short on sorry

sorry apologies out of practice

Things are about to get ugly.

I’m about to tell you a true – but unflattering – story about myself.

*****

Anyone who lives in New England knows we’ve been clobbered with the worst winter we’ve ever had. The mountains of ever-increasing snow have eaten away at not only streets, yards and parking areas, but people, slowly chipping away at even the most chipper among us.

Late one night a few weeks ago, I got out the shovels – again – and spent hours clearing the porch, stairway and car.  I was stir crazy.  I had to get out. Once in my rear-wheel-drive car, I spun and whirred and pushed and shoveled some more for about another 45 minutes, trying to extricate the car from the yet unplowed driveway. At last, soaked and sore, I gunned it one last time through the final barricade of filthy snow built up by street plows at the end of the drive, and was into the road.

I crept  up the street to a local convenience store and noticed that my favorite brand of on-the-go protein shakes was on sale: 2 for $4.  So I loaded up my arms to a precarious level with bottles of the stuff and headed to the counter.  The cashier was a new girl, pleasant enough.  She made some joke about how I must be really thirsty and commented on my muscles. To tell you the truth, I was tired and not in the mood for chit-chat. Anyone who knows me, or who has followed much of anything I’ve ever written or said, knows that I am all about noticing and using names, and treating people as real people instead of as props, robots or obstacles in our way. That night, I didn’t.

When the clerk had finished ringing in my 16 drinks, bagging them as she went, the total came to $47.84 rather than the $32.00 I was expecting.  I alerted her to the sale sign in the cooler. She apologized but said that the sale had ended a few days earlier, on the last day of the previous month. She said something about the manager not being very good at keeping up with removing signs. But I wasn’t having it. The sign was still up and I wanted the discount. I told her that if she didn’t give me the sale price, it was false advertising, which was a form of fraud.  She apologized again, but said there was nothing she could do.  She’d need a manager to do the price override or she would get in trouble, and no manager was on, being so late and in the middle of yet another blizzard.

“It can be done,” I told her icily. “I’ve had things priced wrong here before, and regular employees just like you have had no problem manually entering the correct price. You’re obviously new, so what you’re telling me is that you haven’t learned how to do it. But it can be done.”  The clerk was red with hives and fighting to hold a smile, but she had nothing left that she could say. I could feel my heart pounding in my ears. My skin felt tight.

A line of equally impatient and irritable people was forming behind me, now beginning to audibly sigh and groan, but I didn’t care. The price was publically posted, and I was being ripped off.  I walked away from the counter, ostentatiously taking out my phone and holding it up in front of the cooler with the sale sign.

“I just took a video of the sale sign along with today’s date,” I told the girl as I approached the counter again.  I gave her a tight-lipped smile that held no warmth. “I’d suggest you learn how to do manual overrides like everyone else. And I don’t want the drinks. You can put them away.”

And with that, I left the bags of protein on the counter, turned and stormed out the door.

*****

If you’ve only read a few of my blog posts, you may get the wrong idea. You may think that my goal is to be an inspirational writer.  But while I’m certainly happy to inspire, it is not the primary purpose of my writing. It seems to me that the word “inspirational” is used in modern pop culture to describe something that gives us the warm fuzzies or some peaceful vibe.  My aim, however – in both this blog and in the book – is to do more than evoke a temporary good feeling.  Rather, it’s my hope to provide constant reminders that you always have a choice, and then to encourage you to use those choices to effect real and positive change in your life. That being the case, if every reader were to assent to or even agree with everything I ever wrote, to find my stories entertaining or heartwarming, and then walk away feeling tingly or emotional or moved, but never having made new choices toward positive change – I will have failed.

I mean this.

With that understanding in mind, I want to ask you to literally stop in a few moments, reflect, and answer this question:

When is the last time you gave a heartfelt apology?

Don’t count times you gave an apology because you wanted something in return, or because you wanted to avoid negative fallout.  Pinpoint in your mind the last time you truly felt you had wronged someone.

You intentionally hurt someone.

You ran roughshod over them to assert yourself when things didn’t go your way.

You were rude or harsh with someone, or you took your frustration out on them when they were not to blame.

You did what was best for you, without considering how someone else felt or how your actions would affect them.

You talked negatively about someone, causing others to ridicule or mistrust them.

And you knew it.  You knew you were in the wrong.  But at some point afterward, you experienced real remorse. You just felt lousy about it – so much so that you went back and offered a sincere apology without a single excuse.

When was the last time? To whom did you apologize?  Was it a family member? A friend?  A co-worker or boss?  A student? A server at a restaurant?  A customer care or tech support person you were on the phone with?

If it was so long ago that the details are foggy – or if you can’t remember a specific time at all – ask yourself, What does that say about me? As far as I can see, there are only two things it could mean:

  1. You are an anomaly. You are close to perfect and never blow it with other people, and therefore don’t really ever have the need to apologize. 
  1. You aren’t apologizing enough.

When is the last time you gave a heart-felt apology?

I got to thinking about all of this because I recently had a falling out with a friend over a string of broken promises and unmet expectations. Things continued in a downward spiral until he wound up leaving a note in my mailbox that was the equivalent of a teenage break-up letter. In it, he used words like “toxic relationship” and heavily implied that I was the problem, not him: that if I were a good friend, I would have understood his life and not held him to his word or his commitments.

In this situation, many people would have rushed to apologize, even if they truly didn’t feel they had done anything wrong.  I’m not one of those people. Do I sound arrogant? Condescending? I’m really not.

To the best of my knowledge, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I’d been patient and never unkind to him.  I even offered a solution to the problem that would have freed him of his obligations at a personal cost to myself.  But the reason I am able to know when an apology is due – and when one isn’t (even if it means that someone is mad about it) – is that I do keep tabs on asking myself the same question I posed to you above: When is the last time I sincerely apologized to someone?

If I ask myself that question and I can’t recall a very recent time, I have to stop and consider that maybe I’m out of practice.  Maybe I’ve let my pride grow out of control. Maybe I can’t admit when I am wrong, even when I am.

However, if I can readily think of a few recent times where I did apologize, especially in ways that caused me to feel a little awkward and embarrassed, then I know I’m doing OK.  My sensitivity to when I am wrong is intact.

The incident with the unlucky convenience store clerk was only about a week prior to the letter bomb from my friend. Let me tell you the rest of the story. (I just read the pre-published version of this to my mother, and even she is horrified at me right now.)

*****

I got back into my car, blood pressure making it hard to swallow. Breathing was shallow and deliberate.  In the quietness of the car, however, the scene replayed in my head. I heard myself, saw the red-faced clerk. I realized I’d thrown my core values about people aside. “Mortified” doesn’t quite capture the feeling.

I took a few deep breaths and got back out of the car, splashing through six inches of slush to the door, and headed back inside. My bagged drinks were still on the counter, set aside to have helped the other customers. I asked the clerk if I could speak with her again (her name is Christy, by the way).

“I was way out of line just now, Christy. You’d probably never guess this by how I just acted, but one of the most important things to me is treating people with respect, not as problems, and I just totally did the opposite. I made a huge deal about nothing, and I’m really sorry.”

Christy was very gracious: “I appreciate that. Hey, believe me, we all have our bad days. I know I do! And again, I’m sorry for the confusion; the signs really should have been changed.”  I told her I’d be happy to buy the shakes. She rang them in again, and assured me that she would have the manager look into the problem.  She also told me to just bring my receipt back the next day, assuring me that the manager would give me the refund.

*****

A whole chapter in my book, The Best Advice So Far, is devoted to the topic of apologies: when an apology is due, how to deliver a meaningful apology and avoid “apology-like fillers,” and how to stop apologizing for things you aren’t sorry about. It’s good advice, even if I didn’t happen to write it. But I’ll leave you to read that for yourself.

My specific aim right now is simply to challenge you to think about how often you find yourself apologizing.  If the answer is “not very,” it’s quite possible that you’ve gotten out of practice on how to admit you are wrong.

Are there any new choices you might need to make in order to effect some necessary change in this area?

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About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

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