I'm sorry ... not
Stop apologizing for things you’re not really sorry for
By Ellen Snortland 01/19/2012
Sorry to bring up a touchy subject as we kick off a new year — oh wait … no I’m not! As the warmth of the holidays fades and winter deepens, many of us take time to reflect on, and even attempt to change, unhealthy behavior. To further the discussion, I began this column with the word I’d like to explore: “Sorry.” Are you really sorry when you say you’re sorry, or are you big enough to actually apologize only when a real apology is due? Are you compulsively apologizing or compulsively anti-apology?
On one extreme of the apology spectrum, I have witnessed far too many women in self-defense classes who, even as they kick or strike the padded mock assailant, say, “Sorry.” Please understand that these women have paid their hard-earned money to learn how to defend themselves verbally and physically, have allocated significant time from their busy lives to do so, and the first word that pops from their mouths is “Sorry.” Compulsively. Habitually. Reflexively.
It takes the instructors’ time and energy to have the women stop their automatic and unthinking “sorry” and replace it with something more appropriate, like “Stop,” “Back away,” or “No!” Hone your listening skills after reading this column and notice how many times you hear mostly women say “Sorry,” often inappropriately. It’s as if their brains have been programmed to apologize for existing, a neural pathway forged from the mistaken belief that the way to get by in life is to be suppliant. SORRY!
Conversely, on the other side of the “Unhealthy Apology Scale” are the typical alpha males who refuse to apologize, despite having been caught red-handed at doing something damaging to themselves, their wives and family, fans, shareholders or constituencies. Can you guess any of the personalities I’m referring to? The men with their pants down around their ankles? We’ve seen less than stellar examples from religious patriarchs, political men on both sides of the political spectrum, disgraced CEOs, celebrities and sports figures.
Emblematic of the alpha male creed to never apologize is the almost always male-helmed corporation, which (not who) issues a faux apology for face-saving reasons in a ruse to look good. “Hey, what’s everyone fussing about? We APOLOGIZED, didn’t we?” Not really.
A recent local example is the phony-baloney apology letter that Ron Litzinger, president of Southern California Edison, sent out in what is most likely a CYA (Cover Your Ass) move after Edison’s dismal response to the windstorms that hit the San Gabriel Valley last month. As Altadena residents, we waited for five days to have our power restored. In the scope of the universe, five days without electricity is not even a blip on the screen of horrific problems. However, in the realm of foreseeability — a key word in determining negligence in tort law — gee whiz, who could possibly foresee a disaster hitting Southern California!? Sarcasm aside, if the windstorm power debacle is any indication of how SCE will handle outages from fires, earthquakes or mudslides, everyone had better follow Litzinger’s advice to prepare for natural disasters. Mr. Litzinger says in his letter, “We would like to apologize for your inconvenience and thank you for your patience and understanding during this significant event.” He would “like to,” but doesn’t really.
A true apology is one given without excuses for why it happened, followed up with a request that the aggrieved party let the guilty party know what can make them whole, that takes specific actions to ensure the event never happens again.
Obviously, SCE can’t promise to prevent a weather occurrence, aka “Act Of God,” but it can certainly make promises that are specific, beyond recommending that we prepare for disasters. Good advice, yes, but not advice I need from my power company.
In my personal life, I recently truly screwed up and had to apologize. I won’t be specific, because the “wronged” party hasn’t given me permission to share our story. I agreed to do something for someone. They’d already paid for it. I didn’t do it. It was that simple. Now, the truth is that I had a problem with my computer and calendar software that was real; I didn’t make that up, and it was the direct cause of my screwup. But it doesn’t matter. The person who was expecting my services didn’t get them. I longed to give them my story, so they wouldn’t be as upset. But I was determined instead to practice the true apology: “I didn’t deliver and I am sorry. I take full responsibility for what happened. What can I do to make it up to you? I’ll never do it again.” Done.
As was the person’s right, they opted to not use my services again, and that’s their right. I paid for my mistake. End of story.
As corny as it sounds, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to stop saying a “sorry” that’s empty, apologize fully when it’s appropriate and to do my part to shift our culture of meaningless or non-existent apologies. Anyone else up for that?
Ellen Snortland teaches writing in Altadena. Contact her through snortland.com.