Let's say someone you know has messed up big time. For simplicity's sake, let's say that someone is you. You missed your kid's piano recital. You lied to your boss, cheated on your boyfriend. Borrowed your neighbor's lawn mower and broke it.
How inclined would you be to: approach the person you offended, recount in detail the error of your ways, accept complete responsibility, or pay for damages and promise never to repeat the act?
Yeah, me neither.
Let's face it, messing up is easy. Apologizing is hard. And technology sure isn't helping. Who hasn't left a voice mail, with the sincerest of mea culpas, when you know the offended party isn't home? Or whipped off an e-mail, with "Hey! I was just kidding!" in the subject line?
"It has become easier to take the coward's way out," says Thomas P. Farley, editor of Modern Manners: The Thinking Person's Guide to Social Graces (Sterling, $17.95). "People who use e-mail to make amends for a serious offense," Farley said, "take the concept of `better safe than sorry' to a whole new level." That being said, he concedes that, in some instances, e-mail and voice mail can be used to soften the blow.
"If you put it in writing, you allow the other person to digest it and this can pave the way for an honest follow-up conversation."
Too often, though, that honest conversation never occurs. We may fear that we'll make things worse, or that we won't be forgiven. Maybe it's easier to stay in blissful denial, or blame the other party for lacking a sense of humor or for being too sensitive: "I'm sorry you feel that way."
But, if we're all so comfortable with our callousness, why am I writing this story and why are you still reading it? Probably because we've discovered that by not apologizing fully and completely, we can't shake that queasy feeling that our first-grade teacher was right. It really isn't nice to say mean things about others. About the only comforting fact is that humans of all cultural groups have been awful to each other for millennia.
On the other hand, maybe apologizing isn't too hard. Maybe it's too easy. Maybe we've become numb to what a real apology sounds like because we hear them all the time. "Sorry to keep you on hold." "Please forgive the mess as we build a parking lot to better serve you." "Sorry! We're all out of hothouse tomatoes."
Gail Rosenblum writes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.