Friday, May 24, 2013

What is an apology?

It's very difficult to apologize. As a young child, I was often told "apologize to your sister," for which I would mumble "I'm sorry." Inevitably, this would be followed by the command "and say it like you mean it." Of course I would say (only slightly more clearly) "I'm sorry" again, but I rarely ever meant it more the second time than I did the first. But I knew if I didn't comply, I would prompt my mother or father to take an action that would truly make me sorry. At least sorry that I didn't convince them, rarely sorry about what started the mess.

Lately, this has been on my mind a lot. Not the offenses I committed against my sister - and I'm sure that I committed many. But the idea of apologizing. What does it exactly mean to apologize?

A little help from Merriam-Webster gives three broad definitions. In one of my college classes, I recall reading "Apology" by Plato and Merriam uses this as the first definition - "a formal justification." This has nothing to do with feeling sorry and I think is probably the definition most politicians use when they "apologize." Merriam goes on to say that this could also be an "excuse." Makes me wonder if Merriam was in congress.

The second definition given is "an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret." I'm certain that this is what my mother meant after my "errors" against my sister. Note that, like my mother, Merriam says that the admission is "accompanied by an expression of regret," or (as mom said) "say it like you mean it." To me, this should be the main focus. Let me explain:

In order to truly apologize as a child, I had to admit that I was in error. Certainly telling my sister "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings" qualified as a "discourtesy," but I knew from my mother's glare that she wanted me to be sorry for my action, not just the hurt feelings. The admission of error was key.

Secondly, it does no good to apologize unless you really have regret. I have more ideas on this aspect, but I think that belongs in another post.

Merriam adds a third definition: "a poor substitute." I know many times I've bought something that was a poor substitute and I had to apologize for the mess I created. I also felt like I should get an apology from the manufacturer.

So what do you think? What is an apology to you? Were you sometimes forced to apologize when you didn't really mean it? Do you think that was an apology?

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