Saying Sorry v. the Art of the Apology

This week two politicians attempted to deal with a negative situation they had brought on themselves and in so doing  showed that there is a world of difference between saying sorry and the art of the apology.

Nick Clegg apologized for breaking his tuition fees pledge. He was widely mocked for his pains, although the politically aware may have noticed that he managed to gain some welcome attention for his party in the run-up to the LibDem party conference. We like our politicians admitting they’ve been wrong, so it may turn out to have been very opportune that the transformation of his apology into an iTunes hit will keep it, and his party, in the public mind for longer than a day or two.

Andrew Mitchell, the Chief Whip, may not be so lucky. Whatever actually happened in Downing Street, the war of words which followed has done nothing to improve the situation. Mr Mitchell stands accused of having behaved rudely, to say the least, and his private apology to the police officer concerned seems to have been inadequate. There has been no ‘closure’ to the dispute.

What these two demonstrate is that it is not enough to be sincere, one must also convey sincerity in a way that is not open to dispute. Now, I have no means of judging the sincerity of either man, but Nick Clegg’s rather lacklustre performance, if I may call it that, was in tune with the human scale of what he was apologizing for. Many feel personally betrayed by his party’s failure to honour its election promise, so it was necessary for him to make a a rather personal apology. Andrew Mitchell has a harder task. Coming so soon after the murder of the two Manchester police officers, his conduct, both at the time of the offence and subsequently, smacks of arrogance (which, remember, it may not be because we do not know exactly what happened). Any apology is going to sound rather lame, and the longer the dispute goes on, the lamer it will sound.

We might ask ourselves how we deal with negative situations, where we need to put something right by an apology. Do we simply say sorry as soon as we decently can, giving the person we’ve offended enough time to take breath, and scrupulously avoiding any attempt to go over the grounds of the dispute again, which can so often lead to a prolongation of the original offence? Or do we try to make an art-form out of our apology, conceding as little as possible and hoping the other won’t notice?

It is well-known that the British apologize for everything. Brush against another person, and the person we’ve brushed against will say ‘sorry’; brush against a table or chair and, likely as not, we’ll apologize to the table or chair for doing so. This readiness to say ‘sorry’ doesn’t necessarily mean that we are any readier to apologize. To do that, we have to acknowledge that we are in the wrong; and whether we are politicians or not, we tend to be reluctant to do so. To apologize is not to ask forgiveness (though forgiveness is often given in return): it is to acknowledge a failure on our part, leaving the other free either to accept or reject our apology. It is a way of making peace, and it starts in the heart long before it reaches the lips.