Apologies if you’re fed up with apologies, but it seems that we’ve now entered a permanently sorry state of affairs. People seem to be either making apologies or clamouring for others to make them. Hastily arranged press conferences, video apologies, and Parliamentary statements seem to be becoming the norm. We’ve even had coaches apologising to fans for their team’s “sorry” performance, although, to be fair, we haven’t had the spectacle of an MP lining up his “happy family” for a photocall in front of the duck pond for a while. Meanwhile, in the US Romney, whose campaign book is called “No apologies” has in fact apologised for schoolboy pranks (aka bullying) but not for his “inelegantly chosen” words on tax payers.
Being sorry, it seems, is an essential part of today’s discourse. But why is it that someone saying sorry often leaves us feeling no better. Perhaps it’s because there is more than one type of sorry. The first type is “I’m sorry [that it happened]”. In this case it was either a mistake or an error of judgement. This sort of thing happens all the time and to everyone. The trick in saying sorry for this sort of thing is to convey the feeling that one genuinely wants to learn from the episode. After all, without mistakes there can be no progress.
The second form of sorry is the “I’m sorry [that I got caught]”. In this scenario, the person saying sorry is often not remotely regretful that something happened, only that it got out. Think of Harry in Vegas or Clinton with Lewinski. Sorry, perhaps, for the situation that one’s put oneself and others in; less for what actually occurred.
The third type is more akin to what the Psalmist described as a broken and a contrite heart. Genuine remorse is what we really mean by sorry. It’s the difference between a heartfelt apology and a pre-scripted press statement. The difference is authenticity, and authenticity is often the one attribute that seems to be missing from so many figures in public life. Many people have joked along the lines that the key to success is sincerity, and that if you can fake that you’re made. But today’s society is far more transparent than ever before; perhaps that’s why there’s been such a significant decline in levels of trust. Polished performers spouting perfect soundbites tend to reek of insincerity and as a result we think that they’re sorry that it happened, or sorry that they got caught, but rarely that they’re really sorry. Authenticity is one of the key ingredients of true leadership. It is also something that is difficult to fake. Without it, the word sorry can never be truly sorry.
Finally, if you’re ever tempted to wheel your bike past the police and through the wrong exit whilst under the influence of a red mist, remember Ambrose Bierce’s wise words: “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”