Consider the following purely hypothetical scenario:
It’s 3:21 am and you’re sleeping soundly, snoring a little as your body warms itself with the slow but sure metabolization of the deep-dish pizza you ate only a mere 6 hours ago. You’re probably dreaming, and your dreams are probably about more pizza. Suddenly, those dreams are shattered by a surprisingly loud sigh, followed by what is almost surely a whisper, but to your half-asleep ears sounds definitively like a blood-curdling exclamation. “My stomach hurts,” your significant other says to you as you open your eyes to reveal them, propped up on one elbow as they look at you with furrowed brow. “Uh,” you say, because honestly, what else would you possibly say? “My stomach hurts,” they repeat, looking at you with a mixture of sadness, and some form of obvious but nebulous expectation. You try to think of something to say, knowing that your next sentence will determine a lot about the next few hours of both of your lives. What would you want them to say to you, you think to yourself in a half-asleep daze, if you woke up suddenly with stomach pain? Finally, you settle on what you are sure is the perfect thing:
Their expression softens as you ask: “Can I get you some water?”
“Yes, please” they say, “thank you.”
And all is well. As you descend the stairs into the kitchen to get a glass of water, you know full well that “I’m sorry,” is a sort of confusing thing to have to say to someone with a stomach-ache. After all, it’s almost definitely not your fault that anyone has ever had a stomach ache, and it’s certainly not your fault that your significant other has one now. But “I’m sorry,” is a pretty loaded phrase in the English language – far beyond being a simple apology, the phrase “I’m sorry,” contains a multitude of other expressions. For instance, when you tell someone “I’m sorry,” it can also mean “I understand,” or, “I wish it wasn’t this way,” or, “this is terrible,” or in some passive-aggressive cases that are probably best to avoid, “I wish you wouldn’t do that.” All these ideas and more are contained within the same simple apology – the phrase is, in itself, a universe of regret and sympathy. So why wouldn’t you say “I’m sorry” to your someone whom you love and with whom you empathize because of their upset stomach?
To apologize is truly a magical thing, and no job has taught me more about its power than my time in customer support. Because, if I’m being honest, the majority of support cases I work through in a day have almost nothing to do with something that I personally did wrong. Much like a (hypothetical) stomach ache at 3 in the morning, the majority of complaints, pleas for help, or requests for extra information don’t usually come as a result of anything for which I’m directly responsible. I am a mostly neutral party. But that doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day, in both my eyes, and the customer’s, I don’t have to be the responsible party to be the one held responsible. In fact, that’s what makes a customer support expert so valuable. It’s our job to be the one responsible when something is wrong, not just the to be the person to fix it. And even if you are the absolute king of fixing customers’ problems, if you’re not also the king of apologizing earnestly, you’re doing it wrong. Because, honestly, sometimes people just need someone to apologize to them because they have a stomach ache. And all of the time, people need the apologizer to mean it.
So what’s the harm if we say we’re sorry and we mean it, even when it’s not our fault? What’s the harm if we say we’re sorry not because we did something wrong, but because something is wrong and we’re just sorry that it’s wrong? How much easier could all of our lives be if, before we combat or rebut or sneer at someone because something isn’t our fault, we just apologized? I’ll tell you: much easier.
So much easier, in fact, that when you get your hypothetical spouse a hypothetical glass of water and hypothetically apologize for their hypothetical 3am stomach-ache, they will thank you, give you a hug, and let you go back to sleep (hypothetically). And you’ll sink back into your warm bed, next to your loving other half with whom you have avoided a hypothetical spat because you’re both hypothetically exhausted, and your first instinct might have hypothetically been to say something snarky when they first woke you up. But you didn’t, because you’re gracious, and you work in customer support, and you know that it doesn’t have to be your fault to apologize for something. And, as you consider the similarities between working in Customer Support and being in a long-term committed relationship, you start to drift off to sleep, and dream of pizza. Deep dish. And it’s awesome.