Tuesday, April 19, 2011

i'm sorry and i'm sorry

People often react badly to the phrase, "I'm sorry." At least this has been my experience. I think I need to be more specific here. If said as a genuine way to communicate remorse for a misstep or wrong against another person, then it is usually accepted. He yells something in anger at her during an argument. His comment moves way out of bounds of the context of the disagreement. She is immediately wounded, as he knew she would be... for it was part of his intention. Two hours later, he apologizes -- "I'm sorry" -- and she, having also calmed down after a long walk, accepts.

However, let's consider a different scenario. Your best friend and co-worker is sitting slumped at his desk. He mindlessly organizes papers into piles without even checking to see what they are all about. Clearly, something is wrong. When you get a chance, you pull him aside and ask if he needs to talk. He proceeds to explain how a woman he used to date is getting married. He just heard last night from a mutual friend. He knows she was someone special, someone he would never meet the likes of again. Yet, at the time, he could not commit to her. He wasn't ready -- timing getting in the way as it so often does. And now he aches through and through. He knows he has lost something irreplaceable. He pauses and finally finds himself able to lift his eyes up to meet yours. You look at him supportively and say "I'm sorry."

Just as suddenly, his air turns irritated and affronted. He turns away, turns back to his desk and starts re-shuffling the papers hastily and cursorily. "It's not your fault," he spits bitterly back at you.

"I'm sorry" can close doors as often as it can re-open them. I've thought long and hard about why there are such divergent reactions to this seemingly innocuous phrase. I recall my grandmother having an article posted on her fridge after her daughter had died in an accident. It listed all the things not to say as messages of condolence. I seem to remember "I'm sorry" as being one of them.

I'm sorry can be said as to express completely its opposite -- a total lack of regret as in William Carlos Williams' poem, This Is Just To Say:
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Part of the problem seems to emanate from the fact that we, as English speakers, possess a limited number of phrases to address situations that are vastly different in need and response. The sociologist, Erving Goffman, categorized these phrases (including I'm sorry, Excuse me, Pardon me, etc.) as part of "remedial interchanges." Basically, these are first steps in acknowledging a transgression of social norms dictating accepted behavior... whether that violation was directly linked to you or not is where the problem seems to arise. In their article about the difference between I'm sorry and Excuse me (and the related challenges of explaining these differences to those for whom English is a second language), Ann Borkin and Susan Reinhart summarize I'm sorry:
I'm sorry is basically an expression of dismay or regret about a state of affairs viewed or portrayed as unfortunate by the speaker. It is not necessarily tied to occasions in which the regrettable state of affairs is the responsibility of the speaker; it is not necessarily tied to situations in which the regrettable state of affairs adversely affects the addressee; and it is not necessarily tied to situations in which there has been, or might be, an infraction of a social norm. In short, I'm sorry is not necessarily a remedy, as Goffman defines the term. (Ann Borkin & Susan Reinhart, "Excuse Me and I'm Sorry," TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Mar, 1978), pg. 60)
I have always felt a painful rejection when I have said I'm sorry to express a sort of universal sympathy, and yet have been misunderstood, misinterpreted... the comment's intentions being more along the lines of being sorry that one human did something to another, or that one human has to go through something painful or isolating. This is not the sort of sorry that is meant to express responsibility. It is meant to express compassion, shared humanity, empathy.

I don't know as many languages as I would like, but I do speak enough French and Spanish to get along. I have always appreciated the Spanish phrase, lo siento, as a much better way to express empathy and to distinguish this kind of support from an attempted remedy when one is at fault. The best translation I can give for lo siento is "I feel it." I love this phrase because, so often, as in the second scenario given at the start of this entry, it is exactly what I want to express. I feel it. I feel your pain, your mistakes, your regrets. I feel it and them and you and, very simply, I am here for you, as a human who goes through exactly the same things. In short, it seems to express to the listener the kind of intimate simpatico that he needs in his moment of weakness or doubt. For it is in those moments that we feel most alone.

The Japanese are considered to have an "apology first" culture. Apologies are easily and generously given, and forgiveness just as quickly accepted. In addition to having multiple ways to verbally express apologies and remorse -- all with subtle differences in terms of the seriousness of the event, the formality of the occasion, and the position of the addressee -- the Japanese use a variety of bows in place of saying I'm sorry. While the video is rather ridiculous and perhaps a parody, the ability to express regret, fault, or empathy through physicality is fundamentally attractive to me. The bow expresses our humility and simultaneously brings us closer to the intended receiver. I am humble before you -- not out of guilt, but because I am human. I have always thought that the phrase from the Bible, "The meek shall inherit the Earth" is not meant to be taken with meek as submissive and spineless, but rather is meant to imply a meekness which aligns with gentleness, humility, and tolerance. The most human kind of qualities. The kind of qualities we seek to embody in our very best moments.

The 'long ojigi' bow in the video brings us to the question of public apologies. According to Richard Joyce in his article "Apologizing," we live in the 'Age of Apologizing wherein:
The Pope has led the way, apologizing for almost a hundred actions perpetrated (or permitted) by the Roman Catholic church throughout the centuries -- from the Crusades and the Inquisition, to the treatment of Galileo and women (I understand numerous mea culpas will mark the millennium.) The Portuguese president has apologized for an episode in the fifteenth century, wherein thousands of Jewish refugees were forced to flee or convert (December, 1996). The American president has apologized to American victims of radiation tests (October, 1995), to victims of the "Tuskegee" medical experiments conducted between the 1930s and 1970s (May, 1997), and to African leaders for the whole slave trade (March, 1998). On December 11, 1997, the American Secretary of State apologized to African leaders for the international community's failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda. And so the list could go on, taking in apologies in South Africa over apartheid, in Australia regarding deeds of colonial racism, and from the German government concerning certain episodes of World War Two. (Richard Joyce, "Apologizing," Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Apr 1999), pg. 159)
When is something too big or overwhelming or too long-buried in the past to apologize for? Is this ever the case? Can an unrelated individual apologize for a group, a nation, the 'international community'? I don't have the answers to these questions, but it brings me again to the limitations of the verbal apology. History holds on -- deeply, physically, spatially -- and holds on for a long time... perhaps infinity. In that case, the time limit on apologizing never runs out. If we are to "be slow to judge," as Mrs. Curren reminds us in J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron, then we must also be slow to understand and to resolve. Yet, at the same time, words do run out, do have a time limit, do seem to lose their effectiveness after years, decades, centuries of weight. Perhaps, then, it becomes more appropriate to apologize without words... for, in doing so, we do not become stuck in the perilous maze of language, but can express broader connectivity. One of my favorite examples of this was Christo's wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin in 1995.

Without words, or rather by using the language of space and time, Christo transformed the sublime into a collective moment of silence. The wrapping of the Reichstag spent time within a moment, shared it publically, and thereby presented the community, the nation, the world with a chance for a new spatial beginning.

Art, in this manner, can perhaps serve a critical role... a role more significant than an aesthetic purpose. As Suszi Gablik describes it*, art can enable us to share participation spatially and socially, thus transforming us somehow. In this sort of third space, you can "close your bodily eye, so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye.  Then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react upon others from the outside inwards." (Casper David Friedrich) In short, we can share the burden.

*Gablik, Suzi.  1991.  The Reenchantment of Art.  New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc

1 comment:

  1. You've obviously devoted a lot of thought to this phrase's limitations as an expression of sympathy. Great observations, yet at the same time I think there are plenty of viable options in English. The main thing is to convey (with body language AND words) that you're attentive, receptive, and available to the person in that moment. In the coworker example, something like "Wow. That's heavy, man" with a shoulder pat or other sympathetic physical contact. Then quiet attention in case the person has more to say, or a few check-in questions like "How are you doing with the whole thing?" and/or "Gonna be ok?" Even just adding a few words to "I'm sorry" can work, e.g. "I'm so sorry to hear that".

    Of course you could always just start bowing, but for most Westerners the only value would be a possible mood lift from the ensuing laughter.