Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
How do apologies affect the apologizee?
Comic photograph of army officers cleaning their friend's teeth
Thanks to Sune Auken, Carolyn Miller, and a very bad dental hygienist, I’ve continued thinking about apologies.
I’ll start with the more trivial story. It will take me a little longer than my usual post.
Last week I went to my regular 3-month teeth cleaning (a 3-month cleaning schedule is the reward for having some deep pockets, and not the good kind). My regular dental hygienist had dislocated her thumb and was having thumb surgery the next day, so I had a substitute, a hygienist brought in part-time to cover those appointments.
This is going to get a bit graphic, so those with weak stomachs might look away.
This hygienist had an unusual style—she cleaned my teeth without any rinsing or suctioning or spitting. When she finally stopped polishing, I left my mouth gaping, waiting for her to finally suction out all the gritty polish sitting on my tongue and in my mouth. Nothin’. I finally had to swallow all the nasty gunk so I could speak, and choked out “I was waiting for you to rinse and suction!” “Huh,” she shrugged.
That continued through the scraping and the flossing. yuck
And then the final rinse. She sprayed and sprayed and sprayed and sprayed. And sprayed. No suction, just spraying. I was gurgling with all the water collected in my throat. Finally, I had to move her hand away from my mouth and swallow, hard. “I was drowning!” I gasped. “Huh,” she said. Then she brought in the suction. “Do your teeth feel rinsed now?” she asked. Yep, yep, they do. Let me outta this chair.
image of I'm Outta Here memecrunch.com
If you’ve been looking away, you can rejoin the story now, because now comes the part relevant to apologies.
That evening, I received an email from the business asking me to rate them. OK, I decided. I wasn’t going to say anything, but they want to know. So I sent a private email instead of a public rating. I described my gagging experience with the hygienist and suggested she wasn’t doing their business any favors. The next day, I received a response from the “Front Office” and a woman I’ll call “Arlene.” Since her message ended with one of those business confidential statements, I’ll have to paraphrase and won't be able to capture her tone.
Arlene said she apologized sincerely, though "we" were surprised that I had a bad experience with a hygienist so experienced in their office. She explained that, in the future, my “options” were to see a different hygienist in their office or see my regular dentist (rather than these specialists).
I was ticked off. Trying to figure out why—after all, she did sincerely apologize, never said the word "but," and vowed not to repeat it—I saw in the original apology a clear message that I was somehow perceiving an offense that could not possibly have occurred (they were surprised; the hygienist had over 25 years experience with them) AND that if I didn’t like it I could go elsewhere. The message to me? I was wrong, and now I had done something wrong.
I replied to the email with a few more details (which I thought showed clearly that there had been a real problem), protested that I was not especially particular about hygienists and had used many different ones successfully over the years with them, and said that I could indeed go back to seeing only my dentist and not their practice if that was preferable. Like I said, I was a little ticked off. But now I also felt on the defensive, that I had to convince them there really had been something that deserved an apology. I wasn't to blame.
I’m sorry to say that Arlene replied with a brief, cheery email, pleased that I hadn’t had any other bad experiences with them and hoping that my original hygienist won’t injure herself again so that I never ever have to see anyone else ever. Oh, and a smiley face.
Now I don’t want to be too hard on this poor front office representative trying to make me happy. But I do want to notice my emotional reaction to that apology. There’s more to an apology than just hitting the key elements (and Harriet Lerner will have much more to say about apologies in her full book). Most of all, I want to notice the very real impact that apologies can have not just on the apologizer—Lochte losing endorsement deals—but also on the apologizee.
Like a bad teeth cleaning, receiving a bad apology can make you feel worse than when you started.
Perhaps it has something to do with belittlement. A bad apology belittles the apologizee, the person getting the apology.
Carolyn Miller, in the Comments to my last Monday post, shared a link to a great youtube video posted August 23 by ArgueLab on Public Apologies.
In it rhetorician Jay Heinrichs points to the same three recent apologizers—Lochte, Clinton, and Trump—and suggests that the reason public figures have so much trouble apologizing is that “an apology is an act of self-belittlement.” And that’s hard for public figures. So he offers four tips for good apologies: own up to it, focus on your own emotions, describe your mistake as an exception to the rule of your usual behavior, and fix the mistake.
The rhetorical strategies agree nicely with the ones I listed from psychologist Lerner. After all, emotions and empathy are a big part of both rhetoric and psychology, and they’re a big part of apologies.
But any apology "is an act of self-belittlement," not just the apology of public figures. And when the apologizer can't perform the act the apology genre requires, they can pass the emotion on to the person they're apologizing to. Since I can't accept the emotion of having made a mistake, there must be something wrong with you.
The apology I received from Arlene left me feeling belittled. Rather than her accepting self-belittlement for the business through her apology, even privately, she belittled my experience, and me. Aristotle said, according to ArgueLab’s video, that “the main cause of anger is belittlement.” I felt belittled, so I felt angry. As I said, ticked off.
The main cause of anger is belittlement"
Public figures and businesses aren’t the only ones who have trouble with the self-belittlement of an apology. Parents, too, can struggle with apologizing to children. Sune Auken pointed out in a series of painfully clear tweets that apologies from parents often belittle children
The child receives an apology, and yet feels blamed. So many apologies, as Sune explains, give the apologizer power and let the apologizer abuse the apologizee.
“I’m sorry, but you made me do that”
“I’m sorry, but if you weren’t so sensitive”
“I’m sorry that you feel that way”
Our feelings can be hurt before an apology and again by an apology.
To really see an apology at work, we need to see the one receiving it as well as the one giving it. That’s true of all genres.
And we need to see the emotions at play in an apology, whether regret or belittlement. That’s true of all genres, too.
Genres have emotional impact on people who receive them.
Genres do things to people as well as for people
image of Succhiotto by Simona Z flickr
Did I make too much of Arlene’s less-than-skillful apology? Feel free to tell me in the comments. What other genres do you notice that have strong emotional impact? What other genres hide their impact in supposed good intent?