All Apologies: Taking Back 'I'm Sorry' From People Who Aren't

Man holding I am sorry message on white board. remorse concept.
Man holding I am sorry message on white board. remorse concept.

A few years ago, I had a next-door neighbor in Brooklyn who maintained her lawn to nearly obsessive perfection. Shortly after complaining about a small flowering tree in our yard that was dropping its petals onto her manicured grass, she took it upon herself to simply reach over the fence with a hacksaw and cut the thing down. When questioned about the jagged, five-foot stump she had left on our side of the fence, she shrugged and reasoned, "I figured it was easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission." I took this to mean she had never really planned to ask for either one.

This is a bizarre, egregious example, but I'm finding this non-apology mentality to be more and more pervasive lately. People do something they know to be rude, or irritating, or just genuinely unkind, and then by virtue of a simple apology, think no more of it. A friend is 45 minutes late to every dinner reservation made in the past three years, and rushes in announcing, "I'm so sorry I'm late! What should we order?" A neighbor, the morning after coming home drunk and disorderly for the third night in a row expresses, "Oh my god I'm so sorry" as she makes plans to go out again that night. A colleague offers "really sorry to do this..." as he goes back on a commitment without offering any real reason, other than that he doesn't want to see it through.

A sincere apology may help to smooth over an offense, but even in the best of circumstances it doesn't negate action itself. I would argue that a flippant apology is actually an even more selfish act, and often only serves to further incense the person on the receiving end. In any case, the words "I'm sorry" are always a poor substitute for simply behaving better.

And it seems everyone "sincerely apologizes" these days, merely apologizing no longer implies enough contrition. Everyone is "very sorry" "so sorry" or "really extremely sorry" for the thing they've done but don't really intend to make better. It sometimes feels as though the strategy is to smother the apology in hyperbolic contrition; to apologize so profusely that the wronged party somehow becomes responsible for reconciling the situation. It's the same strategy my dog employs when she's tipped over the trash can, "I know this is the third time this week, but I'm really, truly sorry. Please, I'm so sorry, I'll never do it again. Can I have that sandwich?" I couldn't say exactly what makes an apology feel sincere, but I know it's not the number of adverbs you stick in front of it.

We watch celebrities apologize after they're caught doing untoward, illegal things. We hear football players mumble how sorry they are after they've punched their girlfriend in the face. We see politicians bow their heads in contrition when they've said something to offend a loud enough group of voters. We can instinctively tell how false these apologies sound, but maybe as a society we've internalized that they also seem to work. Jail time turns to probation; lifelong bans turn into fines. Just once I'd like to see a celebrity get up and say, "I did it and I won't insult your intelligence by pretending to feel bad about it. My whole existence hinges on getting special VIP treatment, and I don't see why it should be any different when I break the law". I imagine I would find Donald Trump's refusal to apologize for anything that's ever come out of his mouth endearing, if I didn't find what comes out of his mouth to be so appalling.

What makes a person considerate? What makes them capable of feeling and expressing authentic contrition when they've done wrong? Some of my warmest and otherwise most genuine friends don't seem to have this capability. Coming from their mouths, the words "I'm sorry" feel perfunctory, like a boring ritual we have to perform before we can have any fun.

"I'm sorry I'm late."
"I'm sorry I've been MIA."
"I'm sorry I didn't text you back."

I know I'm supposed to say, "Oh, don't even worry about it" so we can order drinks and get on with it, and I'll confess I usually do. But I always wonder, what instead of breezing past it, I dug my heels in and demanded we address the issue here and now, in its entirety? What if I forced them to just sit there across from me while I explained in detail how I managed to arrange my day so I could be on time for dinner? How if I had known they would be thirty minutes late, I might've finished up some work before driving over, or stopped to pick up my dry cleaning, or had a snack on my way here. What if I were to explain how these tiny transgressions against the people we hold most dear start to add up to the reputation they have and can't fathom as a flake, or as self-absorbed, or as just plain rude?

I suppose I would start to earn my own reputation as an uptight, wet blanket. But still, I've heard that we teach others how to treat us. From now on I plan to be someone who lets others at least dangle over the fire before letting them off the hook, and that's a start.