The Hardest Word
Some people can’t say they’re sorry. And some people really can.
My daughter and I decided to eat at a restaurant down the road from our house the other night. We rarely eat there. It is a bit fancy, though more in our minds than anything else; a bit pricey, though completely fine for ordering a burger or a sandwich, which was what we had in mind. This was the closest place to get something.
It was unusually hot, we had been on the go all day, and we were hungry. Very hungry. We entered the restaurant and debated whether to go to the eating area near the bar, which was where I thought our attire and slightly disheveled state would fit in more, or the dining room, which, she pointed out, was very casual, really, because it is attached to a humble nine-hole golf course and, well, this is the twenty-teens and Americans tend to be informal most places these days, even when eating dinner out. She was right, of course.
The host welcomed us without looking askance and none of the other diners batted an eye as we entered the dining room. We were shown to our table and all was well. Until the waitstaff forgot we were there and never returned.
We entertained ourselves and waited and waited. Finally, after much deliberation (we had time for a protracted discussion of all of the pros and cons, after all) we concluded that we had better leave and drive a little further to a place where we could just get a slice of pizza, pronto.
In the course of sneaking out of the restaurant, we were spied by a young man who turned out to be the manager. “Did we..forget all about you?!” he asked. Drained, my usual coverup operation fell by the wayside and I confessed gently, nearly inaudibly, with a feeble smile, “Um…yeah..kind of…but it’s really OK…we’re just so hungry…and we came here because you are right by our house…” His response was very unusual in this day and age. He blurted out, “Please stay! I’m so sorry! Please let us feed you!”
How could we turn and leave? The prospect of food had a definite appeal, but even further, it was the nature of his apology that was impossible to resist.
And it turned out to be genuine. By the time he had guided us back to our table, he had somehow arranged for a waiter to appear with a basket of bread and a pitcher of water. The manager also apologized again in the sweetest terms, as did everyone else waiting on us, but they all did so respectfully briefly, so that they could get right to our order. A gracious waitress brought our dinner as quickly as it is humanly possible to make a grilled cheese and cheeseburger. The manager checked in to see if we had been served, stating that of course our drinks–a tall glass of cold milk for my daughter and a lovely chilled Pino Grigio for me–were on him.
It was like a scene in the British miniseries “As Life Goes By,” in which a 50s-something couple has reunited after having fallen in love as young adults and gone their separate ways: he had to go off to war and his letters, through some accident, failed to reach her. Now that they are back together (spoiler alert) he is preparing to propose something very important, and they go to an elegant restaurant that has just opened up. They are the only ones dining there and he can’t get a word in for hours because of the obsessive ministrations of the waitstaff. No sooner does the couple take a sip of water than someone shows up to refill the glass. You get the picture.
At our restaurant, the waitstaff was hardly intrusive in this way, making all the more clear that they were truly sorry for neglecting us. At every key point they were there with friendly efficiency, and it ended up being one of our best dining experiences ever. The manager returned to see if we enjoyed our meal and suggested we order a dessert. When we said we couldn’t eat anything more, he insisted we choose something to take home, also on him. Over the next couple of days, the huge piece of carrot cake allowed us to savor our experience again and again.
What was it about this particular response that makes it stand out from so many other apologies that one gets, overhears, or makes over a lifetime? It made me reflect on just how meaningful an apology it was and on how, on much more serious, life-altering (ok, what threaten to be life-worsening) matters, some key person’s apology had fallen short.
What made this apology different?
In these times, between consumerism, advertising, and the service economy, we are all too familiar with efforts to manipulate our emotions. The obligatory “customer relations”-style apology, we know, signifies nothing about whether a particular human being actually feels sorry, bad, remorseful, guilty, or feels anything at all, actually. (Do everything to make Table 7 happy. The woman’s a royal complainer and will threaten to leave if she doesn’t get waited on immediately. [Eye roll. Exit left to kitchen])
It is tempting to see the manager’s apology as different because it was heartfelt, genuine, authentic, or something like that. He saw right through all of those usual layers of encrusted assumptions and expectations interposed between us in such situations. He seemed to see two fellow travelers who were just hungry, but still in good spirits and open to making a real human connection. And this was what was made. All because his apology was real.
It was real because of something else not ordinarily considered an essential part of an apology. The Oxford Dictionaries Online give the standard definition of an apology as “a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.”
True, the simple formulation of words, “I’m sorry,” goes a long, LONG way. As long as it does not come wrapped in an excuse, defensiveness, pointing the finger, failure to take responsibility, or insincerity, the verbal apology helps those relations strained by a wrong–whether large or small, intended or unintended, conscious or unconscious–committed by one of us to the detriment of another.
There are many other tangibles and intangibles that make some apologies better than others. However, the crucial element that can make or break an apology is what comes after “I’m sorry.”
This time, we do want the other shoe to drop. On the part of the person wronged, there needs to be an acceptance of the apology for it to be complete. In the era of immediate gratification and emotional superficiality, we might like to think this is the end of it.
After all, already we are pushing things way beyond what Fritz Perls proposed in 1969 as the mantra best suited to a philosophy of life focused on fulfillment of our needs, which many clearly live by today:
I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.
In many ways, though, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” is just the beginning. After the two shoes have dropped, perhaps we still need to listen for something else (the coat, a symbol of our self-protection, even from other humans at times?) to drift to the floor. This can take a lot of time, needing sometimes a whole life course, and is quieter and less easily discerned than the certain thud of the two shoes.
One day a year or two ago the same daughter who joyously basked with me in the wonderful apology from the restaurant manager, came out with this: an apology doesn’t mean anything unless the person stops doing whatever it is he or she apologized for.
Chicago’s 1982 song, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” puts it rather simply. Someone heard his lover saying that “everybody needs a little time away”; “even lovers need a holiday.” This wound provoked the apology of the well-known chorus:
Hold me now
It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry
I just want you to stay
After all that we’ve been through
I will make it up to you
I promise to
And after all that’s been said and done
You’re just the part of me I can’t let go
In a restaurant setting, a waitperson can apologize and then fail to provide better service. No huge life-worsening there. It’s a free country and one can always leave, choosing either to sneak out or make a dramatic exit.
But in the plethora of other settings in which we find ourselves living in some kind of relation to others, there is the omnipresent possibility for a slight or hurt of every kind, imaginable and unimaginable.
The rational calculus of self-interested individualism under the guise of freedom and self-fulfillment mistakes the temporary meeting of basic needs for true life-giving sustenance, which can perhaps only be experienced collectively.
If we are unable to give–and accept–a true apology, it is is questionable whether we can ever return to a state of things between us that allows anything good, let alone beautiful, to happen. The tone of an apology can be all artifice, but atonement, making amends, and acting on our words are not so easily and carelessly affected.