter bends over to take the money leads some cops to believe that the father was soliciting a prostitute.
- The third one has a man accidentally dropping his chocolate near his dog as the dog gets excited. When he picks up the chocolate to eat it, a girl and her grandmother mistake him for eating dog poop.
- The fourth one has a woman in an airplane trying to cross sleeping passengers in order to go to the restroom, but she accidentally trips over a man, waking him up. She ends up falling on top of him, into a position that, to all the onlookers who also woke up, looked like they were joining the Mile-High Club.
- The fifth one has a man lying in a hospital bed with two doctors watching him. The man's wife and daughter have come to visit. An annoying fly buzzes around the room, and one of the doctors manage to shock the fly to death, saying that "that killed him (the fly)". However, the man's family walks in right as he says the line, making it sound like the man was accidentally killed by the doctors.
- The punchline in this Trojans commercial double-inverts the trope.
- This This is SportsCenter ad. Explanation: Jorge Posada is a catcher for the New York Yankees. Catchers don't normally wear the traditional baseball cap due to them wearing full face masks when out on the field. David "Big Papi" Ortiz is a designated hitter for the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees' arch rival. Ortiz is wearing Posada's Yankees cap to start breaking it in like most ballplayers' caps, just as Wally the Green Monster, the Red Sox mascot, is walking by.
- A commercial featured a man meeting a woman who just moved into his apartment complex. A little later, he decides to tape a note to her door offering to help her move. But all he has is duct tape, and he has to use a knife to cut off a square. Cut to the woman opening her door and seeing the man right outside holding a knife and a long strip of duct tape.
- Invoked by a Canadian broadcaster promoting audio described programming for the vision impaired; the ad starts off blurry, looking like something, but then the scene is revealed to be something else, with the justification that without described video, someone vision impaired wouldn't know the scene was the other thing (i.e. sounding like a woman giving birth in a hospital, but actually a couple unsuccessfully trying to cram a sofa into an elevator)
- A series of Downy commercials advertising their WrinkleGuard product play the trope straight, then invert it.
- The first commercial has a teenage couple whose clothes were wrinkled by the seatbelts in the boy's car. The girl's mother, seeing their clothes, assumes they've been up to no good and angrily pulls her daughter in the home and slams the door in the boy's face, as he weakly apologizes. On the next date, having used the aforementioned product, their clothes are straight and the girl's mother is relieved. As the boy leaves, however, we see a hickey on his neck.
- The second commercial has the same boy walking downstairs as his grandparents are in the closet putting away some stuff that had fallen. He overhears them and then sees their wrinkled clothes and assuming the worst, runs away in fear. Later, he sees his grandparents coming out of the closet, but noticing their clothes are unwrinkled, assumes it was innocent. After he leaves, however, his grandfather winks at his grandmother, who giggles, implying it something more happened.
- Season 7 episode 26 of Happy Heroes is about one of Big M.'s monsters, Punk Monster, pulling a Heel–Face Turn and doing good deeds. One of those deeds is to help a boy open a can of tomato soda, which the monster finds so hard that he whips out a knife to open the can and gets the soda all over the kid, who falls over. Sweet S. comes to the scene and thinks Punk Monster just killed the child since the soda on the kid and the knife looks like blood.
- A Get Fuzzy strip in which Satchel and Rob walk in on Bucky wearing a hat with a question mark, glasses and a flag, and getting a football with a scary face to stand up in a shoe, while a vacuum cleaner hose led to a pot with a teddy bear in it.
Bucky: Oh... you guys are home early. Hey, F.Y.I., this isn't what it looks like.
Rob: Dude, it isn't what anything looks like.
- In the 1930 Mickey Mouse story "Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers", Mickey tries to catch a gang of robbers who are raiding Marcus Mouse's henhouse. By the time Marcus comes out to check on the ruckus, the robbers get away and leave Mickey to take the blame.
- A Zits strip sees Jeremy (horrified) watching as his parents slowly disappear behind the couch, legs and arms flailing willy-nilly, until one of them is heard to say "Gotcha!":
Walt: I thought I'd never get that popcorn seed out from under the cushions!Connie: Did you just hear a muffled scream?
- In Frozen (2013), Anna's first meeting with Hans ends up with him ending up on top of her in a rowboat:
Hans: Oh, boy! Uh...
Anna: This is awkward. Not you're awkward, but just because we're... I'm awkward— you're gorgeous. Wait, what?
- The Incredibles:
- When Bob and Lucius save people from a burning building, they do so by breaking through the wall of a nearby jewelry store, setting off the alarm. They also happen to be wearing ski masks to hide their identities, making them seem even more like they're pulling a robbery. Lampshaded by Lucius just before a cop bursts in: "We look like bad guys! Incompetent bad guys!"
- Later on, Mirage tells Bob his family survived Syndrome's missiles and Bob is so grateful for the news that he gives Mirage a great big hug — and right at that moment, Helen, who fears Bob was having an affair, walks in to rescue him.
- Incredibles 2: Violet has a panicked look at the start of the film when Tony sees her in her supersuit and tries to explain it away. She does it again later, without knowing that his memory is gone.
- When Fiona pulls the arrow out of Shrek's butt in the first Shrek film, she ends up on top of him, just in time for Donkey to walk in and take things the wrong way. Cue Shrek jumping up and saying, "Nothing happened!" Shrek trying to explain what happened distracts him long enough for Fiona to pull out the arrow.
- In Turning Red, Mei tries denying the red panda fur her grandma found is proof of her not abstaining from transforming.
Mei: It's, uh... It's not mine.
- A penguin is out driving in the desert when he hears a pop and his tire goes flat. He manages to pull into a gas station to have the mechanic check it out. As he's waiting, he notices the convenience store is selling some ice cream, and he decides he could do with some good cold ice cream. He goes in and buys his favorite flavor, vanilla, then goes out and sits on the curb to eat it. Being a penguin and lacking opposable thumbs, he has a lot of trouble scooping it out with his flippers, and being in the middle of the desert, the ice cream melts very quickly. Eventually, he's almost completely covered in white, sticky goop. The mechanic comes out at that point, looks at him, and informs him, "Well, looks like you blew a seal." The penguin cries indignantly "It's vanilla ice cream, dammit!"
- A most sombre cowboy enters a bar, orders several shots and starts gulping them down. The concerned barman inquires if something is wrong. The cowboy replies: "there are times, Bill, when words are useless. This morning I went to the barn to milk the cow, but that lousy creature kept kicking and toppling the bucket over. I got some rope and strapped her legs to the poles, but then it swung its tail and toppled the bucket again, and I was out of rope, so I pulled the belt out of my pants and strapped its tail up. My pants fell down, and right then my wife came into the barn... there are times when words are useless."
- A man went into a job interview and his eye winked through the whole process. The interviewer said "Look, you are well qualified, but I'm afraid that facial tic will throw off clients." The man replied - "Funny you mention that, because all I have to do is take aspirin and the winking goes away - watch" and the man began dumping out his pockets looking for aspirin. In most of his pockets, however, were condoms. Finally, once a pile of condom packages of every sort piled up on the desk the man found two aspirin, took them, and the wink totally stopped. "Well, that worked," the interviewer admitted, "but why do you have all the condoms? We don't want our clients to think you're a womanizer!" "It's quite simple sir," the guy said, "have you ever walked into a drugstore, winking like crazy, and asked for aspirin?"
- No Doubt In Us: Exploited by Zhao, who has her flunkies call Prince Jinmin into one of the gardens by claiming his mother, the Dowager Empress, is there and wants to talk to him, forcing his brother Jinyun (presently in his wife Xu Yu's body) to go and retrieve him. They then get the Dowager Empress to walk through the garden, and she sees the two talking, and is led to believe they're having an affair while Xu Yu's away. Only forethought on Jinyun's part saves him from being summarily executed for treason against himself.
- Mocked in the song "Such Horrible Things" by Creature Feature. The song catalogs a list of horrible things done by the narrator at various ages. The chorus?
But it's not quite what it seems
(Not quite what he seems)
Not quite what I seem
It's exactly what it seems
- The story behind The Everly Brothers song "Wake Up, Little Susie". The singer is trying to wake up his girlfriend and take her home from the drive-in, continually pointing out that nobody (especially not her parents) is going to be believe that the reason she's coming home six hours after her curfew is because the movie was so boring that they both fell asleep.
Well, what are we gonna tell your mama?
What are we gonna tell your pa?
What are we gonna tell our friends
When they say "Ooh la la"?
- The music video for Bon Jovi's "Misunderstood" is the long, protracted tale of a guy trying to explain why he and a girl, both naked, are in his girlfriend's bed.
- Invoked by Grainne in The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne. Since Diarmuid refused her on the basis that Finn would almost certainly kill him if he didn't, Grainne placed a geas on him that forced him into leaving the house with her while Finn and the others are sleeping - he didn't have to elope with his lord's fiance, but given that Finn was going to assume that he did regardless, he might as well.
- In one Egyptian myth, Osiris' coffin is built into a pillar in a noblewoman's house. To get close to him, Isis takes human form and gets a job as a nursemaid to the noblewoman's son, who she becomes fond of. One day, the noblewoman walks in on her son on top of a fire, surrounded by Isis' scorpions. Naturally, she yanks him off... but the fire was actually part of a rite to make him immortal, and as a result, he would now age and die like any other human.
- John Cena tried this when a grateful Eve Torres kissed him for saving her from Kane and Zack Ryder walked in and was enraged.
- Vince McMahon walked in on Vickie Guerrero, Hornswoggle, and Great Khali in an "interesting" position in 2012.
- Used in WWE, when Triple H was teaching Trish Stratus how to escape a hammerlock just as his wife Stephanie walked in... though if that particular escape technique has ever actually happened in wrestling, it's been a very, very, VERY rare example...
- Given a Call-Back of sorts during RAW's 1000th episode, with Trish teaching Trips some moves from her yoga videos, just as the rest of D-Generation X walked in. Cue awkwardness.
- Adventures in Odyssey: Played straight in "Love Is In The Air". Connie is teaching Eugene how to give Katrina an "It's good to see you" hug when she returns, only for Katrina to walk in right as they are doing so. Hilarity and embarrassment ensue.
Eugene: It wasn't what it looked like!
Katrina: It looked like two people hugging.
Eugene: Well, that's because it was.
- Big Finish Doctor Who: Used to humorous extent in the Fifth Doctor audio Iterations of I; the Doctor and his companion Adric have just discovered the dead body of the member of a cult when they themselves are discovered by a woman searching for the cult, the Doctor protesting that he always says that this isn't what it looks like, but in this case it doesn't even look like what it looks like as the body has clearly been dead for months rather than someone who only just died.
- Inverted in one episode of Hamish and Dougal, when Hamish and Dougal are in the lavatory together. Mrs. Naughtie knocks on the door.
Hamish: Don't worry, Mrs. Naughtie, it's not what it seems!
Mrs. Naughtie: ...You mean it isn't a completely innocent misunderstanding?
- In May 2022 one-off John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, the first sketch has John's character confronted by his husband with evidence he's having an affair. He says it's not what it looks like, and his husband asks if he can come up with anything more original. He explains that he can't, because it looks like he's having an affair, and he's not, so it is, in fact, not what it looks like.
- AJCO: AJ visits Egg in her room to inform her of the fact that she will be punished for Nights' prior misbehavior, only to see that the bed has been converted into a double and Kube is hiding in the corner looking awkward. They had been sleeping together, but only in the most innocent sense of the phrase.
<Facilitator A_J> Really now, Prosecutor.
<Facilitator A_J> I hardly thought you the sort.
- In The Dao of the Awakened, one encounter has Hua Yin finding Song Chyou crying with a male disciple standing in front of her. It turns out the guy himself has just found her like that, and the reason she was crying was homesickness combined with feeling out of place.
- Said word for word in Darwin's Soldiers by a system admin after Montgomery walks in on him trying to delete a bunch of porn popups on his computer. A virus had hit his computer.
- Dawn of a New Age: Oldport Blues:
- Nadine comes across Benedict and Hyeon while they're in a compromising position in front of the school. Hyeon was actually just trying to get Benedict to calm down during his superpower-induced freak out. She makes fun of them for looking like a couple, getting an embarrassed 'Shut up' in response.
- Barbra tries to convince Jacob to help her and the other kids in their search for the missing Benjy. Jacob, however, misconstrues her intent and is lead to believe that she's trying to blackmail him.
- Upon coming across Ciro and Michal in the school, Lenore asks them about the smoke snakes that gave them their powers the previous night. Vanessa, a non-powered student, overhears this, and misconstrues it as an admission that Lenore and Ciro were smoking weed. An attempted clarification falls flat, as she's too giddy at the thought of Ciro breaking the rules to listen to them.
- During Evil Dead: The Musical, Jake, Ed and Annie walk in to find Ash sawing Shelly's head off with a chainsaw. Coupled with everything else that's happened, and the room covered in blood and gore, all Ash can say to them is "this isn't as bad as it looks." Smash to Black for intermission.
- The Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe contains the version of this trope involving the main character's mother (who is a fairy, and therefore looks deceptively young). This is probably a Shout-Out to a similar scene in The Marriage of Figaro, involving Figaro and his mother (who, until she discovered that she was his mother, was trying to get him to marry her in order to pay off a debt).
- In The Producers, Leo wants to turn Max and himself in and hand their doctored record books over to the police. Max is kneeling, clutching the books to his chest and refusing to let go...while Leo stands behind him, arms wrapped around him, trying to wrestle the books away, all the while shouting "GIVE IT TO ME!" Then the Camp Gay director and his common-law assistant walk in...
"Now that's what I call celebrating!"
- Older Than Steam: Commonly occurs, usually with the genders reversed, in William Shakespeare plays.
- Claudio and Hero in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.
- A darker example: Othello and Desdemona in Othello.
- Similarly, Posthumus and Imogen in Cymbeline.
- The painter Cavaradossi, fiancé of the title character from the opera Tosca begins the opera by helping hide an escaped political prisoner and old friend. Tosca realises he's hiding something and, after finding a misplaced fan in the church were Cavaradossi is working, assumes he is cheating on her. Much drama, blood and death ensues.
- In the Cartoon Hooligans episode "The Rumors About Spider-Man and Deadpool", when Captain America and Iron Man happen upon Spider-Man and Deadpool after Deadpool accidentally removes Spidey's leggings, Spidey frantically says "No, no, no! It's not what it looks like!".
- In the Chimney Chickens episode Meet the Schemer, Blaze Hanson "borrowed" Buzz's paint to deface Dash O'Donnell's poster, then left a note with Buzz's name to help Buzz find his paint - making it look like Buzz was the one who vandalized the poster. When Buzz finds his paint next to a disapproving Dash, Buzz name-drops this trope.
- In the Whateley Universe, it's happened at least twice so far. One time, it was Phase, standing with pants down and an erection, while Bunny Cormick knelt down to get a 3-D model of said privates (for something else Phase is planning). So Bunny's roomie walks in just then. And brings back Phase's girlfriend, among others. It took a while to explain.
- Cracked mercilessly mocks this trope in number 4 of "21 Phrases Movies Don't Realize Nobody Actually Says".
- In one episode of The Bookshop Skunk, Oreo partakes in a gathering at the local park where people are being taught how to do cartwheels. While attempting to do one he winds up getting stuck halfway and does a successful handstand instead — but since Oreo is a skunk, everyone in proximity assumes the worst and runs for the hills.
- The ProJared scandal was a massive case of this. For starters, many facts were taken completely out of context and distortednote , and in one case an accuser remembered public events that never actually happenednote . The two people who claimed they'd been harassed by him while underage were actively manipulating evidence together and had a history of seeking attention, and even the affair was a result of a marriage that rivaled that of the Smiths. note The whole thing was debunked by Jared in a 40-minute video where he presents very strong evidence that disproves the claims, and calls out the press for never asking for his side of the story.
- This YouTube video is a compilation of Reddit stories of people answering the question "What's your worst 'I know this looks bad but I can explain'?" One person was seen by the cops while trying to get into their own home without their keys and nearly mistaken for a burglar. A few art students in human anatomy classes had their naked model pictures mistaken for porn. A guy was zooming in on the part of a picture where a lady's nipples were showing through her shirt not because he was a pervert, but because he was being paid to photoshop them out. Someone stuck in stop-and-go traffic accidentally spilled the custard filling of an éclaire on his crotch, causing a suspicious stain, then it went From Bad to Worse when his attempts to scrub it out with a small splash of his drink resulted in some very questionable-looking actions next to a car of teenage girls.
- The Activision Decathlon was an early Sports Game whose gameplay was based on wiggling the joystick back and forth. Players quickly found that an effective way to stabilize the Atari 2600 joystick was to hold it between their thighs. The sight of a room full of young men playing this way inspired some off-color nicknames for the game.
- An Alford plea is basically this. "I'm entering a guilty plea because I know it looks like I committed the crime, and there's plenty of evidence, but I swear, I didn't really do it."
- There are various viral videos of bull elephant seals doing really inappropriate looking things with motor vehicles. They're actually trying to beat up the vehicles.
- Surprisingly, a really common example of this is when dogs mount other dogs they know — regardless of the gender of either dog — in a way that humans usually assume is at least an attempt to have sex. Dogs, weirdly enough, don't actually mate in "doggy-style" — if the one on top actually penetrates the other, they twist round until they're rear-to-rear. The motivation for climbing on another dog's back without seemingly intending to enter him/her is obscure, but seems to be an expression of superior status.
- The mounting thing can also be applied to rabbits, rats, or other animals. Like the dogs example, people might guess that they're trying to get busy, when, really, they're asserting dominance.
- Another animal example is rattlesnakes. Since they're snakes, and have no legs, male rattlesnakes fight by wrapping their tails around each other and butting heads. When people see them, they frequently assume the snakes are mating, not fighting. (A mated pair of snakes are entwined, but lie on the ground; a fighting pair usually rear up.)