Thursday, June 14, 2007

Anatomy of an apology

Tim Harford's column on apologies (link via India Uncut) reminded me of what I'd learnt soon after landing up in Delhi for a new job in news. I'm sorry, I said to my boss one day, after committing a pronunciation mistake of the sort one tends to see a lot on TV (I said kaun-stituency instead of constituency).
The incident itself wasn't of much importance, but my ready apology surprised him, and I could almost see his mental gears shifting. His new opinion of me seemed to be that I was a pushover. Bad mistake. Days later, I was told someone else would be in charge of our team, although I had the relevant experience.

Alright, it's an apocryphal example, that story. The actual facts are far more complicated. But the point is that an apology has its costs as well as benefits. To quote from Harford's column,

"... apologies make us more likable but also make us seem incompetent - an intuitive response backed up by psychological research. For example, the psychologists Fiona Lee and Lara Tiedens showed subjects some edited footage of Bill Clinton talking about the Lewinsky affair.
After viewing the clips in which Clinton seemed apologetic, the subjects said they liked him more but respected him less. This suggests that an apology is not cheap talk at all: it represents a choice to appear loveable but bumbling. The alternative is to admit nothing and look like a competent hard-man..."

My own view of an apology is simply: if I'm wrong, I should apologise. The trouble arises when I'm only partly wrong. My habit is to acknowledge my mistake even if my part in the 'error' committed is so minuscule so as to warrant no apology. Consequently, I apologise when I shouldn't be doing so. And to let off the set of frustrations that go with behaving in that fashion, I don't apologise when I should be. I'm trying to be a little more sparing in my manner now, but I wonder what all this has done to my image.

The final word in this topic should belong to my wife of 6 months, to whom I've probably apologised to a thousand times. I ask her what she thinks of my habit. She says, "you don't ever apologise, you only offer justifications".

Ah well, whatever.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

ahhh see. the last word always, but always, must go to a woman!