Saturday, January 30, 2010

Shame and Apology

As many of you know by now, I rarely miss an opportunity to say something about shame and apology. These posts will attest. Link here. And here.

Today I came across an excellent article by Alina Tugend, entitled: "An Attempt to Revive the Lost Art of Apology." Link here.

While I am aware that journalists are often not responsible for the titles their articles bear, I do wish to take small exception to the title of Tugend's article.

Tugend is correct to note that there is a lot of apology talk going around. Our world is awash in public officials taking responsibility for personal failures, with greater or lesser degrees of sincerity.

And she is correct to highlight the importance of sincerity-- it's one thing to mouth the words, quite another to mean it.

I think that she would agree with me that a culture is defined and determined by how it deals with shame. Her article offers a good analysis of this idea.

I disagree, however, with the notion that apology is an art. Apology is a formal ritual. When you are standing before someone you have wronged, your proper attitude is vulnerable and abject. It is not the moment for creativity.

I would even say that anyone who tries to apologize artfully is going to get it wrong. When people fail to follow the formal wording of an apology-- point that Tugend does make in the body of her article-- they often lapse into insincerity.

For example, she notes that when you say: I'm sorry if I hurt you, the "if" undermines your sincerity.

If you hurt someone's feelings, you are responsible. You owe the person an apology. The apology should express the fact that you accept full responsibility, and that you are not going to try to make an excuse or explain your error away. If your bad behavior were excusable, then you would not need to apologize.

Nor can you apologize defiantly, as though someone were forcing you to do it against your will. When Bill Clinton famously apologized for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, he was defiant and hostile. The apology was politically expedient; it lacked sincerity.

If an apology is sincere, you are vowing never to make the mistake again. If your apology is insincere, you are giving yourself leave to revisit the error.

We have lost the ability to offer a sincere apology because our leaders have been setting a bad example. Far too often they offer apologies because they need to defuse a public relations problem.

Second, apology has fallen into desuetude because the therapy culture has done everything in its power to undermine it. Therapy has always wanted you to see your mistakes as meaningful reflections of something that happened in your past. It has taught people to explain away their mistakes, not to apologize for them.

Once you develop the mental habit of blaming your errors on your parents or an infantile trauma or your loveless marriage... you will no longer be capable of taking full responsibility and apologizing with sincerity.

Apology says that there is no excuse; therapy says that it can always find an excuse.

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