Some of my fellow Baby Boomers may remember Erich Segal’s classic tear gusher Love Story in 1970. In hindsight, this huge best seller was among the balmiest stories of love ever written. It is still remembered for one sentence: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
I wept along with the rest of the audience as the dying Ali MacGraw told her darling Ryan O’Neal, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Two years later, I saw another movie, What’s Up, Doc?, in which Barbra Streisand’s character repeated the very same line to the very same actor. This time, however, O’Neal’s answer was “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
Fast forward to today and we have a torrent of “I’m sorry” and “I apologise” moments. It is now epidemic. Politicians apologise, athletes apologise, and you and I apologise.
Sometimes it’s for an affair, sometimes it’s for working with Joseph Muscat, sometimes it is for staying at the Tel Aviv Hilton as Jurgen Fenech’s guest, sometimes it’s for forgetting to file your tax returns, sometimes it’s for the assassination of a journalist, sometimes it’s for calling somebody dumb on Facebook. Whatever the issue, the apology industrial complex is in rare form right now.
Writing out someone’s “sorry” has become a cottage industry: How do you craft a statement that reads as authentic and not driven by buzzwords? How do you express contrition without admitting culpability? How do you find somebody who can pen a statement that minimises the damage instead of magnifying the mistake? And what happens when a would-be apologist in Qormi skips all that, goes rogue, and fires off her own quick message of regret — or worse, doesn’t think she did anything wrong?
Some famous text-book apologies include that of Boris Johnson to the families of the 10 people killed in Ballymurphy in 1971, Angela Merkel’s for the migration chaos in 2016, Rihanna’s for dancing down the catwalk to the music of Coucou Chloe’s Doom, that of BPCEO Tony Hayward for uttering the infamous line “I want my life back” all while oil was ravaging the Gulf of Mexico, and that of the Japanese Greco-Roman wrestler Enichiro Fumita for getting a silver medal, rather than a gold one, at the Tokyo Olympics.
The dilemma is whether or not the apology is sincere or rehearsed. Of course, one who is considering offering an apology for eating tonnes of peacakes could well consult books on how to apologise. There is one titled The Beginners Guide to Apologising and another called The Art of the Apology. Here we find step by step ways to teach us how to genuinely say, “I’m sorry.”
Another bestseller says that a heartfelt apology should never begin like this . . . “I’m sorry, BUT’ . . . “I’m sorry IF” . . . “I’m sorry you FEEL . . .” President Macron did it when he asked France’s forgiveness for its role in the Rwandan genocide, and his half-apology backfired.
It is easy to understand why a politician or a star athlete might resort to the bogus apology. In many cases they are not devoted to being real; they are invested in looking good and protecting a carefully crafted image. Of course, doesn’t this apply to many of us?
Psychologist Gary Chapman writes that as nice as it is to hear, “I’m sorry”, these are ultimately just words. At the end of the day, apologies mean little unless they prompt new action. However, some therapists believe that an insincere apology is better than no apology at all.
The hardest thing to take back is a hurtful word. No matter how many times or ways we apologise, we can’t redeem scathing words about another person. It’s like the adage of trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. This could well be the case of the politician calling his own constituents Ġaħan.
There are the heartfelt apologies for saying something bad or wrong, and the apologies that turn into denials. The brief, but firm, ‘mea culpa’ is an art form in itself, and experts say it could take days to develop.
The worst thing somebody can do is to wait until the situation blows before making the mandatory apology that the whole world knew should have been made. After all, if one is going to apologise later, why not apologise now? You don’t need to wait for someone to completely unearth everything you’ve ever done and try to ruin your career before you can own a mistake that you’ve made. It’s exactly what happened to Joseph Muscat with the KS and KM thing.
If one is going to apologise later, why not apologise now? You don’t need to wait for someone to completely unearth everything you’ve ever done.
What is really painful is when somebody has to apologise for a past mistake when he or she has either grown as a person, or when the misstep wasn’t actually a representation of who they truly are. Everyone’s human, everyone makes mistakes. This could well be the situation of a few Labour MPs who, according to the DCG Inquiry, were responsible as Cabinet members for the journalist’s assassination.
There’s also this idea that, “If these people on Facebook stop talking about it, it will all be gone.” I know a lot of people who told me that “It’s half-a-dozen people on Fb. It’s really these half-a-dozen people making noise about Panama. It’ll all go away pretty soon.” They were in a state of denial that half-a-dozen people can change the course of history. But the reality is that it’s never just half-a-dozen people. Trust me, those half-a-dozen will look to blow it up way bigger at the moment that hurts you the most. And they do.
Even minor offenses eventually accumulate enough weight to sink any relationship when we lack the ability to say we’re sorry. Instead, the simple act of apologising can re-establish goodwill, if it is done right. A lame apology can do more damage than the original offense.
The perfect moment to apologise is the moment you realise you’ve done something wrong. Though this may sound obvious when we’re contemplating somebody else’s sins, in the harsh light of our own guilt, we often try to protect ourselves from shame or censure by waiting for the heat to blow over.
Apologising is rarely comfortable or easy, so if you’re going to do it at all, make it count, says Aaron Lazare, a psychiatrist and Dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who studied acts of contrition in every context, from interpersonal to international. He describes an effective apology as an act of honesty, of humility, of commitment, of generosity, and of courage.
But there’s no guarantee that the other person involved will share your warm fuzzies. The final gallant act of apology is to release your former victim from any expectation of forgiveness. No matter how noble you have been, he will forgive — or refuse to forgive —on his own terms. That is his right.
The American novelist Anne Lamott refers to forgiveness as “giving up all hope of having had a different past”. The same words apply to apologising. In making an apology we distance ourselves from our past by accepting what it actually was.
From this truth we can then move forward, whether or not we are forgiven.