The sorry state of apology

Sudhirendar Sharma
When you desperately seek it, it rarely comes your way. And when you don’t, it flows like beer from a pitcher. Still at other times, you may not even notice when someone brushes past you while exclaiming ‘sorry’. Not sure if it is a new form of greetings that we have yet to get used to, but it has come to mean that way. However, what surprises me most is the glaring omission by those who are liberal in saying sorry even when they sneeze but refuse to apologise when they hit a car. When in linguistic history apology and sorry became synonyms is beyond me, but I do know that apology has its origin in Greek and sorry comes from English. It is often said that when in doubt, attribute it to Shakespeare as he was renowned as a creator/user of new words. Let’s stay put with this explanation, for now, to let me conclude somewhat reluctantly that tendering an apology is a formal expression of admitting wrongdoing while sorry carries an informal tag of not admitting anything.


I am not intending this as a piece of whataboutery, but trying to understand the trade-off that makes an apology such a keenly contested idea. No wonder, every so often a case of seeking an apology grabs news headlines and engages eyeballs on television. Although one would expect a well-turned and ingenuous-seeming apology to put a difficult issue to rest, in reality given its tactical nature none of the contesting parties is ever willing to go on back foot to rest the initiative.
Whatever be at stake, experience shows that the possibility of getting an apology always remains remote. As I have understood, part of the problem is that no matter how heartfelt an apology gets tendered, there is a lack of genuine forgiveness at the recipient’s end. With this being more often the case who would volunteer to make oneself vulnerable, be it the case of a court seeking apology for a contempt proceeding or a neighbour demanding regret for defaming his propriety,
One reason people don’t easily apologise has to do with psychological benefits of choosing not to apologize. Social psychologists have found that those who refuse to express remorse show signs of greater self-esteem, increased feelings of power and integrity. Even if it doesn’t propel any such signs, refusing to apologise will at least ensure that in subsequent events of the kind it will not be held as evidence that you admit liability too soon. Apologies make tricky affairs!
Tricky for sure but I think the word apology itself has been misunderstood. Even Plato, while presenting the Apology of Socrates, recorded it as a speech of legal self-defence at the trial of Socrates, and not an explanation of how Socrates admitted his transgressions. It is for this reason people don’t tender an apology that easily because it is understood as ‘something said or written in defence or justification of what appears to others to be wrong or of what may be liable to disapprobation’.
An apology could be a complicated matter, and it indeed is. Since childhood we have known that words once uttered can’t be taken back, then how can an apology turn things the other way round? Given that an apology can get overstretched on the length and breadth of the internet, political strategists talk about the need to ‘get ahead of’ an issue. It is time the word ‘apology’ is understood in the right earnest, such that we don’t have to feel ‘sorry’ for it.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)