More on sorry…

" SORRY  DAY " badges ,   Reconciliation
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After reading my first blog post, 200 words for sorry, a friend sent me a link to a Harvard Business Review article about how apologies are perceived in different cultures. The story notes that, while an apology in the U.S. carries strong connotations of personal responsibility, in Eastern cultures it is more an expression of regret. According to the author, those different takes on “sorry” account for the skepticism with which many Americans viewed the Toyota CEO’s apology in the wake of the 2010 accelerator malfunctions.

I use “I’m sorry” both ways, as an expression of sympathy or regret, and as an admission of transgression and a plea for forgiveness, but I often find I’m misunderstood. A friend was going through some relationship difficulties, and when I said, “Sweetie, I am so sorry!” she said, “It’s not your fault!” and when I said I was just trying to convey my sympathy for her situation she said, “Oh, right–a different kind of sorry,” as if it truly were another language. And she’s not the only friend with whom I’ve had similar exchanges.

The other kind of sorry, the American confession of fault, requires sincerity. Too many people try to get away with a half-sorry. “I’m sorry if you were offended,” or “I’m sorry if what I said was interpreted as insensitive,” in effect blames the victim of the bad behavior for taking offense.

One of my biggest pet peeves is “I owe you an apology.” Someone said that to me after basically calling me a liar, then receiving evidence proving I was not. “I owe you an apology,” he said, and what I wanted to say was, Um–really? So…when can I collect?

Probably the most famous non-apology–at least among literary types–is the incessantly-analyzed and often-parodied William Carlos Williams poem This Is Just to Say:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I always love takeoffs on this poem. In a chapter of an episode called Mistakes Were Made, “This American Life” writers recite a hilarious set, and when I heard it I had to add my own. Here it is:

This Is Just to Say

I have slept with
the man
that you met
at the happy hour

and whom
you probably
hoped
to marry

I owe you an apology
he was delicious
so sure
and so bold

Yet another kind of sorry.

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