Why sincere apologies matter

“Sorry” is perhaps the most used expression in the English dictionary after “Thank you”. Yet, most of the times it is used involuntarily. It is done sort of unconsciously without much thought into it. In the same way that breathing is an involuntary movement of our bodies, apologizing and being thankful are involuntary verbalizations of the British culture. British people are conditioned to say “sorry” and “thank you” from the moment they first speak!.

It puzzles me, however, that the sea of apologies and thankfulness is shallow and lacks deep meaning to it. Recently, I came across Victoria Coren Mitchell’s article on how she ordered 50 tiny tambourines and then wept. In her case, as so often happens, the customer service attendant on the other end of the phone was not listening with empathy to Victoria’s needs and was therefore unable to genuinely apologize.

How many of us have gone through a similar experience? The frustration of not having your words listened to. The doubt if you are really talking to a human being or with a robot. The questioning if you are not making yourself clear enough, because the person on the other side seems not to understand your point. The anger that arises when you have to repeat your point a thousand times and say it in many different ways and still the other person fails to acknowledge your needs and offer help to find a solution.

The point of Victoria’s story is simple: it is not about the tambourines! It is about the unfairness in the world. It’s about the lack of appreciation for our individual needs. It’s about inability to appreciate our emotions. It’s about the masks people put on and how they become impersonal in doing their jobs. It’s about people working and living their lives as though complying with a faceless capitalist system is the right thing to do. After all, the customer service attendant was just “doing her job”.

The United Airlines’ scandal on the treatment of a passenger who refused to voluntarily give-up his seat on an overbooked plane is another example of how it is not ok to “just do your job”. The lame excuse of simply following the so-called “established procedures”, as the United Airlines’ CEO defended in his first apology letter is outrageous. In this specific case, the video of the passenger being dragged out of the plane went viral and the company shares plunged. Only then United Airlines’ CEO offered a proper apology.

Those two cases made me realise that it is very rare to have genuine apologies on our professional interactions. People are too busy “doing their jobs” and often, as in the cases above, do not even notice at first sight that anything is wrong, so why should they apologize in the first place? And then, even when an apology is suitable, the tendency is for the usual automatic and conditioned “sorry” without the full understanding of what the real issue is and without any commitment to action so that the problem is solved and will not happen again.

I can understand the difficulty in offering sincere apologies in work situations. It is admission of guilt and with that comes a whole set of legal liability issues that they might want to avoid at all costs. However, I feel the biggest reason for people not genuinely apologizing is because they are afraid of the consequences of revealing that they are not perfect and that they have made a mistake. They will have to admit their flaws and might show their vulnerability.

Guess what? We are all humans and we all make mistakes! So it is about time we bring our Whole Persons to work, including our imperfections. It is time to stop saying “I am just doing my job”.

Why sincere apologies matter? Simple: it makes us humans. It comforts the person on the receiving end. It means action will be taken to fix whatever the issue is and that hopefully it will not happen again. It shows the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. It allows us to identify ourselves with the other person. It helps us to connect. It makes the world a better place to live in.

Do these reflections resonate with you? Why not offer someone a sincere apology for something you have done not quite right? Have the courage to say not only “sorry”, but also why you are “sorry” and what will you do to amend the situation and for it not to happen again.

Gustavo

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