Erich Segal couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only does love not mean ‘never having to say you’re sorry’, it means learning how to say, and mean, it sincerely. But how many of us get it right? I work with words and, yet, it’s taken me an interpersonal skills workshop to learn that an apology is worthless when accompanied by qualifiers and excuses.
Like when you follow up a meltdown at home with ‘I’m sorry I shouted but I had a bad day at work’. Your wife may let it pass because she loves you but don’t be fooled into thinking that your words did the trick. That was not an apology you uttered. All you did was try and slime out of a sticky situation (of your own making) by using an excuse as a crutch. If you were really sorry, you would have simply said, ‘I’m sorry I shouted at you. It won’t happen again.’
The most insincere is perhaps the “reluctant apology,” like the ones children blurt out when ordered to do so by their parents. When a child sulkily tells another, ‘Sorry I took your toy,’ you know she’s just trying to get her parents off her back and ward off possible punishment when she gets home. As adults, we try to be a little more sophisticated but are just as fake. Like when we say something that we know people will find distasteful, following it up with ‘I’m sorry if this offends anyone’. Don’t be fooled by the sorry; what we actually mean is there’s nothing wrong with us. If anyone’s offended, it’s because they take offence too easily.
Few of us utter real apologies. Either we over-explain or we make excuses when we find ourselves in the wrong, in a desperate attempt to save face. As in ‘Sorry for not coming over last night as promised but I got caught up in meetings’; ‘I know we were to marry this year but I’m sorry I can’t because my father is against it’. Psychologists say we fall back on justifications because we find it difficult to reconcile our harsh words/behaviour with our perception of ourselves as good people.
Uttering an unqualified apology would require us to acknowledge that we are not that good after all. That’s tough to swallow—and say out loud. So instead we do what Tolstoy described so eloquently in his Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I’m very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means—except by getting off his back.”
How do we stop being hypocritical and apologise genuinely? As I have learnt (at long last), there are many elements involved. The first thing to do is to acknowledge the hurt caused to the other party. It doesn’t matter if your actions were intentional or not, you have to take responsibility for the situation and ask for forgiveness. Also implicit in your words should be a promise that you will not goof up again.
I know it sounds complicated, but it’s not. Also, not only is it never too late to say you’re sorry, the effect of your words—if genuine—tends to be instantaneous, with the other person’s anger vanishing and coldness thawing right before your eyes. Saying sorry is a cheap price to pay for that, I’d think.