I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise for that thing I did that time, you know the thing I mean. There are no excuses for that sort of behaviour except to say that I had spent the previous half hour being chased by a moose. But that’s no excuse. Apologising has become a Thing. From celebrities being caught doing or saying something they shouldn’t to entire nations atoning for events that may be centuries old, a good sincere apology seems to be required. It’s now as much a part of the public relations choreography as smiling to photographers at film premieres. However does it really mean anything? Isn’t it just a tactical move to try and draw a line under something uncomfortable?
It used to be a British thing, when people would apologise even if someone else got in their way and it wasn’t their fault at all. Best to apologise just in case the other person was offended by the way they had knocked into you. I remember as a child we were told that apologies had to be sincere but they rarely are. If you even hear a child apologising it seems obvious they’re only doing it because they think it absolves them and they can move on. Adults too use an apology in the hope that the other party will quickly forgive them. You can even buy Apology cards for every eventuality though probably some things are too significant for a card to be used.
If you think I’m being flippant then that’s because in almost all these cases the big public apology is not really appropriate because it becomes another bit of self publicity and probably irritates the person you’re apologising too. Obviously there is degree of magnitude to these things but if it’s very serious then the police need to be involved, if not then a private apology might be more appropriate.
The idea of entire nations apologising for the actions of generations who are long gone seems especially pointless. By all means they should ensure these misdemeanours do not re-occur by learning the lessons of history but it surely isn’t the responsibility of our more enlightened times to apologise for the way people thought and behaved hundreds of years ago. Its getting to the point where we’ll be expecting Scandinavians to apologise for all the things Vikings did!
The word apology derives from Greek, a combination of `apo` (far away, off) and `logia` (derived from logo meaning speech). It was originally used more as a defence in situations where something had gone wrong rather than as any admission of guilt. There are still examples of this use of the word in surviving English sixteenth century documents. Academics suggest that the change in emphasis came about partly because of Shakespeare and a line in Richard III.
Going back to childhood lessons, I think people learn quite early on that apologising is a better option and to deploy apologies strategically to avoid maximum hassle. So a child will see adults apologising and seeming to be OK again or they’ll learn in school about apologies for historical atrocities and all the time see the apology as the solution to all things. Celebrities of course use these public apologies because they must and because we expect it. They are not really apologising for their mistake (even if they are genuinely sorry) rather bargaining for their career.
It has been suggested that a good apology needs to incorporate the 3 Rs. The first is Regret and this must be (or at least sound) genuine. Then there’s React which is the bit people forget. It is all very well being very sorry etc but what are you going to do to address the situation? Thirdly Reassurance that this will not happen again. This latter part has become difficult the way things are reported. While the person may well be genuine about changing their ways if stories keep popping up - even if they are about events from a decade ago – it feeds a perception that the person hasn’t actually changed.
Apologies used to be small things about a spill or something, now they have taken on a magnitude with all sorts of connotations. They also used to be natural responses, not stage managed addresses to millions of people. Of course there are some who say the person should never have said or done what they did in the first place and no apology can ever be enough. I wonder what they’re hiding? Finally and inevitably I’d like to apologise to anyone offended by this post. There really is no excuse but (sniiip..)