One of the most insincere words ever spoken is from one child to another -- "Sorry."
As soon as they are old enough to form simple sentences and big enough to sock a playmate on the head with a Duplo, children are forced by hovering mothers to apologize. And it's usually carefully scripted.
"Bryce, tell your sister you're sorry you knocked your space shuttle into the house she was building for her My Little Pony. Take it from the top. Oh, here's a rewrite -- that's castle, not house."
There are children's books dedicated to The Apology: "I Did It, I'm Sorry," "I am Sorry" and "I'm Sorry," which comes in a pop-up version. I'm guessing that on page three, Tyler's fist pops out, page four, the bump on Billy's head. I am writing a sequel from Billy's point of view tentatively called, "I'm Sorry You're Not Sorry!"
And to bring the apology theme full circle, there's "Sorry," which is about a child's insincere apology for which he must, er, apologize.
My own kids were so adverse to the forced apology, they refused to say the entire word. Displaying an extraordinary mixture of compromise and stubbornness, they'd utter only, "Sorr."
Although teaching children compassion and remorse is invaluable, I find it ironic how rarely grown-ups manage to do it successfully.
Adults dodge sincere regret with the non-apology -- pretending to apologize without admitting wrongdoing. Here are some common non-apologies that recently made the news:
"I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative."
"I do apologize if he's offended by that."
"I just wanted to apologize if anyone took it the wrong way."
Apologizing because someone is inexplicably insulted or confused is not an apology. It's a put-down. "I'm sorry you misunderstood and took offense" = "Too bad you're so stupid and hypersensitive."
Most people miss the non-apology con because it looks and sounds like a duck. It's kind of like, "How does she look?" "She has a great personality!" Nice to hear, but something else entirely is meant.
The non-apology is so common, it's alarming when the real thing happens. Like the time I followed up an angry e-mail by storming into my daughter's middle school. There had been a mix-up of dates on the parent calendar that caused me to needlessly make (and by that I mean buy) two huge sheet cakes that read, "Congratulations Symphonic Band."
The assistant principal met me in the lobby and said simply, "I am sorry." I ended up apologizing to her for my e-mail, anger, outfit and coffee breath.
I have since tried to make my apologies sincere, direct and minty-fresh.
My first try was at Kohls, where I was convinced the cashier misplaced my gift card. After asking her to look several times, I walked away muttering to myself, stopping only when I found the gift card on my car seat.
I returned to the store and walked up to the cashier.
Me: "Remember me -- gift card? Funny thing is, I found it!"
Her, ringing up customers.
Me: "Sorry I blamed you."
Her, managing a smile.
Me: "It was on my car seat! Crazy, huh?"
Me: "Anyway, I just wanted to apologize ... ."
Her: "Look, I'm sorry but I'm very busy."
Me: "Apology accepted."
I'll start simpler next time: "Sorr."
[October 3, 2007]
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