An apology need not be an admission of guilt

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Billie, the nurse at my mother’s retirement village, rang last night full of apologies. She had been so busy that day, so preoccupied with the fact that the whole place was being re-carpeted, that she had accidentally given my mother her evening medication at lunch time.

It would make little to no difference, she said, except that by the time she had realised her mistake it was too late to give my mother the extra Lasix.
‘It might be that your mother’s weight goes up overnight,’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t make mistakes like this, not usually.’

We have needed to keep my mother’s fluid intake down to prevent any swelling in her legs, a side effect of her heart failure. We monitor her fluid intake by weighing her daily.

Billie told me that by law she was obliged to inform me of her mistake, though probably in the scheme of things, one Lasix dose difference would not matter at all. Still she was obliged to tell me.

I felt sorry for Billie, having to apologise so profusely over some small mistake. It might have mattered were the medication of greater import, but one missed Lasix dose is not a drama.

I will visit my mother at lunch time today and check her weight. If it goes up beyond the desired weight of 56 kilos then I shall give her an extra Lasix tablet and all should be well.

Why am I writing this? What brings it to mind? The business of making mistakes, of having to apologise, of having to eat crow, eat humble pie, prostrate oneself at another’s feet. All these images come to mind, when I think of Billie’s need to apologise.

I once failed to give way to a man who was coming through a roundabout on my right and he tail gated me to the next set of lights and then pulled up behind me. I watched as he got out of his car, road rage written all over his face. He strode towards me.

I wound my window down to the half way mark and as he began to speak – ‘What do you think you were doing? – I apologised.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t see you.’ My words took the wind from him. I could tell he could not go anywhere with my effusive and heartfelt apology. I had been in the wrong. I knew it. I was sorry.

It was almost as if this man had expected me to answer back, to accuse him of wrong doing or to otherwise defend myself in some way.

When I did not, when I simply offered my apology instead, he went back to his car and the drama came to an end.

So, too, this drama will come to an end.

I urged Billie not to worry about it. These things happen, I said.

She, too, seemed surprised. Perhaps she has had to do battle with families who go berserk when she or another staff member makes a mistake.

There are some who like nothing more than to see someone else make a mistake so as to justify their outrage, and to give them cause to feel hard done by.

Usually an apology from the other person when something goes wrong is enough for me. It gets me over any hurt or rage I might feel pretty quickly.

On the other side, I’ve been quick to apologise in my life time, even for things that were not my responsibility.

But an apology need not be an admission of guilt.

I think of it as the sort of apology the previous Prime Minister of this country once made to our indigenous people, not an apology that said I’m sorry for what I have done wrong. Our Prime Minister was not even alive when our British ancestors breached these shores and began the dreadful process of disenfranchising Australia’s native people and took their land from them. No, the apology was more one of regret.

I regret that you have suffered in this way. I am sorry to hear and to know that your ancestors were forced to experience such pain and suffering and today you bear the consequences.

Though an apology can have other meanings, too.

The joke in this household is that I will sometimes say the words, ‘I’m sorry about that’, as an expression meaning to ‘get over it’: there’s nothing anyone can do about it, so you will need to grin and bear it. A sort of ‘I’m sorry about that’ in place of I couldn’t care less. My apology, my pseudo-apology will be about all anyone can expect.

I do not remember the day when my excessive tendency towards apologising for things I did not do turned into this other form of apology, an apology that implies now ‘fuck off’ as my husband sometimes complains.

Perhaps the day came when I had had enough of cosseting others. I imagine it has to do with my writing life. The fact these days that I will put my writing ahead of most things, of many things, though not all things, and if anything gets in the way and must be dismissed I might be sorry about that, too, the inconvenience or pain it might cause usually those nearest and dearest to me. But that is as far as I will go.

I’ve been reading Bernard Schlink’s Guilt about the Past and he has a differnt take on the politics of saying sorry: “No one can step in as a replacement for the victim to offer forgiveness; forgiveness granted by someone other than the victim is presumptuous.’

I’m inclined to agree with Schlink, but here we get into the muddy waters of apology and forgiveness. I dare not even go there.

Who’s to forgive my mother’s nurse here – me or my mother? I suppose it all comes down to who’s been wronged and to what degree and how much damage is done.

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40 Comments on An apology need not be an admission of guilt

  1. Laoch of Chicago
    June 18, 2011 at 7:17 am (6 years ago)

    In law school they teach you that as a witness the best thing you can do when being cross examined about something that is damaging to you, but also true, is just not to fight and admit it. Fighting gives the examiner power and simply admitting the fact takes a lot of the drama away.

    Reply
  2. The Weaver of Grass
    June 18, 2011 at 9:15 am (6 years ago)

    I don't know why it is that some people find it so difficult to say I'm sorry. As you say – an apology takes the agression out of someone quite often. I think one thing is that most people like to think they are in the right. Sometimes it is hard to apologise – but when it is done there is a kind of cleansing – for me at any rate.

    Reply
  3. jane.healy
    June 18, 2011 at 9:31 am (6 years ago)

    Most of my life I have apologised not because I was deeply sorry – but to make someone else feel better about themselves. As you say it takes the wind out of someones sails and prevents a full scale blow up over nothing. I don't know why but lately I have stopped apologising – I don't think I have become more confrontational just felt that there is no need to apologise all the time for simple mistakes.

    Reply
  4. Jim Murdoch
    June 18, 2011 at 11:03 am (6 years ago)

    There is, I suppose in all of us, a need to find balance, to redress in some way for things we see as wrong. Often we offer an apology where we were not the guilty party – “I’m sorry for your loss” – where we are not directly guilty of any kind of wrongdoing. What we are doing is empathising, sharing sorrow. It’s a leveller. In any social situation it helps if all those assembled are of a similar frame of mind – no one likes to stick out like a sore thumb – and so we smile and laugh at jokes that aren’t especially funny when at a party, and say we’re sorry, and look sad, when we learn of the death of someone’s relative at a wake. In the case of Billie what she’s sorry about is that she made a mistake – she’s been embarrassed – and her carelessness might well have led to someone suffering or even their premature death. Suffering is interesting. Often we suffer in anticipation of some event; we project, rehearse if you like, and ‘rehearse’ is an interesting word too: ‘re’, the prefix for repetition + ‘hearse’ a word associated with death. What Billie did brought your mother’s mortality and impending demise to the forefront of your mind: she didn’t kill your mum but she did remind you that she’s going to die and it won’t take much, an extra pill or a pill missed, to end her life.

    I apologise too much. It’s a symptom of constant guilt. We might assume that saying one is sorry equates to apologising but the core meaning of ‘apology’ is ‘a verbal defence’ and not simply an admission of guilt and an expression of regret: “I’m sorry but I didn’t know” – i.e. there were extenuating circumstances. Yes, we all know that ignorance of the law is no excuse but it is often used as one especially in the lay court that is everyday life. Billie offered up a defence – it wasn’t an unreserved apology – “I don’t make mistakes like this, not usually.”

    Words are poor conveyors of meaning at the best of time: as soon as you add context and tone of voice what should be a sincere expression becomes, “I’m sooooooo sorry.” That said I’m not sure I entirely agree with Bernhard Schlink. An apology settles a debt and creditors don’t mind who coughs up the readies as long as the debt is paid which is why where the whole eye for an eye, life for a life mentality comes from: as long as someone pays then the books have been balanced. And that would work too if we viewed apologies quantitatively but most of us don’t, we want sincere and heartfelt apologies, we want apologies that mean something, we’re not just interested in hearing an official statement of apology. In the case of your Prime Minister, as you say, he wasn’t directly to blame and he’s apologising the people who weren’t directly injured but the best that can happen now is an indirect apology but, as I said above, it’s just words unless it’s sincere. In this case there should be reparation. And, to my mind, words alone don’t cut in.

    Billie made a genuine mistake and your mother will have received additional monitoring (albeit not necessarily by Billie but then she’s only a representative of the care facility who bare the ultimate responsibility for the mistake) and so, an apology has been made and efforts made to minimise the damage. But what about the Australian government? It’s all fine and good apologising in principle for what some precious administration was responsible for – that’s good politics – but what about the continuing mistreatment of the indigenous people of Australia? Someone I suspect that has been swept under the rug.

    Reply
  5. jabblog
    June 18, 2011 at 11:18 am (6 years ago)

    I'm always apologising, even when I'm not at fault. It comes as naturally as please and thank you. I'm an appeaser not a fighter.

    Reply
  6. Ms. Moon
    June 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm (6 years ago)

    I, too, am too quick to apologize but as I grow older, I am realizing I grow less so.
    Now- when it comes to saying, "I'm sorry," well. That I think I do MORE of.
    Odd.
    Good things to chew on in this post, Elisabeth.

    Reply
  7. steven
    June 18, 2011 at 6:45 pm (6 years ago)

    elisabeth – i see an apology as an acknowledgment that some degree of sorrow has been placed in the hands of someone else. in the acknowledgement is a recognition of a universal ideal – that we would never knowingly place sorrow in someone else's experiencing. the acknowledgement changes nothing of the effect but changes everything of the perception of the person's ownership of the handing on of sorrow. the process is changed but not the incident or situation itself. a reconfiguring of the perception of the process then is all that changes. people have many reasons for wishing to to own the shape and features of a process. you have likely experienced them all. a good apology allows the person to offer an alternate approach to the cause. steven

    Reply
  8. Ellen
    June 18, 2011 at 9:19 pm (6 years ago)

    I had a situation with the case manager for my mom recently. I felt that she has become too emotionally involved with my mom's case. I know this case is complicated (believe me it is) and she needs to be accountable to the POA for my mom (which is not me…yep.) and she has been good about keeping me in the loop. However several times over this past year I was not in the loop. The last time I let out double barrel over suggestions of what was to happen or would need to happen in the next several months. Needless to say I often feel like I am a nobody. This is my mom and I am her daughter. I think I know her better than any of the folks involved!

    Well…it is a long story but in the end the case manager quit the case. We have a new one now. I have never heard one on one with the previous caregiver and I am surprise. I am my mom's advocate and I am darn well going to question anything that I feel needs an explanation.

    I miss the lady but oddly enough all this brought the POA and I on great terms. Sometimes bad brings good. I don't feel that I owed the lady an apology…it's my mom with the illness and me the daughter watching her die a slow death…wow..did she ever think about that?

    I am glad your mom didn't get a double dose of her meds! Glad it all worked out.

    Reply
  9. Windsmoke.
    June 18, 2011 at 10:04 pm (6 years ago)

    During my life i've had people apologise to me for something they've done to me and i've accepted it not anymore because an apology is a green light to commit the same thing over and over again so now i take an apology with a grain of salt and don't believe it :-).

    Reply
  10. Studio Sylvia
    June 19, 2011 at 1:00 am (6 years ago)

    I wonder if sometimes, people apologise, without sincerity, so that others won’t think badly of them.

    Reply
  11. Robert the Skeptic
    June 19, 2011 at 4:45 am (6 years ago)

    Here in the US we have a whole schedule of television "reality" shows which feed on the vicarious need of the public to see people reamed out for their mistakes. They revel it it… "you're Fired", says Donald Trump and our masses love it.

    But as you say, there is great power in apology – as in the way you "defused" the confrontation in the roundabout. I have used it as well, but only when it was sincere.

    Reply
  12. Kirk
    June 19, 2011 at 8:45 pm (6 years ago)

    The times when I feel insecure are when I apologize the most. The more comfortable I am, the less I find myself saying "I'm sorry."

    Of course, the problem with that is an apology shouldn't be based on one's self-worth or lack thereof. You should apologize when you've actually done somebody wrong.

    Reply
  13. Isabel Doyle
    June 20, 2011 at 4:51 am (6 years ago)

    Like others, I am always ready with an apology, sometimes, often, when I am not at fault or responsible. I intend the offering as some kind of acknowledgement of the other's discomfort, but once I was told that my apology revealed enormous hubris – as if I was all powerful and responsible for everything. Which was rather a slap in the face … when what I was trying to do was deflect attention from whatever nastiness it was.

    Perhaps on some level I was trying to attract attention to myself?

    No doubt multiple Phd theses have been written on the depths of the meaning and purposes of saying 'I'm sorry'.

    Maybe it is some meaningless verbal tic.

    Reply
  14. Rob-bear
    June 20, 2011 at 9:29 am (6 years ago)

    An apology can be, as much as anything, a statement of sadness. If you intend no harm, but someone misunderstands what you have said and felt offended, perhaps it is enough to say you're sorry the other person feels that way.

    Reply
  15. Rachel Cotterill
    June 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm (6 years ago)

    Great post. I know that I apologise a lot, even when something isn't my fault – I'll even apologise for being in the way if someone bumps into me. But you're right, there are a lot of dimensions to an apology.

    Reply
  16. Mandy
    June 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm (6 years ago)

    Nodding my head in agreement with Rob-bear.

    Reply
  17. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 10:57 am (6 years ago)

    I agree, you hear it often, Laoch, the words : 'guilty, your honour,' and then the drama ends, with one simple admission of guilt.

    Thanks, Laoch.

    Reply
  18. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 10:57 am (6 years ago)

    I agree, you hear it often, Laoch, the words : 'guilty, your honour,' and then the drama ends, with one simple admission of guilt.

    Thanks, Laoch.

    Reply
  19. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 10:59 am (6 years ago)

    I suspect we tend to feel less apologetic as we age, Jane.

    After a while the need to make other people feel better for the sake if it, begins to wear thin.

    Thanks, Jane.

    Reply
  20. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:01 am (6 years ago)

    If it's a genuine apology, Pat, you can feel cleansed, but not I suspect if it's simply a matter of form and there's no genuine quality to the apology.

    Thanks, Pat.

    Reply
  21. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:12 am (6 years ago)

    There's quite a history to 'Sorry Day' here in Australia, Jim. Our previous PM, John Howard, refused an apology but more than that he promoted the term, 'the black armguard view of history', he wanted to continue reflecting on the history of Australia through the lens of the fifties, a lens still tainted by our colonial past.

    But since then a new government at least tries to acknowledge the wrong done, though to me, you're right it's hollow, especially when the same government now treats our asylum seekers so appallingly.

    Politics is like that, full of false apologies and insistences on righteousness when a genuine apology might go a long way.

    As for Billie, I saw her today and all is well regarding her mistake, though now it seems my mother's kidneys are beginning to pack it in and we need to reduce the Lasix dose anyhow. Funny that.

    I suspect my ready tendency to apologise all over the place is also related to my sense of guilt, a regular nuisance. Still I'd rather be guilt ridden than a ruthless psychopath.

    I tend to prefer people who find it reasonably effortless to apologise.

    Thanks, Jim

    Reply
  22. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:14 am (6 years ago)

    I too see myself as an appeaser rather than a fighter, Janice, but at the same time I have my moments when I will do anything but back down. I might be quick to apologise but I'll also fight for what I believe in.

    Thanks, Janice.

    Reply
  23. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:15 am (6 years ago)

    I'm glad you found things to chew on here, Ms Moon. Maybe we can all think more on this business of apology – when it's necessary and when not.

    Thanks, Ms Moon.

    Reply
  24. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:18 am (6 years ago)

    I suspect your talking about a level of compassion in this type of apology, Steven. Compassion is at the base of it all, compassion, empathy, cal it what you will. It involves as you suggest a recognition and sharing of our load of sorrow.

    You always put things beautifully, Steven. Thanks.

    Reply
  25. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:43 am (6 years ago)

    It's a complicated process, Ellen, this working in with others for the care of our loved ones.

    I find it's easier at the retirement home than in the hospital. At least in the home there is a consistency of care. In the hospital every thing tends to be compartmentalized.

    I hope things continue to go okay for you in caring for your Mom. Thanks, Ellen.

    Reply
  26. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:44 am (6 years ago)

    I agree Windsmoke, sometimes apologies are attempts to cover up and continue the same old behaviour, in which case there's no point in accepting such an apologies

    Thanks, Windsmoke.

    Reply
  27. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:45 am (6 years ago)

    You're right, Sylvia, sometimes apologies are merely to save face. Thanks.

    Reply
  28. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:48 am (6 years ago)

    I have a strong aversion to the type of reality shows that create scenarios full of abject humiliation and calls for apology, Robert.

    These are not genuine to my way of thinking but border on the masochistic and the sensational.

    Thanks, Robert.

    Reply
  29. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:51 am (6 years ago)

    It's strange isn't it, Kirk that we apologise out of a sense of inadequacy when as you say we ought really only apologise when we have dome something wrong? How cruelly we can be acculturated to cast ourselves abject upon other people's acceptance.

    Thanks, Kirk.

    Reply
  30. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:55 am (6 years ago)

    As you say Isabel, I suspect there have been many PhD theses written on this topic of apology.

    I had not thought that to apologise was to make yourself all-powerful, but it's one way of thinking about it. It brings to mind religious conceptions of an all forgiving God, but I'm not aware of one who apologises all the time.
    Thanks, Isabel.

    Reply
  31. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:56 am (6 years ago)

    I agree, Rob-Bear, an apology can be a statement of sadness – commiseration with another's suffering.

    Thanks Rob-Bear.

    Reply
  32. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 11:58 am (6 years ago)

    I've been guilty of saying sorry to someone who bumps into me too Rachel. It's almost a reflex response, but it needs be tempered. Thanks Rachel.

    Reply
  33. Elisabeth
    June 21, 2011 at 12:00 pm (6 years ago)

    Good to see you here, Mandy. Rob Bear has a good point. We sometimes apologise as a way of expressing our sadness. Thanks, Mandy.

    Reply
  34. Two Tigers
    June 21, 2011 at 6:47 pm (6 years ago)

    I always think of "I'm sorry" in its traditional sense of feeling distressed or sorrowful about something unfortunate, whether or not I myself caused it, and I use it all the time as an expression of sympathy, even comfort to someone aggrieved. And yes, sometimes too when I am the one aggrieved, as when someone bumps into me! It doesn't mean "my fault," just "how sad." There are times when "I was wrong" or "I did a hurtful thing I regret" can also be added for clarity. Sometimes, contrary to our need for there to always be a victim and an evildoer in every situation, a bad thing is nobody's fault, but everyone involved is sorry. And that is nothing to apologize for. Thanks for yet another thoughtful post, E!

    Reply
  35. Enchanted Oak
    June 22, 2011 at 5:37 am (6 years ago)

    I spent much of my younger adult life explaining my actions so the people involved would understand why I did or said what I did or said. The assumption was, you would of course see the necessity of my action or speech and that was all that mattered to me.

    Then I found myself in recovery from alcoholism, and I was told, bluntly, that it doesn't matter WHY I did or said things, it matters THAT I did or said them, and thereby hurt people or put myself in a position to be hurt. I was taught to become responsible for my actions. I was taught that "I'm sorry" is not good enough; amending my behavior was much better. I actually grew up in those 12-step meetings.

    Now I can pretty quickly recognize when my actions have caused offense, and then make amends quickly as well. I've also benefitted from self-restraint, which keeps me from offending some people in the first place.

    The words "I'm sorry" now are used primarily to convey my empathy for sad situations. It helps me to differentiate; if I was wrong, I like to say, "I was wrong" or if I offended someone, I prefer to clarify the action and admit to what I did that was wrong. I know that when I've been wronged, I appreciate hearing the other person recognize what they did specifically ~ it seems to help in the forgiveness process. My pet peeve is the statement "If I offended you, I'm sorry." I want to reply, "Go do a little self-examination, figure it out, and once you know what has gone down, come back to me then."

    Reply
  36. Elisabeth
    June 22, 2011 at 10:50 am (6 years ago)

    I'm sure it's not all bad to apologise, Two Tigers.

    As you suggest there's merit in the acknowledgement of pain, the pain we cause, the pain others cause and the very fact that sometimes we're all sorry together.

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness, Two Tigers.

    Reply
  37. Elisabeth
    June 22, 2011 at 10:55 am (6 years ago)

    It's a odd expression that one, Enchanted Oak: 'If I've offended you then I'm sorry.'

    I suppose it leaves open the possibility that the person may not have offended. It does seem a bit of a cop out as you suggest.

    I agree with you, generally we know when we've upset someone, but just the fact of upsetting someone does not always call for an apology, though empathy goes a long way.

    When we restrain our children in ways they dislike we need not apologise in any conventional way but some recognition of how hard it is for them goes a long way.

    Thanks, Enchanted Oak.

    Reply
  38. Murr Brewster
    June 23, 2011 at 8:04 am (6 years ago)

    I still fight the urge to deny rather than apologize. If you're apologizing for things you haven't even done, maybe you're taking up my slack. Still, I don't think I'm covering myself with glory here. I'm going to try to do better. No, really.

    Reply
  39. Elisabeth
    June 24, 2011 at 12:31 pm (6 years ago)

    Maybe I am taking up your slack, Murr but I've probably got enough of my own to account for, slackness that is, as in lack of conscientiousness, if such is a word. Thanks Murr.

    Reply
  40. Kay
    July 8, 2011 at 5:11 pm (6 years ago)

    You truly are a fabulous writer, Elisabeth. I tend to shy away from longer posts just because I usually have the attention span of a rabbit when I'm on the computer. However, your writing really pulls me in.

    Guilt and apology is an interesting topic. My husband and I have a little system I wrote about on my blog when we err.

    http://travelerswife.blogspot.com/2009/01/36-years-and-oopsie.html

    Reply

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