by Jay Remer, the Etiquette Guy
Let’s face it. As humans, we all make mistakes. Sometimes, we readily recognise them; sometimes we don’t. Some mistakes are big, serious, frightening events; others are rather simple and of little consequence. When mistakes involve other people, an acknowledgement is respectful and the decent thing to do. An apology is often appropriate and actually required in order to bring things back to centre. Saying “I’m sorry” is something we learn to do at an early age. It helps us to know what is acceptable behavior from what is not.The word ’sorry’ carries with it a kind of negative judgement. It connotes that something wrong or bad has occurred and atonement of some kind is necessary. “That’s a sorry state of affairs” implies that something is not right is in need of repair or is even beyond salvaging.
What happens when we neglect to apologise? Even worse, what if it doesn’t even occur to us? Maybe, we don’t recognise when we’ve made a mistake which has caused physical, mental or emotional harm to someone. Our awareness of our words and actions has escaped us. We carry on in blissful ignorance of our misdeed. At some point in time, however, the damage will surface in the form of hurt feelings, grudges, ‘the silent treatment’, or flat out anger. The need for an apology becomes obvious then, yet making one becomes far more difficult. Nonetheless, the importance of this simple act cannot be overemphasised. Without this, deep wounds can result, friendships can be thwarted, and intense anger can fester.
We have all witnessed this and many of us have felt it first hand. For this reason, it is so important to teach this concept at home and at school at a very early age. If this skill is not learned during childhood, it will be learned later in life. Awareness of someone else’s feelings and our intention not to hurt those feelings is of great value and is an act that is practiced throughout life. Being unaware or unable to recognise our mistakes projects the unfortunate qualities of selfishness and disrespect.
Sometimes saying one is sorry is not unlike releasing the top from a pressure cooker. A time to exhale, to smile, to reestablish close bonds is achieved. Everyone feels better. And with this statement there is the requisite acceptance of the apology to complete the circle. This is the ideal way that we hope things will work.
Forgiveness is an act of kindness which reveals one’s inner character to another. It is at this moment when we see the humanness in each other and feel a sense of joy in this acceptance. These are the moments I have often heard referred to as “one day we will be able to laugh about this”.
Admittedly, both saying one is sorry and being forgiving can have their challenges. Our fragile egos do get the better of us upon occasion and being right often outweighs doing the right thing. Remembering one of the cardinal rules of etiquette, namely do not intentionally try to make another person feel inferior, helps to make this effort happen with more grace and more easily.
When we make big mistakes, it takes a lot more courage to admit it and to apologise for it. Forgiving large mistakes is also more difficult. Overcoming these difficulties is what makes us stronger and more aware of ourselves. It is reflective of the respect we have for other people and in turn for ourselves. But forgiving someone can be a difficult task and one be often choose to avoid. Each of us needs to understand the ramifications of a hurtful act or stinging words and learn to accept the resulting consequences.
In the business world mistakes must also be handled correctly. Taking responsibility when one makes a mistake is the first step. Making an appropriate apology is the next step and goes a long way to diffusing any negative energy which the error could have created. The final step is finding a solution to rectify the situation. When one makes a mistake it is their responsibility to fix it, not someone else’s.
Try as we may to do things correctly, from time to time we will mess up. Some very successful people proffer that mistakes are a necessary part of making improvements. Leaving messes behind is another matter entirely. Doing the right thing will almost always repair those things which we didn’t do right.
A sincere apology followed with a sincere expression of forgiveness are cornerstones of any healthy society. They are also the marks of civility and respect for one another.
Jay Remer is the Etiquette Guy, and is certified by the Protocol School of Washington as a consultant for corporate etiquette and international protocol.