4/30/12

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.

4/5/12

Front Row Phobia

I arrived at the Jefferson Market Library event late and out of breath.  As quietly as I could, I slipped out of my coat and turned off my phone, scanning the packed reading room from where I stood in the doorway.  There were no seats left that I could see; in fact there were several people standing at the back.  Just then a library employee whispered commandingly in my ear: “Take a seat up front.”  I looked and there they were: the ubiquitous, empty front row seats.

The author had already started reading and I was loath to disturb the proceedings by walking in front of everyone. “Why didn’t the early-comers fill up the first row?” I thought, annoyed. “Why are these seats always the last ones to go? 

Obviously, there are many events for which first row seats are scarfed up instantly—such as a fashion show, or a celebrity concert.  But at smaller venues—church events, school events, readings, lectures and other casual presentations—no one ever seems to want to sit in the front.  And just as there are reasons for certain traffic patterns on highways, there are deep-seated (pun intended) psychological causes for this behavior.

For one thing there is a general sense that the front row seats are reserved for special guests—the mother of the bride, the publisher of the book, close family members or other honored guests.  People often feel presumptuous or “grabby” about taking the “best seats” in the house.

The front row is also conspicuous.  To get there, unless you are early, you have to pass in front of everyone else in the audience.  Then there is the worry that once you get all the way up there—with all eyes on you—you will discover that the seat’s already taken; you had not been able to see the head of the small child sitting there, or the coat that someone has put down, indicating it is “saved.”  Now you have to turn around, rejected, and make your way to the back again.

If you are seated in the front row, you're more exposed to everyone else in the room.  The rest of the audience can see you, but you can not see them.  You have nothing to look at but the stage or the podium, while people further back can amuse themselves before the show by surveying the other audience members.

Worse than that, you are also potentially vulnerable, or noticeable, to the person who is speaking or performing.  One of the biggest audience phobias of all is the fear of being engaged by the presenter.  (This might stem from memories of being in the classroom as a child, and being afraid to be called upon.)  While usually this is a groundless fear, if you are attending a performance of a stand-up comic, sitting in the front row is akin to being on the front lines in a war--you are open to attack, with no protective barrier between you and whatever jibes may be lobbed your way.

But perhaps the most common reason for front row phobia is the fear of getting stuck.  New Yorkers attend more performances and presentations per capita than anywhere else in the country; as a result we are jaded enough to know that many of them are going to be things we are going to want to get out of before they are over.  It’s not easy to escape from the front row (though it is actually not that different from being in the second or third row), both because of it’s geographical location in the room as well as its higher level of visibility (you can’t exactly sneak out without being seen). 

Even if we love the event, as public transit users we are used to situating ourselves near the exit in the subway or bus, or anywhere we are in a crowd.  We don’t want to be trapped one minute longer than necessary; we are always impatient to be able to get on to our next thing.  This strategic positioning practice is not restricted to people who don’t like to sit in the front row.  There are also people who insist on sitting on the aisles, making it necessary for latecomers to climb over them to get to the vacant middle seats.  I call these people “Edge-Hogs” and find their behavior even more annoying than the front row avoiders.  There should always be some seats left empty at the back and on the aisles, for people who come in late.

“Of course,” I thought, as I blushingly made my way up the center aisle to the front row, “none of this behavior is nearly as bad as people who come in late!”