Saturday, October 08, 2011

No, You're Not Sorry

My hotel room in Los Angeles had a nice view of the valley, and I had a fresh cup of coffee. I had just settled in to work when I heard a loud "CLICK," then silence. The lights went out, the air conditioner went off and the clock next to my bed went blank. It took me a moment to process what was happening. Yes, I had just come from the hurricane ravaged east, and was used to dealing with power outages and such. But this was Southern California. It was 10AM on a Wednesday, the sun was shining and I was in the middle of the city. No way the power could be out. Could it?

I opened the door and stuck my nose out into the hall. Sure enough, it was dim, lit only by emergency lighting. A maintenance guy was walking by, so I asked the obvious question: "Did we just lose power?" He shook his head. "Yes sir, it seems that way." Was it anything he did? I thought perhaps he was working on the floor, and cut it to fix something. He shook his head. "No sir, nothing we did. I'm so sorry for the inconvenience."

Now, I understand the service ethos that drove the comment. I'm sure he was sorry in the abstract for any hassle it caused me. And if it was the hotel that was the locus of the problem, he was stepping up as its representative and taking the blame. But at that moment the chain of cause and effect hadn't been established. Still, it was a nice thing to say.

I retreated back into my room and looked out the window. No lights in adjoining buildings, no traffic signals: it was a Beverly Hills blackout. The phone, which obviously was still working, rang. I picked it up to find a member of the front desk staff confirming it was indeed a utility issue, and not building specific. No, she had no idea what caused it. No, she didn't know how long it would last. Anything she could do for me, she asked. And then concluded like her associate in the hall: "Sir, we are so sorry for this."

But to be clear, neither could actually apologize because they didn't cause the affront. After all, the very definition of the word is "an expression of remorse or guilt over having said or done something that is acknowledged to be hurtful or damaging, and a request for forgiveness." Even if you go back to a more classical formulation, it doesn't line up. Apology derives from the Greek "apologia," which translates as a defense, or a speech made in defense. Mr. Maintenance and Ms. Front Desk didn't cause the blackout, so there should be no remorse to express, nor actions to defend.

It's just that those in the customer service field have learned that a sympathetic "I'm sorry" is the fastest and most surefire way to get a leg up, so much so that virtually every interaction with a disgruntled customer starts that way. Guilt or blame has nothing to do with it. Rather, it's a preemptive strike designed to defuse the situation, regardless of who is the aggrieved party and who is the agriever. I'm sorry for the difficulties you had when overdrawing your account. I'm sorry the item arrived after her birthday since you waited too long to order it. I'm sorry the size you ordered doesn't fit your big butt. I'm sorry you're a moron. Really. I'm very sorry.

Now admittedly, the apology trend is better than alternative. In the old days, the blame was squarely on you. It was a criminal justice system whereby you were guilty until there was incontrovertible proof you were innocent. That evolved into a stalemate best described as the "there's no problem here, don't even think of mentioning it or I will just glare at you" approach.  And now here we are today, where rule number one is that the customer is always right, and rule number two is if the customer is wrong, see rule number one.

But perhaps the pendulum has swung a little too far. These days we apologize preemptively when we think there might be any disagreement:  "I'm sorry, but I think ‘Modern Family' is a better show than ‘The Office.'" Other than in politics, where the word doesn't seem to exist, we seem to take pains to not offend even when we aren't. Put another way, perhaps Elton John was wrong; "sorry" does not seem to be the hardest word.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always seems to be apologizing, though he's often not sure for what. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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