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26.4.08

How To Say Sorry

I've forgotten most of what I learned in confirmation class back in the mid-90s. After all, becoming philosophically aligned with Unitarianism meant I didn't have much need for the details of Lutheran theology. One thing that has stuck with me, though, was how Pastor Paul described what it meant to say "sorry." He emphasized that you should only use that word to express genuine regret -- a feeling that you made a genuinely wrong choice (not just that you regret doing something that made other people mad at you). This feeling of genuine regret entails a desire to have a "do-over" on the thing you're apologizing for, and a commitment to not doing it again. If you think that what you did was still on balance justified, you're not actually sorry. And that may be fine -- there are many times in our lives when any course of action will have some costs and where someone else might weight those costs differently. Additionally, if you have no control over the thing being apologized for, there's no need for or point to apologizing. Demanding, offering, and accepting apologies are primarily about correcting problems in people's behavior, not establishing or undoing pecking orders. (In the confirmation class context, this was all in the context of why salvation by grace and Jesus' forgiveness doesn't mean you can just go do bad stuff as long as you remember to say "sorry" on your deathbed. The point of those doctrines is that Jesus is willing to work with you to fix your problems, not that he's given you a get out of hell free card. My evolution from Lutheran to Unitarian consisted largely of transposing statements about "God" over to statements about the spirit of love in and between sentient mortal beings, and this "sorry" stuff was one of the things that translated relatively unscathed.)

This perspective on apologies has made me have little patience for insincere use of the word sorry -- not just the famous "I'm sorry if you felt offended" public figure non-apology, but also casual use of the word "sorry" to placate others, or groveling "sorry"s that are more about the apologizer's feelings of worthlessness and rejection than about concern for correcting behavior, and especially the construction "I'm sorry, but ..."

I've been meaning to write this for a while (since long before the blog war you may think I'm obliquely commenting on), but I was motivated this morning by running across a post by PortlyDyke, who seems to have a quite similar view of how apologies should work.

4 Comments:

Blogger Robin Edgar said...

Excellent post! We are very much on the same wavelength when it comes to apologies. I refer to an inadequate and/or insincere apology as "a sorry excuse for an apology". AFAIAC Nobody is obliged to accept such an apology. I actually have a personal policy of generally accepting apologies that are offered voluntarily and unilaterally (i.e not as the result of any demand for an apology) and appear to be sincere. Interestingly enough I received and accepted just such an apology from a U*U within the last hour or so. It must be some kind of synchronicity or something. . . Of course I am still waiting for sincere and comprehensive apologies from the the UUA, its Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the Unitarian Church of Montreal and some other obstinately unapologetic U*Us. . .

3:25 PM  
Blogger Stentor said...

Robin: I'm not sure what you're aiming to accomplish by periodically raising your fight with the UUs here. I have exactly zero sway with the UUA or any UU church or other organization. Your comment would be great if you'd just stopped at the ellipsis.

11:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think part of this has to do with socialization. Even those of us who agree with you that insincere apologies are worse than none at all have it drilled into us from an early age that saying 'sorry' is just what you do when something's wrong. (I could rant at some length about how my parents taught be to say 'sorry' when I'd done something wrong, then when I was in my teens and did something wrong and said sorry, immediately started to scream "SORRY DOESN'T CUT IT!" without explaining what would. But I digress.)

There's also the sympathetic 'Sorry', as in 'I'm sorry for your loss' or 'Sorry the new job didn't work out'. The world would be a better place if the English language had a clear distinction between the two.

I've settled things in my own mind by deciding that the words "I'm sorry" are always intended as the sympatheic "sorry" and that only "I apologize" counts as an apology, then never saying the latter. It's quite possible to wish that actions of yours didn't have a bad effect on someone, while still thinking those actions were justified and the best possible response to circumstances.

1:53 PM  
Blogger ogre said...

As in:
"I really regret that you're offended. But I'm not sorry that I did what I did. I still think it was the right thing to do. Perhaps I could have done it better, or prepared you for it, or expressed myself better when I tried to explain..."

5:27 PM  

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