Recently somebody got mad at me for something they shouldn’t have. That’s not just my opinion, either; they even agreed with me that they were mad about something else and took their anger out on me.
However, they didn’t apologize for getting mad at me when they shouldn’t have. And it’s bugging me. It’s still bugging me, more than a week later. Should it bother me? Does an apology really matter once the problem is over? After all, life goes on, right – so why shouldn’t I move on too?
Apologies often seem like part of a formula, much like saying hello when you first see somebody or saying “Excuse me” when you’re trying to past somebody. Is that all they are? We can start conversations without saying “Hello”, we can push past people without saying “Excuse me,” and we can make a mistake without saying “I’m sorry.” In that view, these words are just pleasantries, things we can say if we want to but that don’t really mean anything.
For me, though (and I’m willing to bet for a lot of others), all of these formulaic pleasantries actually do have meaning. Refusing to say “Excuse me” suggests to the person that you’ve bumped into that you didn’t see anything wrong with bumping into them, perhaps that you think they were in your way. Refusing to say “Hello” and just getting right to the point of your conversation suggests that the interaction you’ve just entered into is purely transactional and not part of a larger relationship. My wife and her family used to wonder why I insisted so much on having my kids say “Please” and “Thank You” for everything, which is not something they consider as important as I do. But for me, those words let others know that you’re not expecting to get everything just because you asked for it, and that you appreciate the effort others have expended to give you whatever you wanted. For me it’s not about good manners; it’s about creating respectful social bonds with others.
Which brings me to why I have so much trouble whenever someone refuses to say “I’m sorry.” Because when we don’t apologize for the things we shouldn’t have done, we’re essentially saying that we don’t think we did anything wrong. We’re not apologizing because we don’t see any need to apologize. A problem occurred as the result of some action or behavior that didn’t work for the people we were interacting with – and we’re probably going to engage in those same actions and behaviors in the future, because there’s nothing for us to be sorry about.
That’s why so many of us get so upset when individuals or companies fail to apologize for the mistakes they’ve made – or apologize in a way that comes off as insincere. It’s not about winning the argument or being right. We ask for and expect apologies because we’re hoping that some amount of learning has taken place, that things we don’t want to repeat won’t be repeated. We get into arguments with others because we’re not happy with the way things are and want something to change – and offering an apology lets everyone know that some of the changes we’re asking for might actually someday happen.
So I’ll continue to say “Please” and “Thank you” and “Excuse me” and “Hello,” because I think they’re more than just nice sounds. And I’ll keep asking for apologies when I think they’re due me, and apologizing to others when they don’t like what I say or do.
And if you’ve read this and don’t like any of it, I’d like to say that I’m sorry for wasting your time. I certainly wasn’t trying to, and you can be assured that I don’t like spending my time writing articles that nobody wants to read. I’ll try to do better next time.