08 March 2023

Review: Sorry, Sorry, Sorry - The Case for Good Apologies by Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy

Sorry, Sorry, Sorry - The Case for Good Apologies by Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy audiobook book cover

Apologies are complex. A well-worded apology can soothe hurt feelings, save a failing relationship or repair one, while a bad apology can exacerbate the situation or end up causing further insult. Hopefully we've all been recipients of a good apology and remember how it made us feel. I can still remember an unexpected apology at a reunion once that blew me away and healed a hurt I'd long since forgotten I even had. I've also been the recipient of terrible non-apologies, some of which still make my blood boil if I pause to think of them again.

Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy are the brains behind SorryWatch, a website dedicated to analysing apologies in the news, media, history and literature. They 'condemn the bad and exalt the good' and it's easy to spend an age on their website, browsing everything from sports apologies and political apologies, to bropologies and true crime apologies.

Together, Ingall and McCarthy have published Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies in an attempt to educate the reader on what constitutes a good apology and the pitfalls to avoid delivering a bad one.

Some highlights on the do's and don'ts of apologising include apologising without rehashing past insults, like: "I'm sorry I criticised your terrible new hairstyle".* Another pitfall to avoid was the 'sorry you', for example "well I'm sorry you keep forgetting our anniversary". Time was also spent on avoiding the 'if' and 'but' apology: "I'm sorry if I made you feel that way", or "I'm sorry, but I never meant to offend anyone".

Attempts like: "anyone who knows me knows I'm not a racist / homophobe / insert slur here" also indicate efforts to dodge responsibility or accountability for our actions. These always sound like weasel words to me, but now I have a clearer understanding of why they never sound like genuine apologies.

In Chapter 3 (Sorry If, Sorry But, Sorry You: Things Not to Say), I learned about performative utterances. A performative utterance is a statement where the words are the action, like "I insist" or "I promise" or "I swear". "I'm sorry" is a performative utterance and saying it feels like an admission of wrongdoing. This makes us feel uncomfortable and we often don't want to admit fault, especially if we don't believe we've done anything wrong. Just ask any 4yo. Another strategy is the sarcastic apology: "well sorry for not checking with you first, I guess nobody's perfect," is a passive aggressive apology.

I do believe public apologies have changed over the decades, with PR companies and spin doctors writing statements and apologies that address an incident, event, oversight or mistake while not directly admitting any fault. Sorry, Sorry, Sorry includes some interesting examples of bad apologies like this from CEOs, police officials and politicians. I listened to the audiobook, which meant I was unable to visually enjoy the apology bingo tables that frequently accompanied the text. Since finishing the book though, I'm recognising lame apologies all around me, with plenty of 'sorry if' and 'I regret' and 'it was never my intention' examples.

No doubt we've all delivered a range of apologies that have missed the mark ourselves. So, how do we do better?

Here's the SorryWatch approach:
1. Use the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologise.”
2. Say specifically what you’re sorry for.
3. Show you understand why the thing you said or did was bad.
4. Be very careful if you want to provide explanation; don’t let it shade into excuse.
5. Explain the actions you’re taking to insure this won’t happen again.
6. Can you make reparations? Make reparations.

Sounds simple enough doesn't it? When the topic of the apology is emotive, or the insult very grave, it can be hard to take the six steps outlined above. Fortunately I wasn't reading Sorry, Sorry, Sorry - The Case for Good Apologies by Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy in preparation for a huge apology in my own life, but we can all improve the interactions we have with people, and I don't think I'll ever stop wanting to do that.

Sorry, Sorry, Sorry - The Case for Good Apologies by Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy was an informative read and met the requirement for the Non Fiction 2023 Reader Challenge prompt for relationships.

*All examples in this review in italics are my own.

My Rating:

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