Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

The recent furor over Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about Islam raises some important issues in the relationship between major religions. But for me, it also raises an interesting point about the psycholinguistics of how we apologize to each other.

After Muslims reacted strongly to the Pope’s citation of a historical passage that offended them – one that he has since stated did not reflect his own opinion – he first said that he “sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful.” As protests continued, he added a day later that he was “deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries” to his address.”

Translation? “I’m sorry that *you* were upset about what I said.” Not the worst sentiment, but a far cry from “I am sorry that *I* did something that offended you.”

This brings up the deeper issue of why, sometimes, our own apologies aren’t good enough. Here are two reasons that I see:

1. You have to make it about you and not about them. When someone is upset at you, human nature is to defend ourselves. So we try to justify ourselves by making the other person seem too sensitive, or painting them as being part of the problem. This, in turn, makes them even more defensive and angry. That’s why apologies like “I’m sorry you reacted so badly” or “I’m sorry I overreacted to your provocation” almost never work.

There are two sides to every story, but if you are apologizing to someone, it simply isn’t the time and place for your side. Keep the focus on what you shouldn’t have done and what you will change, and you are much more likely to soothe the other person.

2. The phrase “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean what it used to. I often tell audiences that they should banish the words “I’m sorry” from their vocabulary? Huh? Really? Yes, really. Look critically at how the term is used in most conversation, and you will see that it has become a self-protective catch-phrase that conveys no regret whatsoever:

“I’m sorry, we can’t/won’t/don’t do that, sir.”
“I’m sorry. You should have been more careful.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to (fill in the blank).”

As a result, most people don’t react to these two words themselves quite the same way anymore. Instead, use the term “I apologize”, and then be specific about what you are apologizing for – for example, “I apologize for causing this problem.”

Of course, I hope and pray that the Holy Father and the Muslim community will soon resolve their differences with respect and civility on all sides. But in the meantime, there is an important lesson in this incident for all of us: how to apologize more effectively.

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