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Saying you’re sorry is a sign of weakness

For many people it’s just about the hardest thing there is to do. And I don’t mean some grueling test of physical or mental endurance. It’s often reflected in the words, “I am sorry,” but for some, they could be the hardest three words in the world to say.

Apologizing, particularly in our culture, doesn’t come easily. Just look at the number of corporate executives, government officials, and military leaders, who seemingly can’t utter the words. Rather than saying, I’m sorry I made a mistake, we’ve come up with a long list of silly sounding almost apologies. “Mistakes were made,” is one of the most notorious, as is, “I am responsible.” But, none says I’m sorry.  

Western culture has created something of a prejudice against apologizing. One culprit is our lawsuit happy legal system. It has created a fear that an apology for an action, whether it’s a business mistake, a government project gone wrong, or an accident, will leave the one apologizing open to all sorts of lawsuits. There is also the tough frontier culture which still shapes the American psyche. Rugged men in the old west didn’t apologize. John Wayne once said in a movie, “Never apologize for anything, it’s a sign of weakness.” Many men and women, particularly of the Greatest Generation, weren’t given to apologies. My father was amongst the most decent and kind individuals I have ever known, but “I am sorry,” was not a phrase that I ever recall him saying.

Asian cultures view apologies in an entirely different light. And we could learn a lesson from them.  In 2001 the U.S.S. Greenville, a nuclear attack submarine operating off Japan, surfaced without properly checking the area for other ships. The result was the sinking of Japanese fishing trawler full of trainees. Curiously the Japanese weren’t all that interested in compensation, but rather, were pleased that the Captain presented himself to authorities in Japan and apologized. It was a sad affair; there was no happy ending, but the apology meant a lot to the Japanese. Other Asian cultures, particularly China and Korea, have a similar view of the apology.

Shortly after Toyota had recall after recall, with its stock value tumbling, and its public credibility at a low ebb, the president of the company apologized. It wasn’t a stock apology. It didn’t appear to be something crafted by the marketing department. Rather it was heartfelt, remorseful, and also seemed a turning point in the company’s fortunes. He was sorry; and he was going to put things right.

Wouldn’t it have been remarkable had the President of BP apologized, not a qualified culpability, but an outright “I am sorry,” for the Gulf Oil Spill? The same is true for the leaders of the American car companies and debt-laden banks who should have apologized for running their companies so badly.  

It’s much the same in government. In Western Europe when something bad happens in a department, the cabinet minister, and sometimes even the Prime Minister, offer an apology and tender their resignation. And maybe that’s the point, an apology, isn’t just an act of contrition, it’s also about taking responsibility for your actions. We’re not conditioned that way, but most of us might find that when we make a mistake, saying “I’m sorry” often turns out to be a liberating experience.

I am not suggesting we start apologizing for everything. That would be carrying it too far, but from time to time, when we have fallen short or hurt someone, we should give it try. 

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