“Sorry” : a word that slips out easily enough to mean “I didn’t hear”, ” excuse me” – or even “how dare you” with a particularly laden intonation, but which has to be dragged out screaming, it seems, on any other occasion. Why is it that even toddlers, barely old enough to do someone harm, find it such an awkward word? Presumably they don’t yet have a fear of litigation and consequent compensation bills, though this often lies at the heart of the problem in adult life, whether for a mistake by a care professional, an error in financial advice, or the invasion of another country. “Sorry” does indeed seem to be the hardest word!
The ongoing discussions surrounding the celebrations of the abolition of slavery have seen a split between those who believe it is meaningless to apologise for something which happened in the past because we cannot claim any personal responsibility, and those who feel accountable for past events because of consequences which they recognise in their life perhaps also those whose sense of identity is as part of a wider community, past and present, as against those who are firm in their individuality. What they have in common is an understanding that, to be of any worth, an apology on these, and any, occasions needs to be sincere and clear in its intentions.
What can feel more demeaning is not the actual apology or even a refusal to admit liability, but the protracted discussions around the whole issue. It feels quite depressing that we have got ourselves into a position where no one dare admit to having done wrong because of a potential financial penalty or loss of face. Resentments cause bitterness and hurt, and destroy relationships as well as individuals. Apologies can bring healing and new understanding. In some situations it is possible to say that one party is to blame, but in many disputes it is not so straightforward and clear-cut.
Does righting a wrong hinge on a full apology or would we not rather have a less confrontational, “softer” attitude to life, recognising links with the past, but also links now between individuals, communities and nations?
Maybe it all depends. As my student son was wisely advised over a neighbour problem: “Do you want to be right, or do you want to build bridges?”Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker