“Bill looked at Dave. He seemed so happy stringing his pebbles together. “Hey Dave,” Bill whispered, “I’m sorry I hit your mom over the head with my club. I really did think that she was a woolly mammoth.” “Are you kidding, Bill?” Dave exclaimed. He looked up from his beads. “Don’t apologize. I’ve done that myself once” he paused. “…or twice.””
– Excerpt from Life of Dave, Caveman Extraordinaire
Life is complicated, and the material world is ephemeral. Sometimes, you don’t update your blog for five long months. Sometimes, you accidentally listen to a catchy Justin Bieber song, and it haunts you for weeks. Sometimes, you hit a friend’s mother with a wooden club. Things happen.
If there’s one constant, however, it would be this: apologies.
Apologies have been around forever. They are, quite literally, the oldest trick in the book. According to Psychology Today’s interpretation (psychoanalysis?) of the Talmud – the holy book of Rabbinic Judaism – God created repentance before He created the universe. This tells us two significant things:
- We probably shouldn’t let Psychology Today near any more holy books.
- We were born sorry.
And it’s not just Rabbinic Judaism. Several major faiths are founded on the idea of the apology. Forgiveness. Absolution. Sitting in a small dark room, confessing all your sins to someone you can’t see (which also happens surprisingly often on Friday nights in college dorms). And if you’re an atheist, there’s something in here for you too – guilty consciences are thought to have evolved from social instincts. Just think about it: what sort of world would we be living in if no one ever said the word “sorry”?
A world full of meanies.
What also matters is how you say it. Today, as I struggle to word my perfect apology, I shake my fist and curse my favorite cavemen, Dave and Bill. Damn you, Dave and Bill. You had it so easy. In my world, if you want to get your apology noticed, you have to write it in giant letters across the sky. Or you have to be an annoying Canadian child with floppy hair and write a Number 1 Hit with a music video featuring twerking women. Or you have to buy, like, a present or something. As if global warming isn’t stressful enough.
It was easier when I was kid. I’ve always been a very apologetic person, aided by the fact that I probably did a lot of things that required copious amounts of apologizing. Exhibit A:
But now that I am a raucous youth freed from the protective helmet of childhood, I am not permitted to be mainstream. A poetically simple “Sorry, dude”, as it turns out, is *scoffs* formulaic. And unlike most things, I’m not even making this up. According to linguist AJ Meier, “The most frequently occurring apology strategy has generally been found to be a formulaic expression of apology (i.e., an expression containing apologize, sorry, forgive, excuse, pardon).” Well, I’m no expert, but this may be because it’s hard to say sorry without actually, well, saying sorry.
To dissect this further, I conducted my own extensive research, and I have discovered that a successful apology consists of three parts:
- “You were right”: Acknowledgement of the object’s superiority and the subject’s current state of vulnerability.
- “I was dumb”: Acknowledgement of the fact that what the subject did was inexcusable and cannot be justified.
- “Sorry”: The operative; conclusive.
Of course, this is just a template, and although it is very scientific and well-researched and generally excellent, there are few exceptions. For example, #2 doesn’t apply to some countries in the African continent, where people apologize for all and any unfortunate things that happen to you, even if it happened through no fault of their own. For instance, if you trip over your own foot, you would hear a chorus of “I’m sorry”. Likewise, the Japanese have 20 different ways of apologizing, and probably have a much more complex system of sorries, corrected to 52 decimal places. But regardless of complexity or culture, you can’t have an apology without an apology.
Or so I thought.
There’s this guy called Plato. Funny beard, kind of annoying; maybe you’ve heard of him. Many years ago, Plato wrote a book called Apology. I found out about it some months ago, when I discovered that it was a reading for a Plato-centric course. After three months of reading things like, “I don’t think that you’re unfortunate – I know you are” and “Man is a two-legged animal without feathers”, I was thrilled to see “Plato’s Apology” at the end of the reading list. So pompous li’l Smarty McFancypants was finally going to apologize for the hell he put us through. About time, chump.
I was wrong.
- The word “sorry” does not appear even once in the entire text.
- In fact, it’s 9000 words of the worst apology ever.
- A quote: “Now please, men of Athens, do not make a disturbance, not even if I seem to you to be boasting somewhat.” – Plato. (read: somewhat)
- Another quote: “I am wise.” – Plato
I had almost convinced myself that Plato was an ancestor of Kanye West, when I realized something groundbreaking: the word “apology”, in ancient Greek, is “apologia” – which means “a speech made in defense of”. This is basically the opposite of an apology. Plato wasn’t trying to apologize. He was trying to defend himself, and his main ho Socrates.
Clearly, Plato isn’t going to be of any help to my perfect apology. Not like he’s ever of any help anyway.
It’s comforting to know, however, that apologies have evolved from an ancient Greek word that means something quite different, to become the harbingers of modern human civilization. They started out as not being apologies as we know them, and today they have found an integral place in the world’s major religions, in our daily lives and conversational vocabulary, and most importantly, in a Justin Bieber song. There’s an inspirational message in there somewhere.
And so, enkindled by the imperfection of the apology as a construct, I’m going to apologize the only way I know how.