Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
I’m sorry, but I have to return to apologies again.
Oh wait, I can’t be too sorry about that or I wouldn’t do it. But recent events connected to apologies just seem too hard to ignore, and they connect once again to our own apologies. The recording of Donald Trump's lewd comments about women prompted him to record another apology of sorts. And early in last night's debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, Clinton offered a litany of Trump's actions for which he had never apologized. "He never apologizes for anything to anyone." Trump responded with his own accusation that Clinton owes Obama an apology. And on it went.
In August, I wrote on this blog about good and bad apologies, exploring what makes a good apology and then, in a second post, what made some apologies feel bad. But these recent stories have helped me spot gaps I was ignoring, other ways apologies do and especially don't work for us.
First a quick reminder of the qualities of a good apology, based on Harriet Lerner’s recent work. Here’s how to offer a good apology:
So a good apology might say, “I’m sorry that I broke your phone by using it as a hockey puck. I promise not to do that again.”
Some people apologize badly by choosing their words badly: "I'm sorry you feel that way. But you made me do it."
But sometimes apologies don't work even though they look like they should.
Let me run through some examples that I keep thinking about.
I've often genuinely said, “I’m sorry I interrupted you. I’ll do my best not to do it again.” But I’m an interrupter by family upbringing. I sincerely regret interrupting you, and I know that it’s rude in interactions with people other than my mutually interrupting family (it may even be rude within my family). But it’s highly likely that I’ll do it again. I’ve been trying to correct the habit for at least 20 years and I still do it. Maybe I haven't fully committed to not repeating the action. After all, I’ve corrected other bad habits in that time. Or perhaps I can’t change that habit on my own.
Some actions that would seem to deserve an apology may come not from a bad habit but from a personality disorder or difference in the brain that someone really can’t control without some professional help. Should a person with autism, for example, or postpartum depression, or narcissistic personality disorder apologize for their behavior and promise to be different? Repeating Lerner’s caution from the earlier post seems appropriate here:
People can apologize for what they do. They cannot apologize for who they are.”
Hillary Clinton’s apology for calling Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables” might illustrate this one since, as Gail Collins points out in her NY Times column, Clinton began that insult with “To just be grossly generalistic . . . “
“You can’t say you’re sorry for something you admitted was wrong when you were saying it.” –Gail Collins
Apologizing for doing something you knew was wrong at the time reminds me of a saying my mother had—one of her many, many words of what I fondly call brutal wisdom
“People feel guilty so they don’t have to do what they don’t want to do.” –my mother
These words applied, for example, when I felt guilty for telling the mother of six kids I was busy when she asked me to babysit and then telling the mother of one infant I was available that same night. I confessed my guilt to Mom only after I was caught. (It turns out the two couples were going out together that night. Oops.) According to my mother, feeling guilty made me feel better about behaving badly, while still letting me not do what I didn't want to do--babysit six kids instead of one. I felt guilty about it, but I still did it. Guilt as absolution, I suppose.
Apologies can be false absolution, too, letting the apologizer do something they wanted to do even knowing it was wrong. Apologizing to the mother of six after the fact would have been disingenuous, insincere. Clinton's apologizing to Trump supporters may have come across as similarly insincere. “I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it when you know at the time what you’re doing is wrong but you do it anyway. Especially if you just might do the same thing again the next time.
Some other circumstances might make me question the apologizer’s motives, sincerity, and commitment to change.
“I’m sorry I assaulted you.”
“I’m sorry I called you all racist/sexist/homophobic names.”
“I’m sorry I abused you.”
There are limits to what an apology can do.
On the flip side, some people apologize for everything, even when they shouldn’t.
In a comment on the post about apologies that bring up bad feelings, Stephanie Carpenter pointed out that some apologies are “clearly uncalled-for,” as when some people apologize for having been in a bad mood. Many people apologize for having feelings and needs, just being in the world, for taking up anyone else’s space and time (yep, I’m afraid I’m included here sometimes)
“I’m sorry” when I reach the door at the same time as someone else.
“I’m sorry I was grouchy earlier today.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you move to your new house after I broke my leg.”
“I’m sorry I forgot to put sprinkles on the cookies I baked for your birthday.”
“I’m sorry I say I’m sorry too often.”
OK, maybe I’m exaggerating. I’m sorry.
I'm amazed at how frequently apologies have been in the center of the news in the US this summer and fall, and not just for the elections. They keep refusing to be ignored. The apology has become for me a very complicated genre. That makes it even more interesting, and for that I’m not sorry.
Reese Witherspoon I'm sorry from thisyearsboy.tumblr.com via GIPHY