I was having a drink at one of my favorite Midtown eateries, one of those upscale places where the bar is secondary to the restaurant and is therefore extremely low-key. My friend and I were happily tête-à-tête when I suddenly felt someone pushing me, and I almost fell off my stool.
I turned around and saw that two tall women had squeezed their way
into a space next to me, endeavoring to share the one available seat.
They were hanging over the bar like it was a piece of wreckage from the
Titanic, and one of the women was more or less plastered against me.
Annoyed, I pressed back into her a little bit and gave her what I hoped
was a polite but indignant questioning look. She appeared slightly taken aback and then a bit sheepish, but only
for a brief moment. “Oh, sorry,” she said. Then she smiled and turned
back to her companion, not moving her position an inch. She remained
smashed up against the back of my chair as though we were in the subway
at rush hour and there was nothing else she could do.
Now, I am not unreasonably jealous of my personal space. I’m not new
to New York. It’s a crowded place. I wasn’t angry about being caused a
little discomfort. The thing that really piqued me was that the woman’s
“Oh, sorry” was completely fake. Where was my actual apology? Has real apology gone down the drain, along with thank-you notes and butter knives?
A real apology is so much more than the words “I’m sorry.” A real
apology is an admission that you have done something wrong, an
explanation of why you did it and a sincere plea for forgiveness and/or
offer of reparation. In other words, if you step on someone’s foot, it’s
not “Oops,” it’s “Oh no, I stepped on your foot! I was dodging that
waiter carrying the tray. I’m so sorry! Are you okay?”
There must be acceptance of responsibility for it to qualify as a
bona fide apology. Unfortunately, admissions of guilt are out of fashion
these days. Most of us are afraid that if we admit we are wrong, we
will lose ground. We are taught it is a weakness to say we are sorry. Certainly world leaders can never do it. They are always saying
things like, “We are so sorry you feel bad about this.” That is not an
apology. “I’m sorry, I really shouldn’t have said that” is. Many people believe that if they avoid apologizing, no one will
notice they have done anything wrong. This impulse to try to get off
scot-free is exacerbated in a big city, where you know you are never
going to see the people you’ve wronged again. You are anonymous,
unaccountable, untraceable. But acknowledging culpability is still the
right thing to do.
The second essential element of apology is to offer an explanation
for what you have done. (There’s an old saying: “Never apologize, never
explain.” Actually, you should do both.) People in New York tend to be
in a rush, and explanation takes time they don’t have. But what most
people seem to forget is that explanation is often the key to being
forgiven. “Oh my god, I didn’t see you there!” is so much better than a
cool “Sorry I bumped you.”
Finally, an apology has to include a sincere request for
forgiveness—whether you failed to hold a door open for a stranger or you
missed your friend’s birthday party. So many people toss off a casual
“sorry” in a way that translates to “I don’t really care.” It’s almost
as if we only have the trappings of regret left—like having a picture of
a flower instead of the flower and we no longer even know the
difference. But we can’t keep skating over top of our “sorry”s if we want to
remain civilized. Apologies have to be felt, gone through,
experienced—not to mention that there needs to be an attempt to correct
the bad behavior.
After about 15 minutes, the woman at the bar, still pressing against
me and threatening to push me off my stool, laid a hand on my arm as
though we were best friends. “Sarah and I are drinking cosmos!” she
said, holding up her glass with a gay smile. (Apparently she thought
that if she could make friends with me, there would be nothing wrong
with our close physical contact.)
“How nice,” I replied, “I thought I was drinking a martini, but maybe I ordered a sidecar by mistake.”
She did not get the joke. And I did not get my real apology.