I recently ordered lunch from a takeaway nearby. It was delivered by mistake to the wrong house where the surprised family happily polished off the unexpected offering. There was no apology from the delivery boy, the restaurant, or indeed the neighbour. It set me thinking: why do we find it so difficult to say ‘sorry’? Elton John was right. Sorry seems to be the hardest word.
(While on the subject, here’s the hardest phrase: I don’t know. And the hardest sentence: life.)
Sorry, I digress. Some people who say ‘sorry’ do so while suggesting that whatever happened was actually your fault. I once had a visitor reverse the car into some potted plants near the gate, and then stomp on the pots in anger while muttering something about my having put them in the wrong place. And there was no apology either.
Others swing in the opposite direction, apologising constantly. Sorry, I didn’t hear that, could you repeat it please? Sorry, do I turn right or left to the beach? I am sorry I stood by the side of the sorry road and got myself splashed by your car. Can I, sorry, ask you a question about, sorry, ahem, your barber who, sorry, gave you – and I am sorry to say this – your new haircut? Ban all the ‘sorry’ from their conversation, and they would really cut a sorry figure.
Many public figures live by the dictum attributed to Benjamin Disraeli: Never apologise, never explain. If you don’t apologise, you don’t have to explain. Apologies are seen as a sign of weakness, ruining a meticulously constructed image. To err is human, to apologise for it is foolish, they think.
Not apologising isn’t simply a matter of pride or manliness, say psychologists, it speaks of a fragile sense of self. Confident people with a strong sense of who they are don’t believe an apology is the conduit through which their self-worth oozes out.
One of the cop-outs newspapers often use when they make a mistake is to say the "error is regretted". That is no apology, as the impersonal passive voice indicates. It’s like saying, "I am sorry you didn’t like it," which focuses on your not liking it rather than on the mistake itself. Many countries have "deeply regretted" what they did to other countries in the historical past.
An insincere apology is an insult. You don’t have to go as far as Henry II did after his minions killed Thomas Beckett the Archbishop of Canterbury, and subject yourself to a series of blows with rods as penance, but it is useful to keep that standard in mind. The first rule of apologising has to be: Grovelling is good.