How to Say “Sorry” properly

It appears that at the moment, at least for our Prime Minister, sorry seems to be the hardest word. The letter that Brown has sent to those involved in smeargate expresses regret at the course of events, but stops short of showing any remorse.

The word “apology” has its roots in the greek “apologia” which means “a defense, excuse, or justification in speech or writing, as for a cause or doctrine”. It’s about explaining what happened, or what is being argued. The modern usage of apology is about remorse, regret or sorrow for one’s own actions. Of course this explains very clearly why Brown isn’t going to say sorry, for to say sorry would be to accept responsibility.

Saying sorry is all about the words that I use. Compare the following forms of apology:

“I regret that you were hurt by what happened”

Seems nice and remorseful, but actually such an “apology” isn’t. This kind of saying sorry is meant to sound genuine, but actually doesn’t express any culpability for the action that caused the hurt and doesn’t express any indication that the actions undertaken by the individual giving the “apology” were incorrect. This is, from all I have gathered from the interviews with Nadine Dorries that have been on the media this morning, the kind of “apology” that Brown has written to all involved. It is though, not an apology at all because it admits no guilt. You can’t be sorry for what someone else does, unless you take responsibility for it.

For example, if I get really bad service at a restaurant, I call the maître d’ and tell him. If he says “I’m sorry that you’ve had a bad time, I sympathise with your distress but I’m going to do nothing about it because it was a waiter and I’m not the waiter”, then I would not even vaguely accept that as an apology. If however the response is “I’m dreadfully sorry – let me give you the desserts on the house”, then I have a proper apology, because the maître d’ has taken responsibility for the actions of his waiter and has then done an action which demonstrates that he is remorseful and wishes to set things straight.

Let’s move on:

“I’m sorry that you were hurt by what I did”

Seems nice, but in such an apology there is no regret for the actions undertaken. This is an “I’m sorry that you didn’t like what I did, but I have no regrets about what I did” kind of apology. There is no admittal that what one did was itself wrong, and therefore no repentance or remorse for those actions.

That’s a curious word isn’t it – “repentance”. It means “to turn around”. The thing about genuine remorse is that it is often accompanied by repentance. Once you realise that what you have done is wrong, you set yourself to the task of never repeating that error. But this isn’t about “I won’t do that again because it got me into trouble”, it’s about “I won’t do that again because it is the wrong thing to do”. Real repentance isn’t just about expressing regret, it’s about genuinely not wanting it to happen again.

The second kind of apology above doesn’t recognise this. It doesn’t accept the need for repentance.

Finally, there’s this kind of apology:

“I’m sorry for what I did and for what those I’m responsible for did. It was wrong. It was unacceptable. I accept full liability for any consequences. I will endeavour to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, because such actions are simply morally unjustifiable. What do you want me to do to make things better?”

This is a real apology. It expresses responsibility, remorse and repentance and more than this it accepts the consequences of the actions that necessitated an apology and doesn’t try to hide from them. Such an apology is really, really hard to give, because it is a complete expression of vulnerability. To make such an apology is to put yourself entirely in the hands of those you have wronged. You rely entirely on their mercy and grace to move forward. You don’t try to provide any excuse or explanation, you simply put your hands up and accept whatever results.

In a world of bravado and machismo and positioning and public image it is a brave, brave thing to do, and it explains why sorry is truly the hardest word to say properly.

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