Today is National Sorry Day. This day is hard-won for our Indigenous peoples, and there have been many thoughtful pieces and events to observe it. I’ve got nothing to add to them, so I’m taking this opportunity to talk about apologies themselves.
Australia’s first attempt at saying sorry was piss-poor. The government of the time offered a weak, pathetic attempt at mollification that stopped short of saying the words that the people needed to hear: they regretted, but they weren’t sorry. A move to replace the motion of regret with an unreserved apology fell flat, and it would be another eleven years before a new government would use the necessary words: “We apologise… we say sorry.”
So here is the first lesson in how to apologise like a jerk: say the words you think the wronged party should hear, not the words they actually want and need to hear. Make it all about you. Don’t for a second believe that it’s about them, or that the words are important.
For our next lesson, let’s move on to more recent events. Real recent – last week, in fact, when this actually happened:
(Now… before anyone points out that this was an attempt at irony or sarcasm, let me just say that such a defence would make sense if the tweeter in question were, I don’t know, Clive James or Jon Stewart or Judith Lucy or someone like that. We’d go, “Zing! Clive!” but the quality of @OddscheckerAu’s other tweets isn’t zingy. It’s more like, I don’t know, nauseating.)
Georgina Dent did a great apology of addressing the tweet, but I’d like to talk about the apology that followed after they deleted it:
So they’re not apologising for the actual tweet. They are apologising for the offence it caused.
Let’s talk about offense for a moment, shall we? Offence is widely understood to be something that we choose to do: we can choose to take offence, or we can choose to shrug it off. And it’s not just any choice we make when we take offence. Stephen Fry said that when someone says they’re offended, “It’s actually no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive’. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase.”
So when @OddscheckerAu talks about offence, they’re not talking about their actions, they’re talking about ours. We choose to find that “offensive”, that meaningless, whiney word that has nothing to do with hurt, or pain, or distress, or anything else that anyone affected by this tweet might have felt.
And that is the second lesson in how to apologise like a jerk: make the wronged party accountable for their own response. And make light of their feelings, by calling them “offence” instead of more direct words that will make you look bad. Absolve yourself of any responsibility you may have played in the stuff-up. In fact, don’t mention that you did anything wrong at all. Just skirt around it, don’t admit to anything, and for goodness’ sakes don’t commit to avoiding such stuff-ups in future.
Last week I wrote about communication stuff-ups and having a policy of “No explanations. No justifications. No apologies.” In my last paragraph, I also had an exception: unless you have something to make up to someone.
When your communication fails to the point where you need to make things up to people, there is a lot to be done. Unreserved apologies. Empathy. Accountability and responsibility. Sackcloth and ashes. Even if it’s hard. Even if they don’t accept what you have to say or do to try to make it up, because in apologising, you are acknowledging others’ value, and that doesn’t need a reward.
Unless, of course, you’re a jerk. In which case, I’m truly sorry.