Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Actually, espresso seems to be the hardest word, at least to pronounce and if you happen to work as a ‘barista’ for any major UK coffee chain, it’s nigh on impossible: hashtag eXpresso.

The need for an apology has been highlighted several times in recent months, with David Cameron’s apology being the most in demand.  He’s been asked to apologise for the British massacre at Amritsar, for the Bloody Sunday shootings, for the police errors and subsequent cover-up at Hillsborough.  Each time the significance of the event seems to have been lost in the desperate clamour for apology, which is unfortunate but inevitable given the need for a simple banner headline.  The events (in 1919, 1972 and 1989) have nothing to do with Cameron personally and therefore he is in effect being asked to apologise for the faults of others.  I don’t think anyone would argue that British people in authority were at fault in each of these cases, and given that few if any of them are around to apologise now, it seems that if an apology is required it must carry most weight when delivered by the man at the top.  Not even the most ardent Cameron-haters would suggest that he’s apologising for any wrong-doing on his part, so what’s the problem?

We all apologise multiple times every day – when we hand over a £20 note to pay for a single stamp to when someone barges into us in the street – we simply can’t wait to apologise.  Maybe it’s because we’ll never see these people again, or because we feel that it’s merely customary to apologise, or because it’s simply a learned reaction.  We’re not really sorry of course, and maybe that’s why it’s easier to get the word out.

An apology should make everyone feel better, or at least make a person on one side of the apology feel better.  It’s a way of drawing a line under things; it signals the time to move on.   I hesitate to use the dreadful word ‘closure’, but that’s what I’m hinting at.  However, in too many cases it’s seen as a sign of weakness to apologise; one is handing the initiative to the other person and providing them with back-up ammunition to be brought out during a later argument. 

Problems tend to arise because we feel the need to categorise apologies under so many headings, some of which are likely to inflame the situation:

1.  I’m apologising for something I have done wrong and feel that it’s right to say sorry.

2.  I’m apologising even though I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong.  This tends to be used as a way of diffusing an argument one wants to get out of.

3.  I’m apologising because you’re upset with me even though I don’t think I did anything to upset you.  This is usually delivered as an apology which isn’t really an apology at all: ‘I’m sorry that you feel this way’ i.e. it’s actually mostly your fault that you feel this way.

4.  I’m apologising for the situation, even though it’s clearly someone else’s fault.  I shoulder overall responsibility and therefore it’s reasonable for me to apologise.

I’d suggest that 1 is a pretty good reason to apologise and 4 is not someone we should shy away from.  I do a fair amount of 4 in my job and it’s surprising how often it catches people off-balance when they demand an apology and you give it to them.  They often seem disappointed and had hoped they would be able to get in a few jabs before the knock-out.  It’s as though there’s something disconcerting about the immediacy and unexpectedness of an apology.

Maybe a few people in power could learn from bogun Aussie PM Julia Gillard.  Her recent adoption apology was well delivered and fully appropriate.  It didn’t make her seem weak, merely reasonable.  It may not have provided ‘closure’ to many, but I’m sure it increased the collective ‘feeling better-ness’, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.