Monday, October 20, 2008

Don't Say You’re Sorry

 What does it mean when you say that you are sorry? I have noticed that it somehow has lost all its meaning. I was  taught as a child that when you say this word, it signified that you realize that you action or words have caused a negative effect for somebody and that you regret this and it also implied, (although this could vary depending on the quality of your character I guess) that you would try to either compensate or reform.

Therefore to say this word should not be taken lightly. You shouldn't say you’re sorry if you didn't mean it. Lately, after two very minor incidents, I have the impression that sorry means something like.. “Oh, I recognize that you have hurt feelings. Let me explain so you will know why I did it.”

In the past, you could always find the example of the corrupt businessman caught in photographic embarrassment with his secretary and who bawled his eyes out and moaned about how sorry he was. The usual response was: “No, you are only sorry that you got caught" but even this sentence is inexact. He is feigning regret because he was caught is perhaps slightly better.

The two minor incidents I referred to are embarrassingly insignificant and I hesitate to mention them at the risk of sounding petty. But here goes.

I was sitting at the bar speaking with Lola about something and after I interrupted her, (it is more normal in New York to interrupt and Lola is also fairly skilled at it, I might add) she said, “If you shut up a second, I will tell you.”

That phrase, “Shut up” to me is quite coarse and borderline rude, depending on the occasion. I have used it when the blood ran hot but I have tried to be careful and in my life, I am proud to say that the times when I have said those words have been surprisingly limited. In fact, in my home, it was one of the words my mother forbade the three of us kids using in conversation. Nothing to me is as jarring as hearing a child saying it to his/her parent. It could get you a whipping in my day.

I had to hit the restroom so as I climbed off the seat, I said very mildly without raising my voice or showing any emotion,”People don't say shut up to me like that.” And I left her to think about it a bit. If she didn't like it, then I could sit in another place at the bar but it just didn't seem acceptable. But after I returned, she told me how sorry she was and she did seem quite upset. I explained that there were other phrases to use and maybe I was being too hard but.. “No, no, you are quite right. i shouldn’t have said that.” However, as the conversation went on- we forget the original subject altogether by this point-she began to do a slow backpedal.

“Well, I guess the reason i am used to saying ‘shut up’ is because as a dance instructor you don't have time to explain everything in detail.”

I was adamant. “In civil conversation, it is not appropriate.”

“You are right. Absolutely. I am sorry.” She sips her white wine. “But I say it all the time without even thinking about it. Most people never even mention it.”

“Well, all of us were raised differently, Lola. But as your friend, I would expect to be treated in a way that I find acceptable. Being told to shut up is not acceptable and I had to tell you. There has to be a limit, of course, I mean you have to draw a line somewhere.”

“Oh, I agree. I am a stickler for words like you. You are right.” Conversation drifts to other subjects but you could see she still could not let it go, like a fish bone couldn't quite swallow. Finally, I find myself back to it. “Is  ‘Be quiet’ permitted? or is that forbidden?”

I smiled. “I think it bothers you. Just forget it but I didn't like that phrase and I told you. If you don’t like to be criticized then..”

“Oh NO… as a dancer, it was important to be able to listen to criticism. If somebody didn't give you a critique it was only saying that you weren't worth worrying about. They didn't consider you worth their time.”

Ah, how true. In the end, it seemed as though Lola did appear to be sorry and yet what did sorry mean to her? It just meant something different to her. If she had been sorry, she didn't need to explain why she said it. What would be the point? An explanation provides a support to your action and if one is genuinely sorry for saying something-as a opposed to doing something which might need an explanation- why should you need to support anything. “Oh,I’m sorry. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings.” That’s all you need to say, but then it also implies that you will try to avoid repeating this mistake. It doesn't require any explanation.It simply requires empathy and self-reflection. Maybe that’s the real problem.

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