How To Say Sorry and Mean It

Sorry is a word that many of us find hard to say.

Sometimes, it’s not so difficult. You bump into a person, say sorry and move on with the easy acceptance that it was your fault.

But it becomes a little more difficult to own up to one’s own errors when there might be repercussions and, the worse the repercussions, the trickier it is to say the word.

Let’s start with the need for an apology. Why do we need to do it?

Put simply, it’s part of our society’s rules to allow us to live reasonably well within our group. It is usually seen as a way of making good a situation that has gone wrong.

It feels as though it should be second nature. We are taught from almost the time we can speak that sometimes we have to say sorry. It’s effectively ingrained and that means our conscience will be giving us a strong clue when we should be apologising.  

So how is it that, almost from the time we learn of the need to own up to our errors, some of us also feel the need to wriggle out of that apologetic mode?

As with most things, it probably starts in childhood. Think of the child who has that naughty expression even when they’re innocent and they get the blame. Imagine that sense of indignation when it’s not your fault. If it goes on too long, you’re quite likely to wonder at the merits of apologies with a distorted view of your own.

And what about the angelic-looking child who looks as though butter wouldn’t melt in his/her mouth – and yet their behaviour is devilish? They don’t need to say sorry because they’re never blamed. When they grow up, they, too, may have a skewed idea of how polite society works.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle, occasionally being blamed for what we didn’t do but being able to set that off against the time when we “got away” with things of which we were guilty. An example of that might be going slightly over a 30-mile speed limit when driving and not being caught. Guilty but lucky. 

Many of us are also fortunate that our apologies tend to be private matters so, if we do feel humiliation, it will probably not last too long.

When sorry seems to be the hardest word

But what happens when you’re obliged to make an apology in public and it’s televised around the nation. How should you manage that? 

Let’s now turn to the political arena and the current PM’s quandaries.

In our culture – and this is different from other parts of the world – we require the person saying they’re sorry to look at us when they do so. 

It is important that we see each other’s eyes. On a primitive – instinctive – level, we need to feel that the person really is truly sorry. And then we can decide whether we are going to forgive and forget, accept it and bear a grudge or reject it completely. Generally, people tend to be forgiving so the first option seems the most likely to work.

But, and there is a very big but, all this depends on how contrite you really are. If you apologise because you must but you neither feel it nor mean it, then your potential friend or foe will pick up on those inner feelings and react accordingly. They will sense that your heart isn’t in it and they may be reluctant to forgive.

This leads us back to the PM. Putting aside the misinformation, confusion, possibly being economical with the truth and the fact that a great number of people in Britain obeyed the lockdown laws set by the Government over Covid, it was possible Boris might still be forgiven for disobeying those same laws, if he did.

However, his apology needed to be good and, in my opinion, it was not. The problem came from his clear discomfort as he addressed MPs in the House of Commons. It seemed to me that he was grudging. He is a usually clear speaker. He may – he often does – go off on a tangent but I can hear what he says. 

This time it was harder. 

The apologetic words were said but were somehow rushed over. There wasn’t a pause for us to digest them and to consider what we felt about them. It seemed like a take-it-or-leave -it moment. It was almost as if he were a little boy being made to say sorry when he really didn’t want to. It was not as though he was the man behind the laws and the one who had put us in lockdown. 

Lockdown was hard on everyone

Even so, this, too, might just have been forgiven if he had kept his eyes on the prize – to get the electorate onside. If he had only dropped his gaze, bowed his head a little longer when coming under fire from his opponents and left us convinced that he accepted he was to blame. 

This didn’t happen. 

Boris was too quick to brush over it and launch his own attack on someone else – to deflect, in other words. Attack was not the best form of defence, here, and he blew it. We were not convinced it was a heartfelt apology, despite the best efforts of his loyal supporters to insist that he really was contrite. 

And the moral of the story? 

Only apologise if you mean it. Be prepared to tolerate some form of admonishment and maybe even allow yourself to feel a bit awkward and accepting that you deserve it. If not, say nothing. A phoney apology only makes matters worse.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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