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Friday, April 25, 2008

The Apology that Never Quite Happens

The negative assertion is a statement that requires real courage on the part of the speaker. A negative assertion is taking responsibility for something you did wrong.

The classic example is the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. George was making a negative assertion when he told his father: "I cannot tell a lie, Father, I chopped down the cherry tree."

In a sincere apology, the apologizer takes responsibility for what he/she has done wrong and acknowledges his/her mistake. An assertive apology includes the implication or even a direct statement that behavior change will be the result of recognition of the mistake by the apologizer.

There are, however, a number of ways in which one may look as if he/she is apologizing and one is not actually taking the responsibility. Here are three:

"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
  • The pull here is for the other person to absolve you right on the spot by saying, "That's OK." So what happens is that the person to whom the apology should be directed is actually taking care of the perpetrator!
  • In fact it is not OK for someone to hurt your feelings. The assertive response might be (said in a calm, measured tone), "Well, you did hurt my feelings."
"I'm sorry you feel that way."
  • This is an observation and not an apology. In essence you are saying, "I'm sad to see you feeling that way." There is no responsibility taking when this is said.
  • Note that including the word "sorry" in a sentence does not qualify the sentence as an apology.
"I'm sorry I did XXX, but if you hadn't done YYY, I never would have done it."
  • While the speaker here is taking responsibility, he/she is actually doing a verbal hit and run: "I did do it but actually it is your fault, not mine ."
  • This speaker doesn't stay in the apology mode long enough to make it stick, but moves quickly to blaming the victim.
Because I am training for the Breast Cancer Three Day, I am walking longer distances each week. I gave myself an IPod - I've never had one before - so that I could listen to downloaded items to make the walks more interesting.

I've been downloading podcasts from NPR to listen to. I love "This American Life" with Ira Glass. Yesterday I listened to his podcast entitled "Mistakes Were Made," all about not-quite apologies.

The first hour of the piece is a grim story about failed cryogenics, but the second act (occurring at about 51 minutes) is a wonderful piece on an often quoted poem of William Carlos Williams entitled, "This is just to say."

I have eaten the plums

that were in the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

In this poem, the writer clearly knows that his wife was saving the plums and he commands her forgiveness, "Forgive me," rather than assertively apologizing.

Ira Glass's point was the phrase "Mistakes Were Made" does not include anyone taking responsibility. "Mistakes were made," puts the responsibility out in space somewhere and doesn't address the culpability of "by whom?" The statement: "Mistakes were made," is in the passive voice.which by English definition does not include the action of apologizing.

My extremely worn out copy of Plain English Handbook from my high school years says, "Passive voice denotes that the subject receives the action." In a sense, it's circular. The "were made" circles back to the "Mistakes" without any reaching out to claim responsibility. An active (and therefore responsibility taking) way to say the same thing via negative assertion is, "I made a mistake."

Wow, see how the change from passive voice to active makes a real apology happen!

As a result of this episode of This American Life, a number of take-offs appeared on the Internet. Here's one. (Be sure to read the numerous responses which include other quite clever spoofs)

Another Internet letter to clear up confusion

In October, November and December, I received those "please renew now" notices that magazines send out regularly from one of my favorite magazines, Gourmet.

Meanwhile I noticed that on Amazon there were opportunities to subscribe to a number of different magazines at $10 for the year. I took them up on their offer and subscribed to Gourmet. My address is the same and I assumed that they would tack my new Amazon subscription on to the end of my current subscription as most magazines do.

Instead I began in January to receive two copies of the magazine each month. I thought it would stop after January, but the process of receiving two magazines has continued until now. So I decided to write an assertive letter.

Dear Customer Service,

I am very frustrated. I am getting two copies of Gourmet every
month since January. If there's an overlap of subscription renewal,
I thought you simply extended the subscription rather than send
duplicate magazines - it's a waste of paper and my money.

I received numerous notices to renew my Gourmet in the fall. At the
same time I found a bargain rate on Thinking my
subscription was up in December, I renewed by using the Amazon
site. Now I get two copies of the magazine each month.

I scanned the two labels below. Please extend my subscription
rather than send me duplicates. I would like the extension to include
the four months of duplication which I did not ask for and which I
have paid for thinking I would get one magazine each month.

I love Gourmet and look forward to receiving it for the length of time
I have paid for through the renewal on Amazon.

Notice how the assertive statements are made as "I" statements. I don't question their intelligence or organization, but I do state what I'd like them to do to fix the problem. I ended positively because I do love Gourmet and want to continue subscribing.

I'll post when I find out how they handle this letter.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Importance of White Space and Email

I've mentioned a number of times about assertive emails in these posts. In today's Internet world, often the rules of grammar take a back seat to the need for adequate attention. In email, employing white space effectively is part of writing an assertive email.

For example, if I am writing an email regarding a product purchased on the Internet, my request can be lost in the use of good grammar.

Re: Order # 450845408

Dear Sir:

The lamp I purchased from your website on April 20 arrived yesterday. When I plugged the lamp in and turned the switch "On", the bulb would not light. I have tried the lamp in several plugs with the same result. I have also changed the bulb in case the bulb I chose was defective. However, the lamp continues not to light. I would like you to replace the lamp with the same model as soon as possible.


Good grammar would argue that all of the sentences in that email should be in the same paragraph. After all, each sentence is about the subject of the paragraph, the defective lamp.

However, in an email, effectiveness is increased with the use of white space to emphasize your points. People glance at email quickly and it helps if the parts you want to focus on are in stand-out positions on the computer screen.

So here's how it would look in an effective assertive form:

Re: Order # 450845408

Dear Sir:

The lamp I purchased from your website on April 20 arrived yesterday. When I plugged the lamp in and turned the switch "On", the bulb would not light.

I have tried the lamp in several plugs with the same result. I have also changed the bulb in case the bulb I chose was defective. However, the lamp continues not to light.

I would like you to replace the lamp with the same model as soon as possible.


Now the important sentences jump off of the computer screen. Points that are made are separated from each other by the use of white space:
  • The lamp arrived and it doesn't work
  • I've tried all reasonable approaches to determine that the lamp is defective
  • I want you to replace it.
Good luck with speaking up for yourself in email!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Assertive Email about an Internet Purchase

I ordered these wooden boxes from a site on the Internet. In order to build the boxes the dovetails have to fit together. As you can see the sides are cut exactly the same so there is no way for the dovetails to join.

I took these pictures of the problem and sent a letter to the company who sold me the boxes.

Dear XXXX Company,

I received my order this week and was very pleased to get it. I put together four of the medium boxes tonight.

When I got to the fifth box, the dove tails on the short sides and the long sides were cut exactly the same. In other words, they did not complement each other, so the pieces would not fit together. I'm attaching pictures so you can see the problem.

Please replace the box which was cut in error.

Thank you,

Linda T

The best assertive letters are very simple. This email is an example. I state the problem succinctly: "...the dove tails on the short sides and the long sides were cut exactly the same." I attached pictures to clarify any confusion about the facts to which I refer. Finally in a separate stand-alone sentence, I made a simple statement of what I want: "Please replace the box which was cut in error."

If in writing an assertive letter, you fill it full of non-essential detail, the reader is less likely to know what you want and less likely to address your need.

I'll post when I get either a replacement or a reply.
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Thursday, April 17, 2008

I'm not Lynn/Len/Lyn Tillman

For the past three months, I have come home to messages on my machine for "Lyn/Len/Lynn?? Tillman" asking that I call an 800 number. The agency calling hasn't been one I recognize and I don't pick up the phone at home when I don't know the person calling on Caller ID.

However, after two months of messages for this "Lyn Tillman" person, I picked up the phone about a month ago. In fact it was a collection agency. I said, "This is Dr. Linda Tillman. I am not Lynn Tillman and I don't owe you any money. Please quit calling me." The person on the other end apologized and said she would take my name off of the list.

About a month went by with no calls but about two weeks ago, the calls started up again. This Lyn/Len/Lynn Tillman must be in great debt to someone. Last night I answered the phone. The man on the other end asked for "Len Tillman."

I said, "I wish you would quit calling me. I am not the person you are looking for - my name is LINDA." He said, "Well, we have a birthday on this person of October 11, 1957." (I'm not sure of the exact date he said.)

I replied, "My birthday is __________ and I was not born in 1957."

"OK," he said, "I'm sorry and we will remove your name from this computer list."

I think it may have helped that I without pause said, "My birthday is __________." But I'm not sure I trust that I will not start getting calls again in about a month. I'm hoping my assertive statements helped and that the calls will stop.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Talking to A T & T

My April resolution is to begin regularly posting assertiveness incidents on this blog again.

At the end of March on a Monday I arrived in my neighborhood to find my street blocked off by large trucks. My house is in a neighborhood which is a U of three streets off of a main road. So I turned around, went back to the main road, and entered on the other leg of the U. At the bottom of the U (my street) again there was yellow tape stretched completely across the street. I could see large trucks in front of my house, power lines lying in the street, lots of activity.

I walked up to my house to find that a gigantic tree had fallen in my neighbor's yard. Her tree fell away from her house into the street (a huge old oak tree), taking two telephone poles with it as well as the transformer box for our section of the street. Brown, gasoline-smelling liquid was in the street, flowing from the smashed transformer.

Of course, I had no power, the telephone lines had been pulled down (no phone, no computer) and my cable TV (which I couldn't run without the power anyway) was a downed line as well. I let the dogs out and promptly set up for a very dark night.

I put a candle and some matches on the bookcase by my door. I put candles in my bedroom. I got a flashlight and put it in my purse. Then I promptly left and went to dinner and a movie, hoping that the power would be back on when I returned.

Georgia Power worked into the night. I returned in the pitch dark, lit my way with flashlight and candles. I used my laptop for a while, borrowing an unsecured neighbor's wireless and then went to bed.

We didn't have telephone service until Wednesday, but all the work took place outside.

I got my telephone bill and was shocked that I had been billed $85.00 for "I&M labor basic mtnc - reprd" I don't pay for the inside wiring rip off charge that the phone company likes to bill thanks to Clark Howard's good advice. (see March 19, 2003)

I searched the AT&T webpage to find how to contact them and found an email link. I wrote:
"This repair involved all outside work - nothing inside - why is there a charge since it does not involve inside wiring and the repairs were the result of a tree falling on the line?"

This is a simple assertive statement: "This repair involved all outside work - nothing inside."

The question "Why is there a charge....." puts the ball in the lap of the other party and gives them all the power. However, I didn't want to be too pushy since I didn't know what "I&M labor" meant.

If I had been more assertive, I would have said, "I would like you to remove this charge since this repair was the result of a tree falling and involved absolutely no inside repair. I was not even at home while the repair was being done."

Today I was pleased to get an email from a nice person at AT&T responding that AT&T was removing the $85.00 charge. I would have liked either an apology or an explanation, neither of which I got, but I am pleased nonetheless. Dealing with a large corporation like AT&T is often a losing battle and this time I was the winner.