Monday, July 19, 2010

How about an Apology?

You know how it's said that the three hardest words in the world to say are "I love you"? Well I've come to realize those are exceeded only by the two hardest words to say: "I'm sorry."

It's interesting how much we drill into our children the importance of being sorry, of admitting guilt and asking for forgiveness ("It's not nice to hit people . . . go and say you're sorry!") but it seems to be a lesson that is reserved only for the very youngest among us. It's as if we've all kind of agreed as a society that children should definitely understand when they're in the wrong and be ready to admit their guilt and beg for clemency but the rest of us are too mature and well-educated to stoop to such weakness.

I read a book not too long ago--I'd quote it here for you except that I can't remember which one it was--that talked about malpractice among doctors. One study said it was easy to predict which doctors would be sued for malpractice and which would not. Of course there are a small handful of cases that will go to court no matter who is involved but the vast majority of times a patient decided to sue a doctor occurred when the doctor had a personality that inhibited communication. Patients who felt their doctors were real people who cared and listened to them were far less likely to sue, even under great provocation; conversely, patients who felt their doctors didn't listen, or even if they only perceived that their doctors didn't care, were far more likely to haul them in for a good old-fashioned lawsuit.

My husband has seen this in the legal field--people who have been wronged (or who merely feel they've been wronged) often don't want lots of money or notoriety for their situation. They don't want damages or fame, they just want someone to pay attention to them, to hear what they have been through and then to say (get this) "I'm sorry."

So if that's all it takes to make confrontations go away why is it so hard for people to say these words? Politicians, companies, churches--all seem to have the hardest time just admitting that they messed up and I find myself watching the news many nights and thinking, "Why don't they just say they're sorry? They need to stop explaining how they're not at fault and just give a big, honest apology. Forget the lawyers, forget how it might put them at risk because if they really and honestly cared about what they've done they'd put those who had suffered above their own interests." I don't know anyone who really and truly thinks they're perfect, I think we can agree that as human beings we are all full of weaknesses and errors yet how infrequently do I ever hear one adult, industry or organization apologizing. They're usually more concerned about their image than their customers, members or acquaintances than making things right or helping those whom they've wronged.

I suppose we think it's a sign of weakness to admit to being in the wrong--or that it will get us into legal trouble by admitting guilt. Perhaps it goes back to our tribal roots where it was kill or be killed, survival of the fittest and all that but really, that's too ridiculous a notion to be taken seriously. Have you ever in all your life had someone sincerely and humbly apologize to you where your heart wasn't softened towards them and you felt instantly kinder and more gently disposed? One apology usually feeds another so that if you can get your mouth to agree to it, the minute the words are out it usually prompts a similar feeling and response in the other party.

But too often we're concerned about who is right and who is wrong and you'd think that the greatest sin someone can commit it to say they're sorry when they "haven't done anything wrong."

Since when is being right a prerequisite for feeling regret? Putting aside the chance that both sides may have done things suitable for repentance, last time I checked it's a perfectly acceptable human emotion to feel sorrow over a bad situation or a misunderstanding or to take the high road and be the first to admit wrongdoing regardless of culpability. I've never known anyone to be angry because someone else had the audacity to apologize to them.

As a mother one of the things I've worried about the most is messing up my children--of committing some parenting error that would irrevocably ruin their characters or psyches--but several years ago I read an article that talked about how parents who are strong enough (yes, I said strong) to admit when they had made a mistake and apologize for it will actually turn out better, healthier and more well-adjusted children ready for the world than those who are, at first glance, nearer to perfection.

The reality is that children are going to make mistakes just as we parents do and the best thing we can teach them is how to say "I'm sorry." Yes they can learn this by having us monitor their playdates and enforce their apologies whenever they step out of line (this does to some extent help to teach them empathy and other healthy social emotions) but the best thing we can do is to set the example by admitting to our own errors and foibles.

When we can apologize for our mistakes and ask for their forgiveness it not only teaches them how to repent for themselves but it gives them a more realistic view of human nature, a better set of values to emulate and a greater sense of who we really are. We're not just some super-human being wrapped up in a bubble of perfection who demands respect and obedience--we're their flawed parents who are trying the best we can to do right by them and even though we make mistakes we recognize when we're in error and care enough about them and our roles as parents to make it good as best we can. There are many mistakes you can make as a parent but the only unforgivable one is not to say you're sorry when you're wrong.

Of course when you take this road you'll find yourself spending half of your parental time apologizing but in the end it will do far more for your kids than any false image of a superhero ever could.

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Jolanthe said...

While society in general has such a difficult time apologizing, it truly hit home to me how hard it was when one of our country's politicians said {after he blatantly lied about his military service} ~ "I misspoke."

Really? Misspoke? That doesn't quite fit what happened...and what message does that send?

Just irks me that as a whole people have such a difficult time owning up to the wrong they do when they do it.

Anonymous said...

I agree, genuine apologies are a rare thing.

My husband and son were in a car accident a few months back. The woman who hit them came up to the window apologizing profusely saying that she turned too quickly, and then when the police came, she said it was my husband's fault and even said she was coming down a different road than she really was. My son was completely baffled at why someone would say they were sorry and then lie about it 5 minutes later.

I agree with Jolanthe, my biggest pet peeve is someone who can't admit they're in the wrong.

~3 Sides of Crazy~ said...

I agree with Jolanthe - using semantics is not appropriate when the truth best fits. It seems these days that everyone tries to "spin" every situation.

Let's face it, we're human and mistakes and/or poor judgment will be made. Corporations are made up of humans so once again mistakes will happen. It's how they are handled that will reinstate our faith and belief in that person or organization.

I vote to bring back the simple days of please, thank you and I'm sorry spoken with heartfelt truthful emotion.

Nancy from 2 Mountains said...

I agree with all 4. I remember my older boys asking me why they had to apologize for some misdeed while their friends got away with it. As for my youngest, they're growing up with older siblings who are responsible YA and aren't afraid to say they're sorry. Sadly, today's norm seems to be the opposite. It's his/her/its fault mentality.

M said...

I think the words "I'm sorry" would be a lot more prevalent if our legal society didn't equate the words with an admission of wrong-doing or guilt. There are times when a doctor could be truly sorry for the situation and willing to reach out to a patient in empathy, but not be liable for causing it. Unfortunately, that doctor has been forewarned by his medical school advisor, his employer and his malpractice insurance carrier to never, never utter those words because they could be used against him/her in a court of law.

But the point is well taken. If I owe an apology to a friend I try to make it in front of my children, if appropriate. And if I can't then I am sure to share with them that I had the experience. It is certainly something that isn't modeled enough!

Laura said...

I think the book you were referring to is Blink by Malcom Gladwell. Loved that one.

Viki said...

As far as public apologies go, I'm pretty much over those. I think most times politicians/actors etc. apologize more for being caught than for the actual transgression and to try to get off the hook with the public. In fact, most times I don't think they need to make a public apology. When I hear them it just sounds like blah, blah, blah to me ;-) Personal apologies are of course different.

Fawn said...

Hear, hear, Michelle! I think I was pretty young when I first truly learned the power of an apology, probably around 10 or 11. I think it was a fight I had with my mother and I can't remember the circumstances, but I do clearly remember wrestling with my pride and fear for a good long time in my room, and then finally going out and saying, "I'm sorry." And instantly everything was better. It made a huge impression on me.

My other big impression moment came when I was talking to a friend of my husband's. He said something that really offended me (again, I can't remember what) and I called him on it. I'm not usually one to make a scene, but I was so stung that I started in on what probably would have become a tirade, except he very quickly and very sincerely said, "You're right. I'm sorry." Poof, no more reason to be angry. I think it's significant that I can't even remember the topic.

branda50 said...

I don't remember being humbly apologized to but I am sorry to say I have had to apologize to a friend of mine.....I had said something about them and when they questioned me about it I was in tears as I didn't realize it would bother them so much....
I have to explain so you don think I just go around bad mouthing people....I said I didn't think they should be in charge of the money at an event we were having because they were from another country and might not understand our monies....Innocent enough?....I guess one never knows and I learned the hard way...We are still friends and I am so glad she called me out on it....

Inkling said...

This is an awesome post. So many things you wrote resonated with me, and I felt like I was in some Southern church saying "Amen" every two seconds.

My folks rarely apologized, and always tacked on excuses listing my sins as reasons for their anger. It wasn't until my wedding day, as I was sitting on my folks' steps in my robe waiting to put on my dress and head to the wedding site, that my mom sat down next to me and apologized for some pretty big things. That was huge for me, and I will remember that more clearly than a lot of other things from that day.

We have a toddler, and my husband and I are already finding ourselves telling him we are sorry and asking him to forgive us for our impatience or when we do something foolish. He may not really grasp what it is, but we both feel it's so important that the "big" people admit they are wrong just as much as teaching children to do it.

When I met with the head of the local hospital and two department heads to describe what had happened during my birth injury and to ask them to help me find healing and some semblance of justice, the first thing the hospital head told me was how sorry he was that I'd gone through such a horrendous experience. Because he said it with sincerity and followed it up with specific comments, it made a difference in my heart. Granted, he didn't do a great job with helping me get the care needed to fix the injury, and I had to go the States, but his apology at least diffused the whole "I am ready to make some heads roll" attitude I had.

Even now, as I'm waiting to see a pediatrician for my little guy and have to go to the same office that the maternity doctors who were responsible for my injury, I am wondering what will happen. It's a small office and there's no way to avoid seeing the staff that hurt me. I already know they don't think they did anything wrong as they have so eloquently told me, but I know that Someone is impressing on my heart that I need to let them go and forgive (even though that doesn't mean admitting it was okay or ever trusting them again). I'm curious to see if there will be any interaction, and how I will handle it. Knowing that an apology will be miraculous and unlikely, I have to figure out how to walk in there with grace and kindness instead of bitterness and righteous anger. It would be a heck of a lot easier if they'd just say, "We are so sorry we didn't listen to you. We are so sorry our care caused you to be injured." If they just took responsibility, it would be so much easier to let go and forgive.

Truly, I think world peace could be achieved if we utilized those two words and an attitude of humility.

Thank you for this post. It's a keeper, for certain.

Rachel said...

Great post. Thank you. I often think about how hard it always was for me to say "I'm sorry" and how my parents would get mad at me for not saying it in a genuine way. Can't understand why it felt so embarrassing. My 2-year-old says it all the time now, and it is so incredibly powerful. I kind of melt (even if I should hold firm).

Maura said...

Great post on a timely topic. It seems a lot of us are thinking about "apology", perhaps because in public discourse a real, genuine and heart-felt "I'm sorry." is so rare.

Thanks for stopping by my blog, btw.

~Maura Alia Badji
The Moxie Bee

Cat said...

very timely post....
Just yesterday I apologized to my 7 yr old daughter. We were visiting family - my daughter became bored and asked to get a book from the car. I told her "just a minute" several times before accompanying her to the car for her book. On the way back inside, it dawned on me - she had behaved all day, and every time she asked for her book she'd done so politely. I realized I hadn't had a good reason for putting her off - but I had and in the process was teaching her it's ok to lie because my first "just a minute" turned into 15 (or more) minutes. Before going back inside I made a point to stop and apologize for not doing what I said, when I said.

It may not seem like a big thing, but the reality is everything - big and small - all of it shapes our children.

MRMacrum said...

Unfortunately many of our human traits run counter to the ideals we set for ourselves. As you alluded to with your "kill or be killed" reference. Seems we have evolved enough to know the difference between what's right and what's wrong, but we haven't hit that level yet as a species where it is ingrained in our genetic makeup.

I am not offering excuses, but it would seem that something deeper than just self interest is at the heart of many of our failings.

My wife and I were honest with our child from the beginning and most often apologized when we screwed up. I always resented as a kid hearing "Do what I say, not as I do". I was not going to subject my kid to that.

Stephanie said...

Excellent points. I agree that the best way to teach the fine art of the apology is by example.

Lisa @thebeadgirl said...

you have no idea how timely your post was. thank you for the great reminder. as i teach the small people i'm responsible for...i *possibly* need the small nudging in my own soul to remember to say "i'm sorry".

thank you.

Julie said...

Such a great article and I agree with so many of the comments. Another part of this I recently discussed with a friend and then my husband is how to accept an apology. So often with our kids one child does something wrong (steal a toy, hit, etc) and we nudge the child to apologize and then we tell the victim to say "It's ok." But kids are terribly terribly literal and stealing or hitting was NOT ok. This sends such a mixed message to the kid: "It's ok to do it, just apologize afterwards and they'll have to approve of it." So we've been working with our kids and modeling between ourselves and with our kids when we need to apologize that the victim can say something like "Thank you for apologizing. I was very upset but that helps me feel better. Please don't do that again, but we're still friends and I'll always love you." and then move on. Of course, it often comes out as just "thank you. Please don't do that again." but that's still better than confusing them by saying "it's ok."

tacy said...

did you hear the NPR story on the Diane Rehm show about apologies? It was on last weekend, i believe. very good stuff.

Carrie said...

This is one thing that I will never forget about my dad - even though he occasionally acted out of anger, he always came later & said he was sorry, and it had a big impact on me!

Tootlee said...

When I was in nursing school, we were taught to not admit that we'd make a mistake. Unfortunately, like you said in the post...this is becoming the norm.

I actually quit nursing school because I could not ethically deal with what they were teaching. Things are not like they were even 30 years ago. Pretty sad.

It's so important for us, both as parents, and as professionals in any area to know that it's ok to make mistakes--and apologize for them! The world is so much happier when people realize that everyone around them also makes mistakes.

Fantastic post. We need more like this around the internet.