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Sorry for not apologising, the error is regretted

I recently ordered lunch from a takeaway nearby. It was delivered by mistake to the wrong house where the surprised family polished off the unexpected offering. There was no apology from the delivery boy, the restaurant, or indeed the neighbour. It set me thinking: why do we find it so difficult to say ‘sorry’? Elton John was right. Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

Some people who say ‘sorry’ do so while suggesting that whatever happened was actually your fault (or Nehru’s). I once had a visitor reverse the car into some potted plants near the gate, and then stomp on the pots in anger while muttering something about my having put them in the wrong place. And there was no apology either.

Politicians live by the dictum attributed to Benjamin Disraeli: Never apologise, never explain. Apologies are seen as a sign of weakness, a chest-size reducing exercise ruining a meticulously constructed image. Thus to expect the author of demonitisation or the Covid vaccine chaos to man up and take responsibility even in a the-buck-stops-here kind of way is futile. To err is human, to apologise for it is foolish.

Not apologising isn’t simply a matter of pride or manliness, it probably speaks of a fragile sense of self. Confident people with a strong sense of who they are don’t believe that an apology is the conduit through which their self-worth oozes out.

One of the cop-outs newspapers often use when they make a mistake is to say the “error is regretted”. That is no apology, as the impersonal passive voice indicates. It’s like saying, “I am sorry you didn’t like it,” which focuses on your not liking it rather than the mistake itself. The British “deeply regretted” Jallianwalla Bagh a century after the massacre.

An insincere apology is an insult. You don’t have to go as far as Henry II did after his minions killed Thomas Beckett the Archbishop of Canterbury, and subject yourself to a series of blows with rods as penance, but it is useful to keep that standard in mind. Grovelling is good.

If demonitisation destroyed the economy, what ought the penance to be? Likewise with the avoidable deaths owing to Covid because a nation was unprepared, believing, thanks to its leaders that the virus had been driven away forever? Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

Remember the movie A Fish Called Wanda, and the scene where Kevin Kline dangles John Cleese out of a window and asks, “You’re really sorry”? Cleese replies, “I apologise unreservedly. I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis in fact, and was in no way fair comment, and was motivated purely by malice, and I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you or your family, and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future."

That tone would have sufficed for my unintended lunch guest and could be the template for apologies in general.

(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 1:23:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/sorry-for-not-apologising-the-error-is-regretted/article34625705.ece

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