It happens all the time. When there’s no room for my bag in the overhead luggage compartment, a tall friend hits his head on my dining room chandelier, or a wobbly stranger bumps into me on public transit, profuse apologies always erupt from my mouth faster than a knee-jerk reaction.
Last summer, I worked at the front desk of a hotel downtown, checking weary travelers in and out of rooms and acting like a therapist who’d write down each complaint and try to compensate. Since every situation was unique, I was never trained with scripted plans of action. The one guideline I was given, however, was to never apologize.
Saying sorry is a dangerous acceptance of responsibility, which big companies, similar to people in a fender bender, avoid with adamancy. Whether a missed mini-fridge delivery was my fault, the computer’s or someone else’s, all I was able to offer was a free breakfast coupon and a smile.
Hotel lobbies and car crash scenes aside, apologies are everywhere.
Last week, Newt Gingrich urged Robert DeNiro to apologize after he made an “inexcusable” joke about Callista Gingrich, Karen Santorum and Ann Romney. The actor later said that his jokes were “not meant to offend,” and the case was closed.
After the discovery of fabricated facts in Mike Daisey’s show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” the journalist issued an apology to journalists everywhere for “(making their) jobs harder.”
Sunday, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah made a public apology for throwing a ball at a referee during a game — a move that saved him from suspension.
Public apologies are key to image restoration after public fumbles. The examples of DeNiro, Daisey and Noah are just from the past week’s headlines. We’re in a constant tornado of public apologies from different loudmouths and hotheads who claim to be sorry.
Whether or not we believe there’s heart behind public apologies, we do know this much to be true: Those words have power.
Apologies give people power by stripping them of it. Self-deprecate a little, and forgiveness will follow. But most of us, myself included, can’t handle that initial ego blow, so we just try to look humble and fake remorse for inconsequential things, like stepping on someone’s heel.
For me, standing behind that hotel desk — never offering apologies to guests who were panicking over booking complications and obscene credit card charges that were almost always a result of my carelessness — was remarkably easy. Clearly, I’d had practice dodging responsibility.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve nullified so many things that haven’t needed nullifying, like sneezing in the middle of a friend’s story, that I’ve lost sight of what is actually hurtful and worth an apology. To make it worse, my overuse of “sorry” has diluted the word to the point of uselessness in cases when I need it most.
Noah, Daisey and DeNiro will most likely be OK after their mishaps. Their words, because they are used so scarcely, their words still have potency.
But if the apologies I’ve offered for every banal mistake were heard in press conferences and published in newspapers, my reputation would be shot. I’d be a fraud with nothing convincing to say when I was genuinely sorry.
Over-apologizing is one of my unhealthiest habits, making my obsessive knuckle cracking look like cardio-aerobics. In apologizing for having a carry-on bag, a dining room chandelier and feet, I’ve not only repeatedly denounced my basic existence — I’ve debilitated a crucial word.
Hopefully with age and practice, I’ll shake this habit. I’ll make eye contact instead of excuses. I’ll figure out the difference between fault and flaw. I’ll stop mistreating “sorry” so that when I mistreat someone, I’ll have something to heal the hurt. The word means close to nothing to me, but on the receiving end, it’s an entirely different story.