How to Make a Good Apology

The art of the apology need an update or a polish; or perhaps, like the art of medicine, it needs constant reassessment and renewal.

What I fear is that, like learning how to write in elegant—or even legible—longhand, we are forgetting this crucial skill and convincing ourselves it is no longer necessary.

But here is what  I know: A person just said to me, “Oh! Sorry, that was my mistake. Thanks for reminding me. I’ll take care of it right away,” and my heart, heavy as a battleship 15 minutes ago, is now light. My sense of the future, as well as my hope for our species, is renewed.

I’d gone into the phone conversation ready for conflict. I was emotionally armed and intellectually prepared for a fight. Confident of my position, I’d nevertheless rehearsed my arguments and anticipated what I imagined might be my opponent’s retorts.

Next to me at the computer were a full cup of coffee, a lined pad, and a good pen—these accessories make me feel me feel grown-up and act as a sort of “Barbie Means Business” trinkets package. I’d even shooed the cats out of my office at home so that there would be no plaintive mewing or background hissing noises; I wanted no distractions. I also wanted to guard against the possibility of cat-lady jokes after the session was over.

The woman I was seeing as my adversary picked up the phone after the first ring and sounded happy to hear from me. Naturally this put me in an uncomfortable position, since I was ready to be huffy and snarky. As we made small talk, I remembered why I liked her: She was funny and sharp.

I noticed I was scribbling pictures of kites on my notepad, with lots of small bows on their long tails. This did not seem to be the kind of thing a tough cookie would do, but I didn’t dwell on the fact.

Finally I blurted out what was bothering me: Why hadn’t such-and-such happened? Why hadn’t I heard about this-and-that? What was going on? Didn’t she know I was torturing myself over it?

She could have said, “What an unprofessional outburst. Some feminist you are, acting like a spoiled brat. Get a grip.” She could have said, “I didn’t ask you to torture yourself. Get yourself a new therapist.” She could have said, “You’ll hear about it when you hear about it. If you have any further questions, e-mail my assistant.” Or she could have said, “Don’t call me anymore. Don’t write for us anymore. We’re finished.”

Instead, she thanked me for bringing it up, because—since she was overwhelmed with some new bureaucratic messes—the matter had slipped her mind. She said she’d deal with it and I am sure she will.

And I’m left with a sense of buoyancy because the weight of my own frustration and annoyance has been lifted. She took responsibility and left me a lot of room for admiration.

I remember a piece Laurie Fendrich wrote some time ago on the art of penmanship (and her mother-in-law’s beautiful cursive), and I am reminded of that post because it made me think about what we’re in danger of losing even as we move ahead in our world. Our culture keeps providing us with ways to escape responsibility (we’re taught to say, “I’m sorry you feel that way” instead of saying simply, “I’m sorry”), and it’ll be a loss for us all if the art of the apology goes the way of cursive.



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