“I’m sorry, so sorry, please accept my apology.” I remember slow dancing at Johnson’s Beach to Brenda Lee’s apology. Heck, at 13 years of age, I would apologize for anything as long as some girl would put her cheek next to mine and join me on the dance floor.
It was easy, say you were sorry and all was forgiven and you could go on your way. No big deal. And then before I was old enough to drive, an Ocala police captain delivered me home and informed my father that I, along with six of my friends, had been picked up carrying a six-pack of beer. I quickly discovered that not only did saying I was sorry not suffice, it even made my dad madder when I did so. Let me quote, “Sorry doesn’t change the fact that you were wandering down the street with beer; sorry isn’t going to keep your mother from being embarrassed; and, sorry isn’t going to keep you from learning to behave while you live under my roof. And if you don’t like it, I’ll put you in a military school and you can live under their roof.”
My father taught me that being sorry and being truly repentant for your actions are two different things. He also instilled in me the lesson that an apology is not a substitute for justice. After realizing how embarrassed my parents were, I truly regretted that I had betrayed their trust and harmed their reputation; and I accepted the fact that I was going to be grounded for a long, long time.
Our society has adopted an apology as the means to allay the consequences of any action. A politician will make an unfortunate comment, the clamor for an apology will begin and he or she will face the microphones, proclaim contrition and the storm will be weathered. When watching these performances, you wonder are they sorry about their actions or that they got caught? What truly amazes me, even when the conduct goes beyond a comment, how the press, public and the institutions of government will accept words – an apology – in lieu of justice.
Many people are so eager for an expression of regret that they deem a non-apology to be acceptable. My brother once had another attorney call him a foul name. When my brother demanded that he apologize, the attorney wrote the following: “I am sorry if my words offended you.” Think about that statement, he didn’t say he was sorry that he insulted my brother, he was sorry that my brother was offended by the name he called him.
How about an apology that places the blame somewhere else? Recently, I heard the following apology from a man to his wife he had cheated on, “I am sorry that I cheated on you but I am addicted to sex.” Rather than being repentant, he placed the blame for his behavior on an addiction. To truly repent would be to understand, confess and regret that his actions were self-gratifying and a betrayal of his vows.
Being human you are going to fail. There are times where your actions are going to harm others. To apologize you must accept responsibility, truly feel and express remorse and willingly accept the consequences of your actions. Without remorse and consequences, the apology is not only meaningless but there is no reason to believe that the harm will not be repeated.
When dealing with a business, I accept that the people who work there are liable to make a mistake. It’s how they handle the mistake that makes the difference. A couple of years ago, I returned home from work to find a note from the yard service guy that he was sorry he had cut the television cable. I guess he believed saying he was sorry was enough; it certainly wasn’t for me. It was six-o’clock in the evening, I wanted to watch a basketball game and I had no television. If he had been truly repentant he would have called the cable company, explained what had happened and waited for them to fix the problem.
In business, just as in our personal lives, we are responsible for our actions. When something goes wrong, as it’s bound to do, the way the mistake is handled will determine the future relationship with the customer. The formula for handling a problem is as follows: recognize your responsibility, truly regret it happened and accept the consequences. This doesn’t mean that you accept responsibility for the actions of others; it means you recognize the responsibility that accrues to your actions: it was the trucker’s fault the shipment didn’t arrive on time but it was your responsibility to follow up.
In the Albritten and Self song, Brenda Lee demonstrates remorse and responsibility when she sings, “You tell me mistakes are part of being young. But that don’t right the wrong that’s been done.” Even when someone tries to let you off the hook for a mistake or action, that still doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility or fulfilling the formula for making an apology. It is still up to you to try and “right the wrong that’s been done.”
Responsibility, regret and consequences, those are the elements of the apology we should offer and expect.
“One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding somebody to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver’s license.” – P. J. O’Rourke