Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Stop Being So F*#king Sorry: Why Apologies Don't Work

I was waking down a bright sunny New York street today and thinking about apologies.  The August sun was setting and the sky was a spectacular neon orange across the Hudson River. My mind wandered through the past week in the news. There have been a lot of 'sorry's and outrages this summer with it being an election year and also heavy with sporting events. The 2012 London Summer Olympics are in full swing. Athletes from around the world have been training their whole lives for a two week window to become recognized, famous, and medaled. 99% of them will go home empty and as anonymous as before. Most will never make it back to another Olympics. There is that agonizing post-mortem interview NBC has been doing with American athletes. When Americans are winning then it's fun exercise and honor. But when they're losing or doing something embarrassing, these interviews and the constant media attention becomes this very awkward dance of both apologizing and being defensive.

Over the weekend Serena Williams won the gold in women's tennis. She destroyed Maria Sharapova in straight sets and only lost one game in the entire match. Afterward she danced in joy and ended up doing an abbreviated version of the 'crip walk' which is a dance synonymous with the murderous street gang that spread drugs and terror across American cities in the 1980s and 1990s. Afterward the media focused on the crip walk and Serena both played coy, semi-apologized, and remained vague about what she was apologizing for, since she claimed she didn't know what dance she had done but that it might have 'offended' some people. I started thinking about when I've had to say 'sorry' in the past and when people have apologized to me.

Speaking only for myself, I've noticed that the source of my own apologies come from two main channels: 1. getting caught 2. feeling embarrassed about what I did as not being 'me.' It struck me that the reasoning behind my apologies has been -for most of my life - insincere at best and outright manipulating narcissism at worst.

The first source of apologizing is getting caught. In most cases the action I was caught doing would have continued either indefinitely or for at least a much longer period of time if I wasn't found out.  Most of the time, the capitulating act is something that both sides know is 'out of bounds' or questionable. But the 'guilty' party continues this act as long as no one notices it. If that's the case then being sorry isn't a matter of realization or transformation. I knew what I was doing was wrong. Apologizing becomes a salvaging act from having to confront the 'thoughts' behind the behavior. I'll say really quickly "I'm sorry' hoping to head-off any personal examination or reflection. The apology becomes a protective guard. If someone continues to investigate or pursue a line of questions I would often repeated in a more pronounced and exasperated tone "I SAID I was sorry!' How many times in my life have I heard that reflexive statement coming out of my mouth or being said to someone else.

"Damn, I'm sorry already!"

"Ugh, I'm said sorry. OKAY?!? '

"I apologized! What more do you want?"

 This usual ends the discussion. In some ways I've won. I got to engage in a 'questionable' act for a unspecified amount of time and then -when caught- quickly put up a defensive statement that's meant not to change the situation but to end the investigation into my actions.

And even better and more duplicitous apology I've found very sneaking its way into my speech patterns. It's the half-hearted 'qualified' contrition. It goes something like this:

"If that offended you, then I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry. I didn't know you were so sensitive."

"I'm sorry if I hurt you in some way."

In a few short, choice words I've managed to turn the guilt of the apology back on the victim. It makes the other person seem overly emotional and small. I'm especially taken with the qualifier 'if I hurt you in some way.' It implies that I don't even know how I hurt you, which means in some ways I'm the innocent one whose stumbled into an emotional trap of guilt.

If one has ever been on the receiving end of this type of 'apology with a qualifier' it feels very uncomfortable. It doesn't even feel like an apology and when I receive something like that I know that I can't pursue much further without starting hostilities. The apologizing party is pivoting off the 'sorry' and preparing to defend itself against any further statements or quickly change the topic to something else.


Then there's the 'sorry that trips off people's lips a hundred times a day. It's a sorry that is completely illogical and has nothing to do with actually harming someone. In many cases I didn't even do anything.  It goes something like this...

"I'm sorry but I have a really stupid question." (said this on Monday to a teacher)

"He wouldn't let you in? I'm sorry."

"Yeah, you came out in the rain. Sorry about that."

"Sorry you missed your flight." (said by a person who is in no way involved in the airline industry)

People apologize to me all the time for the weather, for bad luck, for things completely out of their control. More and more I'm responding to these apologies with a sarcastic and light-hearted retort:

"You SHOULD be sorry for this rain! How dare you!!"

I have no idea why this 'sorry' seems to have increase a thousand fold since I was a teenager. It feels like there's some huge storm of self-hatred or a lack of self-esteem that is worming its way into our way of communicating with each other. Maybe I can blame it on the talk show culture of looking for an apology.

This is a slow death of 'I'm sorry.' The actual apology loses all meaning when used for things that are out of a person's control. To apologize for rain is as inversely illogical as congratulating myself for the sunshine.

'It's such a beautiful day. I'm so proud!'

 Someone might say 'what do you have to be proud of? What did you do?"

 I went out to eat with a friend last night and it turned out that the restaurant only took cash. I looked at that policy statement and frowned. My friend was quick...

"Oh, I'm so sorry."

"Yes, you should be."

We laughed and I withdrew some cash from my checking and everything was fine. But I was also aware that the apology was not only wrong but it stuck out from the situation, interrupted the dialogue, and didn't even fix the problem. It had nothing to do with the very simple issue yet it was an emotional reflex reaction. I do this all the time and I'll catch myself in mid-apology for some weather phenomena or late train.


In the news I've noticed these 'getting caught' apologies as the norm. Politicians, athletes, superstars don't just apologize in public out of guilt. The apologize comes after the 'mugshot' or the perp walk. Even better if the apology is mixed in with frowning faces and heads hung low. And some times this apology comes years after denial, defensive anger, outright rage at any questions.

I remember Nick Saban when he was the football coach for the Miami Dolphins. Halfway through his second season, reporters started peppering him with questions about leaving the Dolphins. He was outraged and appalled and said as much. The anger was so visceral that reporters would often withdraw their questions or apologize for having the audacity to be so dishonorable. Saban swore loyalty to the Dolphins and angrily shot down any questions about leaving. In retrospect, many reporters stated that they were asking this question because they had confirmed sources saying that Saban had 'feelers' out on the market and he was actively and surreptitiously trying to find a new job while he still was being paid millions for his current position at the Dolphins.

As someone who has worked in offices, I know how taboo it is to even use the workplace copier to print new resumes. It's an act that has to be done quietly because it's seen as wasting company resources (ink and paper) to create a document that's used to find another company. Essentially it's like using your wife's car to go pick up your mistress. If caught, it's not only seen as 'wrong' but tacky, boldly stupid, and mean. And all that is just for 'paper and ink.'

After the Dolphins' season ended Saban was scheduled to have a press conference and was a no-show. Instead the media was greeted by Wayne Huzienga, the Dolphins owner at the time. Huzienga had a prepared statement. Saban -through Huzienga- was offering a somewhat ersatz contrition. As Huzienga read the statement he also defended the honor of Saban who was -as they spoke- on a flight to his new multimillion dollar job at the University of Alabama. Saban had not only broken his contract, deceived the media over the course of months, and lied to his players. He had been downright mean and angry at his accusers. And then when his accusers proved to be correct, he was on a plane to another state. Huzienga -the boss who was paying him millions of dollars to improve his business- was left holding the stage on his own, explaining for his employees behavior. Years later, Saban has won multiple championships and is richer than ever. We live in an odd world.

Economically we're recovering from possibly the biggest and most-widespread financial disaster in human history. Spread out over every continent and in every country, trillions of dollars were loss and stolen by banks and traders. This act has lead to hunger, lack of food, energy shortages around the world, and severe human suffering. From agriculture and fishing, and all the way up to government budgets everyone depended on that stream of financing that was a combination of stock markets, derivatives, bonds, and funds. It's a very small group of people who work in these fields. The reaction to the crisis was quick and decisive from this elite group: give us all your money or we're going to blow this whole thing up. In a panic, most of the world obliged in fear. After the markets were back to turning a consistent profit most governments and reasonable people waited. Although there's no way to know what each person was thinking it's safe to assume that they were waiting for an apology or some sort of corrective measure or reform. Instead the second wave of reaction was just as swift as panic: shut up and be quiet.

When it became clear that there was going to be no massive arrest of Wall Street types, nor even an 'oops, my bad' a seething rage began to pulse in the blogosphere and amongst 'normal people.' Then -in scattered and disorganized form- there have been some mumblings of 'sorry' from business executives. Most often, this happens after they retire or switch careers. All of sudden they remember: oh yeah, I was supposed to at least pretend to be sorry.


Our media and social networking feeds on outrage. Facebook, twitter, and blogs depend on some scandal or injustice somewhere being thrown in the light. In an ideal world this light leads to revolution and social change in oppressed systems and countries. Most of the time, this outrage is really just the 'junk food' of the conscious mind. The mind is seeking guilt 'out there' to be corrected to avoid any internal change or adjustments.  It doesn't take long to find outrage at some hypocrisy or improper etiquette.

 Closeted gay Republicans, crip-walking American athletes, loud-mouth conservatives, and racist teenage rants on facebook don't effect my life any in significant way. The outrage I'm being goaded into feeling is really to force the offending party into a mea culpa. But here's the catch: the apology won't stop me from looking at other things to be outraged at; in fact, quite the opposite. The guilt-trip induced apology encourages further outrage. The apology feeds back into the loop of social blame and guilt. The more apologies are given, the less magnanimous we seem to become as a nation. The apology becomes like a sugar high for a little kid and as each high begins to fade, I go looking for another outrage with the hopes of an apology so I can feel smug and righteous.

In many ways, the apology is the worst thing that can happen in these public-guilt festivals. 'I'm sorry' feeds the beast of outrage and paranoia. And that's because the apology is coming out of fear instead of sincerity.

Fear-based apologies run the world and only increase a feeling of insecurity. Post-Cold War America is probably one of the most peaceful times in the entire planet. The proportion of wars and conflicts is much lower than any time in modern human history. America has no natural enemies to the north or south, and is surrounded by huge oceans to the east and west. Our friends are on every continent, our businesses are in every country, we make 25% of the world economy and are less than 5% of the population. America stands as a freakishly strong superpower of military, economic, and cultural superiority not seen since the Roman Empire. In fact, the so-called Roman Empire only had hard-control over a very small portion of the world. America's 'soft power' seeps through TV, internet, and every form of media that can be found on the planet. And yet, Americans purchase more guns and arms than the entire world. Our military mindset is unparalleled in fear which keeps us driving for new and faster ways to kill others and monitor them. Our politicians must reference strength at every turn, or else they are seen as weak. The American mindset has got to be one of the most bizarre cocktails of competitiveness, worry, anger, kid-like enthusiasm, sex-violence fixation, and apocalyptic fear.

How could anything work under these conditions in the long term? Apologies depend upon softness, atonement, patience, and dedication.


Sorry isn't good enough in this environment. In fact, it can be counterproductive. There has to be a better way to live than in half-hearted and defensive apologies. Fortunately there are many practices that strive for something higher.

In Buddhist practice we keep a vow book or keep track of our positive and negative actions. Throughout the course of the day, when a negative thought or action occurs it's possible to do purification with the 4 powers: foundation, destruction, restraint, and antidote. This is an effective method of correction that has been around for over 2,000 years. No where in the four powers does it mention being 'sorry.'

The first power is one of regret. It's not a regret at getting caught or being wrong, or falling to live up to some false and heroic image of what I think I should be. The regret is simple and mathematical: whatever I do, will be done to be in an exponential amount. The regret is kept at the basic level of karma arithmetic: this act I would not like done to me and now I have ensured that it will appear in my path some time in the future and cause me pain and suffering.

The second power is to go for help or refuge in something when in crisis. This could be Jesus, the US government, Buddha, a wise spiritual person, but anything that can offer some support against the decision which will cause me a lot of pain in the future.

The third power is now realizing that I have done something which will cause me discomfort, I will restrain from doing this act again for a specific amount of time. The fourth power is to do the antidote or the act which destroys the initial seed. Usually the antidote is the exact opposite of whatever was done so if it's a regret of stealing something, then the antidote would be to give generously to others. No where in the process is the requirement for guilt and contrition. The corrective actions are like a computer which is cleaning its hard drive or purging out a virus.

In "A Course In Miracles" there is a corrective process that also involves deep and continual forgiveness combined with an understanding of reality. The forgiveness is operating on the level of illusion that's only being created by the perceiver. So forgiveness seeks to wipe out the illusion entirely.

I would like for there to be a time when apologies mean something besides guilt at being caught or a distraction. Ultimately, contrition has huge power for all involved. Yet, if the intention isn't right, 'sorry' just becomes an empty mantra of contemporary culture.

All these thoughts ran through my head as I walked through the village and the sunset turned to night. I went to Washington Square Park and sat by the water fountain. There was a young woman who looked like an NYU student within the center circle. She was sitting on a stone bench by herself. I hunched my shoulders and slid into my seat, almost as if to apologize for taking up space on a huge bench. Then I caught myself: what am I sorry for? This is a public bench, I'm using it, she's using it. We're not disturbing each other. I sat there for a moment and ate some hummus from Whole Foods.

The hunch dissolved from my back and I looked around. A man was cussing out his dog in the southwest corner of the circle and yelling for some obedience. A vendor was screaming about $1 water and holding up plastic bottles. A lithely female voice was singing under the Arch on a microphone. On an adjacent stone bench a couple was making out. I felt like no one had to be sorry for anything and I was grateful. There was some serenity in people just being able 'to be' without apologies. Messy and loud, passionately displaying public affection, quietly reflective, high on drugs. The world just WAS and IS without qualifiers or contrition. And my thoughts melted back into the present moment, the food in my lap, feel of the recycled brown box against my legs.

I came home and begin fiddling with these thoughts. Of course now I realize that this essay is entirely too long for the Internet. Perhaps I am wasting people's time or being indulgent. I feel the need to apologize for being long-winded. Instead, I just sit here as I finish this last sentence.

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