If you read the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny, you be will be familiar with the “four words” that are guideposts for Gamache as he navigates both his work and his personal life–Penny works them in to almost every one of her mysteries. The phrases are: “I need help,” “I don’t know,” “I was wrong,” and “I’m sorry.”
The fact that Gamache values these four phrases tells you a great deal about the kind of man he is: self-aware, humble, honest, and a man of integrity.
If you are a human–and I assume if you are reading this blog you are–you don’t need to be told how deceptively simple these phrases are: they are so short, and theoretically, they roll off the tongue so easily. But the reality is, they are some of the hardest phrases words to say in the entire English language. This is, of course, not because they are complex, multisyllabic, or hard to pronounce. It is (at least in part) because of how vulnerable they make us feel, how exposed, how weak. They take power away from us, and open ourselves up to others, and that is always scary.
I could say a lot about all four of these phrases, but in this blog post I want to focus on just the last one, which is one of the phrases we often struggle with the most. I want to reflect on why is it often so hard for us to say we are sorry.
I have been thinking about it because of a recent episode of “The Allusionist” I listened to awhile ago–you can find the podcast here: https://www.theallusionist.org/transcripts/sorry?rq=sorry It is a quirky, unusual podcast about language; I love the host and always learn something interesting from each episode.
In this particular episode, the host was joined by two guests who run a website called sorry watch; you can find it here: https://sorrywatch.com/.
On this website, which I never knew existed, the hosts analyze public apologies, false apologies, corporate apologies, etc.; and they also talk about what constitutes a genuine apology.
I was instantly drawn into their conversation, because it reminded me of a book that I read several years ago and used in a class, called The Art of the Public Grovel. [It is very good–here is the link: https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691138107/the-art-of-the-public-grovel And, by the way, the subtitle is Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America, so you know it is going to be a page turner!]
The point that was made in both the book and in the podcast, is that most of us either don’t know how to apologize well, or simply refuse to–and we often weren’t taught how to apologize, well, either. (As children, we often said “sorry” just because our parents made us, and it felt more like a punishment than the right thing to do. Is it any wonder that as adults, we still feel basically the same way?) And, besides, there are so many ways to get it wrong, ways that serve to make us feel better: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” “I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t have….” “I regret this situation….”
In my mind, it is important to reflect on all this, because I think the inability to say the words “I’m sorry” [and really mean them] contributes to a lot of misunderstanding and hard feelings in our personal and professional relationships, and prevents us from learning together and building bridges.
To change, to grow, form relationships of trust and respect across differences require being courageous enough to engage in difficult conversations, and it may even entail a misstep or two. That is to be expected, and it is OK–as long as you can say “I’m sorry.”
Sometimes it is the mere fear of doing something wrong and being put in the position of needing to apologize that prevents us from even trying to engage others–and so we are silent, and we stay on the sidelines.
My favorite part of the website “Sorrywatch” is the little box that describes “The Six Steps to a Good Apology” (you can find similar versions of these all around the web). Here they are:
- Use the right words–actually say I’m sorry!
- Say specifically what you are sorry for.
- Show that you understand why what you said/did was bad.
- Don’t let an explanation become an excuse.
- Explain the actions you are taking to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
- If you can make reparations, make them.
The good news is that the more we practice apologies, the easier they become; and as we see the relationship benefits we reap from them–and the personal growth they foster–they become less intimidating, and more inviting.
If you have some time, poke around on the website–the latest post on “superfluous apologies” is really interesting: https://sorrywatch.com/raindrops-keep-falling-on-my-superfluous-apologies/ You might even find yourself inspired to try out an apology or two yourself.