by Kent Oswald
When Donald Trump expressed regret for something that one time and Hillary Clinton did the same another time, they made it unanimous. Everyone is singing their own apology song. Of course, just because someone says (or croons, or even writes) something doesn’t mean their audience will automatically accept said offering at face value. In the case of apologies there are often a number of good reasons for reticence.
A prime example of the unappreciated expression of “regret” is western civilization’s most iconic. Apology by Socrates’ student, Plato, is the recreation of the former’s defense. In 399 BCE, Socrates was brought to trial, charged with corrupting Athens’ youth and espousing impieties towards Greek gods. The general reading of Apology is that Socrates’ words were more a clever attack on his accusers and their motives than an actual expression of regret for the “error of his ways.” No one was fooled into thinking the sage believed he was in the wrong. You can go old school and read it for yourself. Or if you prefer new school, let’s hashtag it #sorrynotsorry; also, #spoileralert—the sophist sucks down some killer hemlock.
The fact that the end result of an apology—though halfhearted—by an extraordinary thinker and communicator like Socrates hastened his death should encourage followers of both the oral and written tradition to consider whether we effectively match what we say with what we mean … and afterwards with what our audience understands.
It is not just Socrates, Trump or Clinton who strain credibility with their “sorries.” It is hard to get through a full day without facing someone who asks you to believe they regret what they did, have learned from their actions, and will not act the same in the future if faced with similar circumstances. Few reach the necessary level of sincerity necessary to affect success, or at least success as defined by Jacob Urist in The Art and Science of Apologizing.
Is it the apologist’s fault? We teach our children to say they are sorry well before they are able to understand it should mean something more significant than getting lucky enough to draw a “get out of jail” free card in Monopoly. And we accept these apologies and carry on as if believing they mean what they have said. Carried through to adulthood, many can do little more than suggest the only thing they are really sorry for is getting caught, or having to face someone’s ire when what they really want is to take a bow for having said some sort of magic phrase that absolves them of sin as if actions had no consequences.
Having been praised as children for insincere expressions, is it any wonder so many view apologies through the prism of the sorrybrag, a vehicle for self-aggrandizement? This particular gaggle have come to believe that garnering attention from an audience awaiting a regret-filled expression is acclaim virtuously attained. A current perfection of this perversion of turning a negative into a “positive” is found within a video by the band Five Finger Death Punch, who tell a story something along the lines of how the band’s poor choices are grandiose enough to rate a place in a rock and roll hall of fame graveyard:
Theirs is a presumptive pomposity returning us full circle to politicians, as prime examples of people praised for focusing their speech mostly on what they think their audience wants to hear. However, those learning the lesson of the need for sincere expression should not just be those seeking to appease skeptical voters. The need to believe in what one says in order for it to be believed is equally true for writers, artists, managers, fast food workers, dog walkers … actually everyone. Sorry is certainly not the only word or expression that too often strains credibility. It’s just the one expressed most often by people who aren’t. In other words, sorry may not be the hardest word, just (perhaps) the hardest word to communicate effectively.