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Knowing When To Say `I'm Sorry'

WHEN deposed junk-bond king Michael Milken finally pleaded guilty last month after four years of denial and stonewalling, his apology was dramatic. ``I am truly sorry,'' Mr. Milken sobbed as he stood in a courtroom filled with journalists and spectators. Milken is not the only penitent public figure making headlines this spring. Last week Rep. Donald Lukens of Ohio, who was convicted of a misdemeanor charge for having sex with a teenager, apologized for ``a dumb mistake. I'm sorry.''

In New Jersey, John List, who was sentenced to five consecutive life terms for killing his wife, mother, and three children, said, ``I am truly sorry for the tragedy that happened in 1971.'' And in Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, after years of adamantly denying a substance-abuse problem, acknowledged his ``weaknesses.'' Speaking to Howard University students last month, he said, ``If I hurt you, disappointed you, or angered you ... I sincerely and deeply and honestly apologize to you.''

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Whether these mea culpas signal genuine repentance or merely veiled pleas for leniency, they come as hopeful signs that the apology - which has fallen out of favor during the past two decades - may be making a comeback.

This imperious never-apologize-never-explain code of conduct probably began in 1970, when Eric Segal gave ``Love Story'' its one unforgettable line: ``Love is never having to say you're sorry.'' That same year California became the first state to pass a no-fault divorce law, marking the beginning of a nationwide no-fault mentality that seemed to absolve everyone, including politicians, of any wrongdoing - and thus of any need to apologize. From Watergate to the Iran-contra affair to the savings and loan scandal, stonewalling was In. Confession and contrition were Out. An apology became the ultimate form of wimpishness.

It wasn't always thus. In an earlier era, entire songs conveyed the anguish - and importance - of contrition with titles like ``Who's Sorry Now?'' ``I'm Sorry, Dear,'' and ``What Do I Say, Dear, After I Say I'm Sorry?'' The truly conscience-stricken would be likely to appear at the door, flowers in hand, eager to make amends in person.

Today, apology, when considered necessary, has become a paid service. A few years ago in suburban Washington, D.C., a service called Sincerely Sorry would tailor an apology to the specific needs of a client. But in what may be a sign of the stonewalling times, the service apparently no longer exists.

Too bad, because however they are conveyed, the words ``I'm sorry'' are almost as great an invention for civilization as the wheel. They are the phrase of the peacemaker, a way of backing off from confrontation. At its most extreme, saying ``I'm sorry'' saves a nation from having to start a foolish war. On a smaller scale, ``sorry'' is a word of reconciliation that can salvage a friendship or restore peace to a family.

At the same time, the art of the apology involves not only knowing when to apologize, but when not to. Miss Manners makes no attempt to disguise her impatience with cooks who insist on finding fault with their own meals. ``The best way to ruin a dinner, no matter how good or bad the cooking, is to keep apologizing for it,'' she warns.

She also chides parents who apologize to their children ``for absolutely everything.'' They apologize to toddlers for serving foods that displease them. They apologize to school-age children for insisting that homework takes precedence over television. And they apologize to teenagers ``for the embarrassment caused by their looking or thinking or behaving like parents.''

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But most of all, Miss Manners says, parents apologize for working, for not being available all day, and for being tired. She calls this ``a relatively new phenomenon, begun by mothers who seemed to endorse a strange but widespread idea that their working at all on nondomestic tasks was a self-indulgence requiring formal expressions of regret.''

Perhaps the solution is to reverse roles - to teach the stonewallers, like politicians, the art of apology and teach the compulsive apologizers, like parents, the art of stonewalling. President Bush could then back into new taxes - with apologies - and even more unbelievable, parents could Just Say No to their children.

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