I'm Terribly Sorry I'm so Bad at Being Sorry

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment