Time to back-pedal our ideas on apologies?

Was it just me or did apologies seem to be dominating the headlines last week?  Firstly it was the full page newspaper apology from Tesco in response to the horsemeat burger scandal closely followed by Lance Armstrong’s public apology on the Oprah Winfrey show for his use of performance enhancing drugs to win his seven Tour de France titles.

These are just two recent examples in a long list, which got me thinking about how important apologies really are.  There is no doubt that a genuine, heart-felt ‘I’m sorry’ after an argument can work wonders but what about when it is on a larger scale?  Can just a few words really work towards healing the damage after a long-term scandal or major catastrophe?

Armstrong’s apology has been met with much scorn since it was aired last week.  Many criticise that it wasn’t genuine and that no mention was made of the number of people whose lives were irrevocably affected, such as the cyclists whose careers were ended because they refused to take banned substances, or because they did. Some say he is still lying or only apologising in a bid to lift his lifetime ban.

But does an apology have to be genuine in order to have an effect?

The Collins English Dictionary defines the word apologise as  ‘to express or make an apology; acknowledge failing or faults.’

So, on that basis, after months of denial, Armstrong was not only apologising for, but acknowledging his part in a doping ring that has shook the world of professional cycling. And while he may or may not feel bad about it, he is at least admitting it happened.

The Truth and Reconciliation commission was founded after the abolition of apartheid in South Africa and was a platform where both victims and perpetrators of human right violations could give statements about their experiences. The purpose of it was not to find guilt, not even to show remorse, though many did, but to get the truth of what happened in the hope that it would begin repairing a country so damaged by nearly 50 years of apartheid.

Let’s face it, no words or gestures, however grand, can change the past and anyone who thinks so will be sorely disappointed.

Often in mediations, individuals arrive set on getting an apology, but they soon come to realise that the other person is incapable of giving the kind of apology, if any, that they were hoping to receive. They merely have to accept the frustration and move on.  And what about in cases where there is no one particular to blame?

I am not saying that apologies aren’t important, they demonstrate remorse, desire for change and can  draw a line under an unpleasant situation, but perhaps it is the dialogue that is the true healer.

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One Response to Time to back-pedal our ideas on apologies?

  1. Neil Denny 11/02/2013 at 16:55 #

    Apologies are a fascinating area, loaded with personal and cultural value and meaning.

    Their impact upon the roles we assume for ourselves and allocate to others is immense.

    Someone told me a story recently, about a gentleman who lends a friend and colleague ten pounds to get him out of a bit of a hole.

    Several months pass and this colleague has not repaid the money. He has not even mentioned it.

    This causes dismay on the part of the original lender who feels that his trust and generosity has been exploited by his former friend.

    A couple of months later the two men bumo into one another in the street.

    “Hello!” says the borrower, warmly. “How are you? I have been meaning to let you have that ten pounds back. Sorry it has taken so long, here it is.” and he holds out a tenner for the lender to take.

    “Keep it.” says the lender. “The payment of £10 is too little for me to have to re-evaluate my opinion of you.”

    It is a challenge. When people make apologies then we have a choice.

    Do we hear it?

    Do we believe it?

    Will we allow it to change our perception of the apologiser?

    Sometimes it is easier not to do any of those things.

    I have also blogged on apologies here

    http://neildenny.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/how-to-apologise-and-how-not-to/ and here

    http://neildenny.wordpress.com/2012/07/30/why-it-is-difficult-to-receive-an-apology/

    What are other peoples thoughts, I wonder?

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