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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)

1 comment:

orbital chaos said...

This is just to say

I ate the fudgery

cooked in your head

and which

you are probably

still believing

I can eat... burnt

forgive me

I opened a door

so gone

and so free