Sunday, July 10, 2011

Overuse of Apologies and "Sorry"

A couple of months ago, I read an article in Men’s Health magazine on the topic of being prepared for “Master[ing] Any Disaster”. The article overall was not every impressive, but I remember one specific subtopic as being very much to the point. That subtopic was titled “Don’t Apologize for Anything – Ever” and, as its title suggests, was about how our culture has become overly apologetic – to the point of throwing out apologies with little meaning attached. Although the author is a little extreme in his viewpoint of advocating that we never offer apologies, I think there nonetheless is merit in what he is advising.

We hear the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” being thrown out in everyday situations. Some of us probably are even guilty of such behavior – I think I apologize more for than the average individual. And that is the simple truth: we are a nation of apologizers. There are no perfect people but, perhaps in our quest to attain perfection, we compensate for our shortcoming or screw ups by apologizing for them. For one, apologizing often does make the culprit feel better by creating a sense of exhuming virtuous behavior (e.g. the “I am being the better person” attitude). But the act of apologizing rarely results in eliciting the desired effect of being forgiven for that shortcoming or screw up – at least via the casual utterance of “sorry”. Instead, I will argue that the act of apologizing has the unintended effect on the audience.

How can apologizing have the opposite effect than we intend? Well, there are three main reasons for this. First and foremost, no apology is ever considered sufficient for the mistake committed. Examples include Tiger Wood’s constant apologies for his misdeeds, or the frequent homophobic slurs uttered by athletes and politicians alike. How can words ever bring wholeness to something broken? What we care to see is action, or a decisive commitment to act in the future – and not repeated acts of hosting press conferences to apologize. The second reason tacks onto the first reason: the delivery process and the number of times we apologize. If we are always apologizing, then those we are apologizing to will quickly grow tired of hearing us. In addition, people often do not take apologizing seriously – it takes more than just “I’m sorry about ___”. One should offer an apology with sincerity and reason for it, and be unwilling to walk away without an acknowledgement (not necessarily a resolution) from the audience. The third reason is that apologies generate demand for future punishment. Unfortunately, we tend to be vengeful individuals; we given others a chance to extract revenge on us.

On a personal level, I have been reflecting on this lately. At the workplace, for example, I sometimes apologize for screw ups but often do not hear back about them. Inasmuch as I desire to be seen as responsible, I fear the apologies become a reflection of my incompetence to coworkers. Hence this presents a dilemma: how do you project an image of responsibility and accountability, without being remembered negatively for the screw ups? I think the first step is reducing the number of times I apologize; the second step is to be serious (pretty much what I advocated in the previous paragraph). And in my last email to Mandy, I definitely apologized a bit too much – a lot of self-blame and expressions of guilt. In addition, a couple of days ago I heard a string of “I’m sorry” from Comcast customer representatives about scheduling errors.

The author of the article I read brought up an interesting example of model behavior on the issue of apologizing: George Bush. The former president was ridiculed throughout his presidency for the mistakes he made but, true to the author’s claim, he never (or lately very rarely) admitted failure.

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