I’m sorry, but Brian Williams has one job: to speak words. And yet his struggle to say two simple but very important ones created a lot of drama for the now former anchor of “NBC Nightly News.”
As Mr. Williams reflected recently in an interview with Matt Lauer of “Today,” “Why is it, when we’re trying to say ‘I’m sorry,’ that we can’t come out and say, ‘I’m sorry?’ ”
Good question, Brian, and thank you for asking!
I, too, am a terrible nonapologizer who truly wishes to be the kind of person who easily and gracefully takes responsibility for her actions and behaviors, but I am sorry to say that I am not.
I, too, would like to know why I’m so apology challenged and see problematic situations as ones that involve me but that aren’t necessarily my fault.
Like the sea of half-finished bottles of water in the refrigerator (“Sorry if the portion sizes are bigger than my thirst!’’). And forgetting to put gas in the car before my husband finds it on empty (“Sorry that I’m not as obsessed with the fuel gauge as you are!”).
I don’t say “sorry,” but I do on occasion feel sorry, like for my husband.
There’s a humblebraggy hashtag for all this (#sorrynotsorry), and this is pretty much what every withholding, haughtily outraged, blame-reverser like me thinks before unfurling another big, fat, self-serving, nonapology apology.
We atone with fake apologies full of ifs, buts, sarcastic hashtags, flimsy rationales and all manner of responsibility-avoidant language and parenthetically dependent clauses that make the “sorry” virtually impossible to find (which is the intention).
These apathetic apologies are so embarrassing, you would think those of us who utter them would become so repulsed by our infantile behavior and lack of character that we’d have to stop in the middle of one and immediately (perhaps even sincerely) express shame and regret.
Sorry, but that’s not how we roll. Instead, every second of every day, members of my tribe of fauxpologists try to escape an uncomfortable truth about themselves or a difficult situation of their own making by making things worse with egregiously florid not-me mea culpas.
Many psychologists, like Harriet Lerner, author of “The Dance of Anger,” believe nonapologizers are made, not born.
“If we’ve been shamed as children, we may have an especially difficult time tolerating the adult experience of being wrong,” Dr. Lerner told me. “Simply acknowledging a mistake can boot us back to the unbearable experience of childhood shame.”
This explanation makes me want to do a Jules-Feifferian dance of joy because it makes my not ever being at fault someone else’s fault. Like all non-sorry-sayers, I prefer explanations (and excuses) to apologies: I grew up in the ’70s, when love meant never having to even say #sorrynotsorry.
But in our family, the buzz phrase from “Love Story” had a different twist: While my parents never apologized for anything (to be fair to them, back then being a parent was more about the adults than the children), I always seemed to be apologizing for something (“I’m sorry I sat on my bedspread with my shoes on”; “I’m sorry for always complaining about Hebrew school”; “I’m sorry I refuse to drink powdered milk even though you say it tastes the same as regular milk”).
Having mastered the forced apology at such a tender age, it’s no wonder I grew up to have apology issues.
It’s probably also why after college I accidentally ended up as a professional apologist, also known as a book publicist. This gig required constant apologies for things that weren’t my fault (“I’m sorry your hotel has a slow elevator”; “I’m sorry your limo was white”; “I’m sorry someone else also just published a biography of Benjamin Franklin and that everyone loves his and hates yours”).
Blurting a quick “My bad” is way easier and less shaming than expressing a heartfelt apology. And at some point, that morphed into my becoming an unapologetic nonapologizer.
Guy Winch, a psychologist and author of “Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts,” explained lack of remorse to me this way: “Apologies involve an admission of wrongdoing, and people with fragile self-esteem — like narcissists whose self-esteem is high but also brittle — can be highly resistant to apologizing as they feel it is threatening to their egos.” (I’m sorry, am I the narcissist in this equation?)
Apologizing isn’t fun. But neither was kale, until some brilliant publicist/food gentrifier got a hold of it.
“People are open to improving their health and what will benefit them,” Oberon Sinclair, the founder of a Manhattan public relations firm, My Young Auntie, wrote in an email. So to make apologizing more palatable, maybe people like me should focus on the health benefits sincere apologies have on others, which include “lowered tension in the frown muscles of the face.” In other words: more sorry, less Botox.
A first big step toward my own rehabilitation came when I learned that even people who are paid to give advice on how to make amends struggle as I do.
“Here’s how I apologize,” Amy Dickinson, who writes the “Ask Amy” syndicated column, told me. “After a conflict, I just let things simmer down. Then I give a nudge. A little poke. Basically I telegraph to the other person that I’m fine now. I’m no longer in that bad place. It’s time to move on. If, after my charm offensive, the other person still has a problem with me, I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry you’re upset.’ ”
But how do we stop being so resistant to being sorry? See it as a higher calling, said Marjorie Ingall, who founded the website Sorrywatch.comwith Susan McCarthy. There, the two analyze and deconstruct public apologies with late-night talk-show humor and Talmudic precision.
“Think of apologizing as an act of menschiness and bravery, because it is,” Ms. Ingall said. “You have to take a deep breath and leap, just as if you were diving off the high board for the first time at age 11. It is like that every time.”
Her advice for delivering your sorries? “Face-to-face is best, phone is second best, email is third best,” she said. “Do. Not. Text.”
The best way to start an apology is by forcing your mouth to say the words.
“A long time ago, well before SorryWatch, I noticed that it was hard for me to admit mistakes,” Ms. McCarthy said. “I practiced saying, ‘I was wrong, and you were right’ in actual situations. It was sort of fun, and got easier to say.”
“Sort of fun” sounds kind of hard. Susan Orlean, a writer for The New Yorker and the author of “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” suggested I start by practicing on a more forgiving breed.
“The fact that pets don’t expect an apology makes it easy to do since lots of times I don’t apologize because I feel it’s been coerced and or extorted out of me,” she said. “It’s the feeling that it’s expected that makes me clam up. With animals, they don’t expect it and don’t insist on it, and don’t give a damn, obviously. So it’s just so easy to say I’m sorry.”
The problem with not apologizing, though, is that you deprive yourself of being forgiven. When another forgives you, you can forgive yourself and what better feeling is there than that?
Perhaps I will start soon, but start small. When I get home tonight maybe I’ll apologize to my husband for leaving the half-and-half out all night, forcing him to drink his coffee black. But first I’ll talk to my dog about it.