I’m sorry to start my column this way, but I’m worried about a social trend that I don’t think is good for us.
Suddenly, saying sorry is a no-no. It’s a sign of weakness. It’s a cop-out.
Or, if you’re Adele calling to say “Hello” and apologize for breaking a heart, it’s a waste of time because that phone on the other end just keeps ringing.
Women, in particular, are being advised to watch our sorries because studies prove that we’re more inclined to say we’re sorry for … well, pretty much everything. Men tend to have a higher threshold for what they think deserves forgiveness.
Comedian Amy Schumer recently performed a raucous skit to this effect, featuring a Females in Innovation conference that included a panel with a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer Prize winner, a woman who invented a solar-based water filtration system and a woman who built a school for child soldiers.
The women’s discussion devolved into a sorry sorry-fest, culminating with one panelist suffering horrific coffee burns but apologizing for getting in the way of the coffee cup as she dies.
It was hilarious. And I do get the point.
Still, we shouldn’t stop saying sorry, regardless of our gender, age or social status. Instead, we need to learn how to do sorry well.
“As much as some people do too much apologizing, there are a whole lot of other people who don’t do it enough,” observed Fran Sepler, a Twin Cities-based workplace consultant for 30 years.
“They’re often unrepentant and rude. ‘I’m not going to apologize. I didn’t do anything wrong.’ And they’ve devastated somebody.”
Sepler recalled coaching one rising young female executive who was being admonished at work to stop saying, “I’m sorry.” Sepler pushed back. She told the young woman, “Sorry is exactly the right thing to say when you’ve screwed up.”
And, for the record, Sepler’s big on “please” and “thank you,” too. “Manners exist for a reason,” she said.
Sepler agrees, however, that there is danger in falling into the absurdity zone of a Schumer skit, “where you get in the habit of saying sorry when you didn’t screw up, and it diminishes you.”
Even she fights the urge to purge her soul regularly. “I hadn’t given this issue a lot of thought, so I started doing a sorry count on myself. I walked out of my condo and someone was coming in and I said, ‘Sorry!’ Next time I’m going to stop.”
In her workplace consulting, however, Sepler deals with garden-variety miscreants who might need a nudge to start saying it. She sees behaviors ranging from interrupting a co-worker in meetings all the way to blatant bullying and sexual improprieties.
While she has facilitated some very sincere apologies, she’s seen plenty of insincere ones, too.
“The difference between an insincere and a sincere apology is miles apart,” she said.
Just saying, “Oh, sorry,” with eyes rolled is not good enough. The key to a good apology, she said, “is recognition of what you’ve done and what the consequences were. It’s taking responsibility for your actions. It’s asking, ‘What can I do to help repair it?’
“Those sessions can be really moving.”
From my chair, I can just sense your eagerness to try this out at work on Monday. Here’s what you need to do.
Pick your target — I mean your kind workmate who didn’t deserve your wrath — and preface your conversation with a pre-conversation. Say something like, “I’d like to talk with you and offer an apology for something. Is there a good time to chat?”
Once you get permission, follow through. No hiding behind, “I got held up in another meeting.”
Recount what happened between the two of you and how that likely caused problems for him or her. State why you are sorry and offer something, such as a genuine promise not to repeat that unpleasant behavior.
Then, silently thank yourself for doing the right thing and wait, please, for the cosmic benefits that likely will come your way.
“What I hear from people is, ‘I’ve known that person for X number of years. They don’t need that apology from me,’ ” Sepler said. “They make an assumption that these social conventions are no longer a day-to-day necessity.”
Sorry, but that’s wrong. In fact, an actual transformation occurs when you leap in genuinely. “If you relentlessly barrage someone with respect,” Sepler said, “their perception of you changes.”