If you were following the news a couple weeks ago, you got to hear a great example of a straightforward, unequivocal apology from MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry. Earlier, on her show, she and her guests had made fun of a photograph showing Mitt and Ann Romney with their 21 grandchildren. The subject of their jokes was that everyone in the photo was white, except for the adopted African-American baby sitting on Mr. Romney’s knee.
In a tweet following the show, Harris-Perry wrote, “I am sorry. Without reservation or qualification. I apologize to the Romney family.”
That kind of an apology is hard to come by. It’s hard to get, and it’s hard to give. But it’s the kind of apology necessary for healthy repentance and healthy relationships—and for healthy good-byes.
R is for Reconciliation
In their book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Third Culture Kid experts David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken advise that those transitioning from one country to another should build a “RAFT.” The four parts of that raft are
- Farewells, and
- Think Destination
“Reconciliation,” say the authors, “includes both the need to forgive and to be forgiven.” And this forgiveness is especially important preceding a move across time zones and oceans.
When transitions approach, those leaving—and those staying—have a small window of opportunity for a face-to-face healing of wounded relationships, a window that gets smaller as the departure gets closer. That’s why apologies become more and more necessary, even at a time when they may seem more and more difficult.
But simply deciding to say “I’m sorry” isn’t enough, because not all apologies are created equal. In fact, we live in the age of the “non-apology apology.” When you say, “I’m sorry,” do you add on any qualifiers? Do extra words reveal your true feelings?
Or do your words of remorse stand on their own, with no ifs, sos, or buts?
The “If” apology is probably the most popular way to get out of a full confession. It goes something like this: “I’m sorry if my choice of words offended you.” What that says is “If my words offended you, then you must be very thin skinned. You should not be offended by what I said, because it wasn’t really offensive. But because you are upset, I would like you to know that had I known I was dealing with someone as sensitive as you, I would not have said what I said . . in your presence.” When this kind of apology is given, is there any real doubt in the speaker’s mind that someone is offended, hurt, etc.?
Sos aren’t usually spoken—unless we’re particularly brazen—but they appear when we require something in return for our apologies. If they were actually to emerge from the recesses of our hidden motives and be vocalized, we might say, “I’m sorry . . . so now I’ll listen while you tell me there’s nothing to apologize for,” or “I’m sorry . . . so you need to stop blaming me,” or “I’m sorry . . . so you’re sorry too, right? (I’m more than willing to meet you halfway. That is the way it works, isn’t it?)”
By definition, but means that what comes second is going to contrast with what came first. Sometimes the I’m sorry is just a way to softly introduce the “truth”: “I’m sorry, but you had it coming to you.” The but can also announce excuses: “I’m sorry, but I was really tired.” It can spread around the blame: “I’m sorry, but I’m not the only guilty party here.” Or it can even pass the buck on to all of humanity: “I’m sorry, but anyone else in my situation would have done the same thing. (And any reasonable person would agree.)”
Sorry Does Seem to Be the Hardest Word
It’s difficult to apologize without tacking on a weasel word or two, to just let our “I’m sorry” resonate in silence. I should know, as I’m guilty of using every kind of disclaimer above myself, several times. I’ve also left apologies unsaid.
So why is it so hard?
Maybe it’s habit. It’s easy to fall into old patterns, in particular when we’re under stress. And few things are more stressful than voicing an apology that’s been a long time coming. If you don’t want it to come out wrong, you might need to practice beforehand.
Maybe it’s self preservation. A real apology leaves us truly vulnerable. We have to drop our guard and be willing to take our licks.
Or maybe it’s because of the word sorry itself, coming from the Old English sarig, meaning “full of sorrow.” Today, sorry can range from a deep, sorrowful regret over something said or done to a simple usage that means “excuse me,” such as when we’re walking through a crowded hallway. And we also use it to express our sympathy for someone else’s sorrow, as in “I’m sorry for your loss.” I think it’s this last usage, in the context of an apology, that often get’s us in trouble. As with several examples above, our words sound less like “I’m sorry that I wronged you” and more like “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Regardless of why it’s hard, it’s worth the effort. We need to mend relationships, and we need to bring healing to our own hearts. And we need to do it as soon as possible, so we don’t have to try to work it in at the airport.
And one more thing. There’s no guarantee that the person on the other end of an apology will forgive us. In fact, the deepest apologies come when we don’t think we deserve to be forgiven. And the greatest relief comes when we receive forgiveness anyway.
A Final Disclaimer
Maybe I’ve stepped on some toes with this post. I apologize if you’re bothered by what I’ve written, but sometimes I have a hard time getting my real meaning across, so please don’t think that any of it was on purpose.
I guess what I’m trying to say is “I’m sorry.”
Well, no. Not really.
(Melissa Harris-Perry, “An Apology from Melissa Harris-Perry,” MSNBC, January 4, 2014; David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009)