My one-year-old nephew is just starting to talk, and it’s awesome. He talks to you, but finding that bridge between what he’s saying and what he means always requires a certain special blend of translation and intuition. “Malh,” he says, and it’s pretty obvious that he’s looking for milk. “Gaaihnn” is my name. And “ayaaa,” can mean any number of various things from “uncle,” to “aunt,” to, well…almost literally anything else. It’s fascinating to watch him form audible correlations to objects and ideas, and then hear him try to pronounce them. But one of the most interesting things to watch him do is apologize.
To watch a child apologize is to observe one of humanity’s most naturally suspenseful offerings. It’s a total crap shoot every time – will they mean it? Will they understand what they did wrong? Or why it’s wrong? If they do understand, will they let on? Or will they just flash you a cute smile and a half-hug and go right back to doing the thing you told them not to do? It’s fascinating, but it’s always most touching when they seem to understand why what they did was wrong, and sincerely say that they are sorry. You can see the sincerity in their eyes, and it’s sort of impossible to describe. But when they don’t mean it, they may as well already be 13 years old, smartphone in hand, tweeting #sorrynotsorry. They’ll say “sorry,” or whatever equivalent speech they can muster to get them out of the situation they’re in and back to playtime, but what they say doesn’t mean “sorry.” And for some people, it never does.
Which is a shame, because if I were to write this into a larger gripe, I’d write about how we’re fighting an uphill battle every day against the encroaching lack of meaning inherent in the English language. I’d rant and rave about how words used to mean something, and now they mean other things, and that’s horrible because in my heart I’m 90 years old sitting on my porch with a scowl and a shotgun. But I’m not going to write about that, because this is a post about customer support and apologies. It’s also about not “faking it” when you say you’re sorry.. And, mostly, it’s about things meaning what they should mean. For instance, an Old-Fashioned.
I love a good Old-Fashioned. I love whiskey in general, really, but a good Old-Fashioned every now and then just really hits the spot, and it has been one of my favorite cocktails from the day I could legally imbibe. I’ve learned the hard way, though, that there is an art to ordering an old fashioned, and that when you order an old fashioned you are taking the risk that what you mean by “Old-Fashioned” and what it means to the bartender may be two entirely different things. But really, it shouldn’t be that hard. It’s a very old, time-tested recipe, after all. It’s only four ingredients. I’ve only ever heard of it having two different types of alcohol as the base, and there are only two variations on the classic recipe that I know of (“sour” and “sweet”). So, when you’re in a semi-upscale Irish pub in your hometown and ask the bartender for an Old-Fashioned, and he tells you “oh, yeah, that used to be my drink, I used to make these for myself all the time,” as you watch him pour grapefruit juice into your not-inexpensive bourbon, it stands to reason you might be upset. Because that’s not an Old-Fashioned. And, especially when you’re ordering a drink, sometimes things should just be what they are. Like apologies. #SorryNotSorry isn’t going to cut it when you pour grapefruit juice over bourbon and call it an Old-Fashioned.
But we do this to people all the time, in both work and our personal lives. A customer asks for an apology and we say “I’m sorry you feel that way.” A friend asks for remorse and we say “I’m sorry you were hurt by what I did.” Someone asks us for an admission of fault and we say “I’m sorry you see things that way.” What we mean, though, is generally something long the lines of “I’m sorry you’re not as thick-skinned as you should be,” or “I’m sorry you’re upset, but I didn’t do anything wrong and don’t feel like this apology is necessary.” And that’s just lazy. Or, more specifically, it’s wasteful. We’re wasting the receiver’s time and our own by admitting that we’re vaguely upset (or at least annoyed) that they feel bad, but we’re not sorry that an unfortunate event took place. Why wouldn’t we be sorry that an unfortunate event took place? “I’m sorry that you need an apology even though I did nothing wrong” is not an apology. It’s patronizing at best, and most often it’s an insult added to injury.
When we say “I’m sorry you were hurt by what I did, but not for what I did,” it feels like a mischievous smile and an insincere hug from a little kid who just broke something of yours after you told them not to touch it. It feels like #sorrynotsorry. It feels like a promise from a bartender who says they know how to make an old-fashioned and then hands you grapefruit juice and bourbon, or (I kid you not, this really happened) Irish whiskey, Sprite, and a packet of sweet-and-low. I’ve had some really terrible Old-Fashioneds and gotten some really insincere apologies in my day, and both have left a bad taste in my mouth. A bad apology is like a a bad cocktail – a mixture of none of what we want, paired with none of what we need.
So, as I wrote last week, what’s the harm if we say we’re sorry and we mean it, even when it’s not our fault? If we’re willing to consider an apology in the first place, we have to be willing to make ourselves vulnerable enough to apologize. It’s not enough to say you’re sorry and not mean it, even if you feel like you didn’t do anything. In fact, I’ve discovered a lot about myself from apologizing for things that I didn’t feel were my fault, only to find out that I was at fault after all (at least in-part). So when we apologize, especially to customers, it’s best to just mean it. It should be easy for us to just let the apology be what it is. If they need an apology, they’re obviously upset, so why not just be real? Anything else is grapefruit juice and bourbon. And I’m sorry, really, but I’m just not paying for that.