A Disorganized Post on Apologies

“I’m sorry.”

Those words have almost no meaning to me now, and if you hear me utter them, I probably don’t really mean it. Sorry.

The obvious explanation for this is over-repetition. I work customer support, and the phrase I’m sorry and its variants, I apologizeI’m very sorry, and please accept my humble apologies, among others, used to mean something to me. I would have to actually feel guilt or shame to use them, but now I can say and write them without hesitation. I don’t even make that little pause before writing the word “humble,” which is something that used to stop me cold. “Humble” is the kind of word that makes one stop and ask themselves, Wait a second. How sorry am I really? But I have spoken and typed apologies so many times that they are now just words, vibrations in the air or a collection of black symbols on a white background, and nothing more. More damning, perhaps, is that these are apologies given for inconveniences or hardships that cannot be traced back to anything I or my company has done.

And it’s invading my personal life. I find myself apologizing for things and then, a few seconds or minutes later, realizing that whatever it was I apologized for didn’t need one. It feels a little bit like being a machine. If a occurs, then do b. If x occurs, do y. It’s very clean and simple–and also completely devoid of any real human interaction. Likely, you have these same experiences. We’re just on autopilot, always saying things we don’t even take a moment to think about, let alone inject with any sincerity, because that’s what the situation calls for.

Y'know, like the rules of a game. (from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson)

Y’know, like the rules of a made-up game.
(from Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson)

And just like the rules of a game, we tend to accept insincere apologies, almost especially when they’re insincere. I realize that I’ve had an easier experience apologizing for things that might have maybe been tangentially my fault than for things for which I was actually responsible. Think back. When is the last time you had to apologize for something that you did, something that was especially dumb, mean, careless, lazy or dishonest? Did I’m sorry or even one of it’s more sincere brothers or sisters cut the mustard, or at some point did you have to ask, “I said I’m sorry! What more do you want?!” I’ll make up a statistic here, and say that “head” is the answer 53% of the time.

No one trusts I’m sorry anymore. We all know it’s insincere, because we rarely use it when we really ought to. I wouldn’t believe me, so why should anyone else? It’s the same as any other ideas that have strong associations attached to them. Hate is a good example. “I hated this,” a customer will write. Really? Did you hate it? You know what I learned I actually hate? Leeches. I hate how fast they are, how I can’t feel them against my skin, and how they worm their way into the smallest crannies and in between the fibers of my socks. Seeing them on me fills me with rage, panic, extreme unease, and turns me into a clown as I hop around in circles shouting, “Get ’em off! Get ’em off!” The fact that they’re sucking my blood is incidental. So if your experience with our services made you want to puke and pass out and set fire to a large swath of land, then yes: I am genuinely sorry (I think). If you were put out a couple bucks or mildly inconvenienced, I will simply tell you I’m sorry.

The trouble is, we use ideas with strong associations (like regret, love, and hate) like a hammer and anvil to bend and shape other people to our perceptions of what is right and good. You hate something or otherwise take offense, and the Script tells me I’m supposed to say, “Sorry.” If it’s not my fault, though, I don’t care, but social convention says I can’t tell you that, so I go with, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Still, by ‘being sorry,’ I’m on the defensive, if not admitting to some imagined wrong, then at least far more open and vulnerable. I don’t remember being bullied too much in my youth, but I still find myself constantly apologizing when I should be arguing, dismissing, or walking away. Generally, on paper, I’m pretty much an open book, but in practice I hide and stifle more of my genuine thoughts, desires, and opinions primarily because apologizing for them is far more distasteful than the idea that I might be misunderstood.

This would certainly explain the deny-deny-deny model of politics in the last half century. The US government refuses to acknowledge drones and illegal wiretapping even after the cat has long been out of the bag. Japan refuses to acknowledge that “comfort women” during the Second World War were more akin to sex slaves. Why? Because it puts them on the defensive. Once they admit they’re wrong, they admit imperfection and invite doubt. On the other hand, who can blame them? There are still areas of the world that are fighting conflicts that have gone on for centuries, all because “I’m sorry” was and could never be good enough. So we all just carry on, singing the song and going through the motions, making up the rules as we go, because that’s our condition.

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