This morning smells of coffee as I resist to urge to get a second coffee fix from Starbucks. It is exciting to be starting work at 9A.M. (rather than the usual half or quarter past 8A.M.) – allows me a relaxing morning seated at my favourite high seat in Starbucks, writing. The coffee house is empty, except for its diligent staff, and the sun illuminates this space from the back, shining in through the full-length glass panels that enclose this space. Today’s thoughts are on the apologies we misplace: the pretense in the “I’m sorry” that we don’t mean or the empty pleas for forgiveness when we have done nothing we deem to be wrong.
Years ago, as an active volunteer of UPstars tutoring program, I had the privilege of leading a team in the repainting and packing of the space we used for class. We transformed the blood red walls that induced anger and distress into an azure blue, donning the walls with images of nature accompanied by quotes about “kindness”, “courage”, “perseverance” and “forgiveness”. I vividly remember the one for “forgiveness” – “Mistakes are always forgivable if one has the courage to admit them,” we painted. Often within the space of the classroom, we preached to the young ones about the importance of apologizing for whatever they had done wrong. It was the key to conflict resolution. Stationery taken without permission, drawing on someone’s work, being disrespectful: “What must you say?” “Sorry.”
The magic to an apology that resolves countless conflicts is the idea that at the heart of an apology is the acknowledgement that what has been done shouldn’t have been. It is an expression of hope to be forgiven and to be treated no differently for something done: an expression of regret. When I was younger, I recall how “sorry” might have been the most difficult word to say exactly because of the inner feelings we were exemplifying while expressing our apology with sincerity – in saying “I’m sorry”, I often felt like I was placing myself in a vulnerable position in face of the person I was apologizing to. The hesitation and the difficulty in expressing the apology was exactly because “I’m sorry” carried significant weight.
I have always felt that lessons we learn about how to treat one another lose clarity as we grow up, and unnecessarily so. The one on when to say “sorry” is one of them. Increasingly, the complications we associate to an apology potentially undermine the value of the plea for forgiveness. Allow me to clarify that in this case, I am not referring to the apologies we express to those we care for dearly even when we haven’t done anything wrong. Such apologies, I deem to be relatively justified and similarly weighted as they involve putting ourselves in a vulnerable position because what is at stake (the relationship) is something we are concerned about deeply. The sincerity in the apology is derived from the desire to preserve the relationship. Rather, I am hoping to revisit how professions that involve customer service, for example, often induce an environment where we apologize excessively – the instances where we amplify our sense of entitlement to induce a meaningless apology. (I once wrote about this earlier when I was working in Macdonalds’ Fast Food Restaurant)
It seems we have an innate desire to feed our esteem at the expense of others who are made to feel inferior. In the context of customer service, “the customer is always right” is our safety net and our sense of entitlement, our weapon. Attack. The “I’m sorry” that follows is nothing short of fear that we misunderstand for submission and respect. This is breeding ground for a culture of excessive apologies – the value of our apologies shall proceed in a never-ending downward fashion every time we abuse “I’m sorry” for instances where we have little (or nothing) to be expressing remorse for.
To all those who have induced these apologies from me, I’m so sorry that I’m not.