‘I don’t want your apology, I want you to be sorry.’
‘I would like to apologise. In fact everybody would like to apologise.
Sports stars, newspapers, politicians… barely a day passes without another public figure offering their apologies.
Mistakes were made. In hindsight we shouldn’t have done that. I apologise.
Sometimes public apologies appear to be part of a strategy — for instance media management.
Or as if the apologising party has been forced to take their medicine by their advisors. ‘You won’t like it but it’ll be good for you.’
But it’s not difficult to sense when an apology is mainly performative.
The foot-dragging apology of a newspaper on the wrong end of a legal challenge … which publishes an obscure correction downpage in the back of the paper.
At other times, because of its timing or the way it’s framed, we doubt the authenticity of an apology.
Sincerity is not a quality that will be fenced in with qualifying conditions: ‘I’m sorry if you felt like this when I did that.’ Or ‘to anyone who may have taken offence.’
These have become known as ‘nonpologies’ or ‘fauxpologies’ and their common characteristic is an absence — the absence of remorse.
We may regret our behaviour — because we don’t want to be in the trouble we’re now in — but our apology rings true only when it feels like we’re remorseful.
Without that an apology can feel like an act — and the person we’re apologising to, knows it.
A cartoon in the New Yorker captured this, depicting a woman standing before a man and saying, ‘I don’t want your apology, I want you to be sorry.’
A true apology is not part of a strategy to carry on as normal… it’s an admission of culpability and a commitment to change.
Although we often hear that someone has won an apology, the true apology cannot be won, it can only be given.
And the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Unless we’re genuinely sorry — and determined not to repeat our offence — then the apology just won’t taste right.
‘Spare thou them which confess their faults.’ reads the old Prayer Book. ‘Restore thou them that are penitent…’
Elton John was right, sorry still seems to be the hardest word. We fear looking weak or vulnerable, admitting we’re flawed, spoiling the image we hold of our selves.
But we all mess up and at some point, to use another old-school Biblical phrase, we all need to ‘humble ourselves’.
That’s when saying sorry may become the key to unlocking a trapped relationship… or renewing an institution.
Even though, however sincerely meant, our words may not be accepted… still, if we mean it, better to make it. With No ifs. No buts.
Saying sorry takes courage. Just as it does to forgive someone who has wronged us. But as the novelist Ann Lamott remarked, ‘Not forgiving someone is like drinking rat poison… and expecting the rats to die.’
The text of BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day on Saturday January 15. Other recent radio thoughts : ‘The Renewable Energy of Silence’, ‘How To Be Good Ancestors’, ‘This Bright Sadness’ and ‘I Can’t Speak For The Tree.’