Two twentysomething men relaxing at Starbucks in Boston on Monday were having an earnest discussion about the pros and cons of saying "I'm sorry."
"It's OK to apologize," one told the other authoritatively. "But you don't want to overdo it." In his premillennial approach to contrition, groveling is out. Coolness is in.
But what, a bystander wonders, would the two friends have thought of news photos just days earlier showing a Japanese executive, Koji Kitani, facing reporters after Japan's worst nuclear accident? As president of JCO, the firm that operates the fuel plant where a radioactive leak occurred, Mr. Kitani stood before a cluster of microphones and bowed low, his face just six or eight inches above the table.
"We apologize from the bottoms of our hearts," he said.
What a cultural contrast to the prevailing attitude in the United States, where corporate leaders fear that even a hint of contrition in public statements can be taken as an admission of culpability in future lawsuits.
Similarly, Beltway masters of spin control like to hide behind the the pronoun-free statement, "Mistakes were made." This artful construction includes no hint of guilt or remorse and leaves no fingerprints at the scene of the alleged crime. It's as though Eric Segal's classic line, "Love is never having to say you're sorry," has been updated to read, "Politics is never having to say you're sorry."
Yet the US might well have saved a year of national anguish and $47 million - the latest tally of the special prosecutor's bill - if President Clinton had taken a cue from the Japanese by immediately admitting his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and apologizing "from the bottom of his heart."
Feeding the anti-apology movement is a growing American culture of what could be called victimhood, in which early negative influences and relationships are offered as excuses and explanations for later mistakes. Think of Hillary Rodham Clinton telling a reporter from Talk magazine about the battle between her husband's mother and grandmother for four-year-old Bill's affections, as if to offer a rationale for his adult indiscretions.
Still, amid all the apology stonewallers, members of one group - working parents - are apparently in danger of actually overusing the phrase "I'm sorry." Miss Manners says she knows overextended fathers and mothers who believe in apologizing to their children for "absolutely everything."
Calling this a relatively new phenomenon, she explains that these parents apologize "to the smallest toddlers if the foods they provide ... meet with the displeasure of those discerning diners.... They apologize to schoolchildren if homework or any other outside obligation interferes with such crucial recreation as television watching. They apologize to teenagers for the embarrassment caused by their looking or thinking or behaving like parents."
Most of all, Miss Manners says, parents apologize for working, "for not being available all day, for being tired in the evening, for needing quiet if they have work to do at home ... and for not earning enough to allow the children to spend without limits."
In other circles, those two little words, "I'm sorry" - just seven letters and three short syllables - can be one of the hardest phrases to utter. In its humility it stands as a polar opposite to brazen assertions of self-esteem. Yet properly delivered, a penitent "I'm sorry" can mark the beginning of forgiveness, understanding, and reconciliation, not to mention an acceptance of responsibility for one's actions.
The task for the new millennium will be to strike a balance between those who live boldly by the famous adage, "Never apologize, never explain," and those who meekly revise it to read, "Always apologize, always explain."
To say you're sorry signals you care about somebody else - a nice ceremony for both parties. But who, on either side of an apology, doesn't know the hard truth? In the end, only caring actions can validate polite words.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society