We Apologize For…

I’m traveling this week again. This means, among other things, that I get to hear a lot of people/companies say “We apologize for the inconvenience.”

It took me a little while to realize why this so reliably gets under my skin. One usually hears it when something has gone wrong—usually while traveling something that makes you late, though also often something that will cost you money or has destroyed your stuff—so of course it makes sense to be annoyed.

But I’ve realized it bothers me nearly as much when the delay in question doesn’t affect me. And while I like to think I’m empathetic, there’s too much angst going on in any given airport for me to just be feeling it all.

No, the problem is with the announcement itself. Or more specifically, with the last three words. “We apologize” is right and proper when called for. Essential even. If something you did is causing problems for people, you apologize. If something beyond your control means you can’t fulfill a promise or obligation, you explain and apologize.

But the problem is with those last three words: “for the inconvenience.” Because that implies that you know how the problem is affecting those affected—and you’ve decided it’s not much.

Of course that’s absurd, once you state it that way. A late bus can mean a lost job. Not getting home tonight could mean a sick child who has been waiting for a particular face goes to bed without it. A missed connection can mean missing a graduation, or a funeral. A train car that’s supposed to have wireless and doesn’t can mean a missed deadline, and one that’s supposed to have heat and doesn’t can make an oncoming cold worse. And on and on.

Now of course I’m being a little overwrought here. These things don’t always apply, and they can’t always be prevented when they do. In fact, I get fairly impatient with people who rail rudely and overwroughtly against fate in the form of which ever poor sod has to deliver the bad news, especially when the problem is something unavoidable like weather. (Overall patterns of screwing customers? By all means pitch a fit, but to someone in power.)

Point is, almost any time someone is apologizing for the inconvenience, you can be reasonably certain that someone is a good deal worse than inconvenienced by it.

Telling people how what you are doing to them affects them, or should affect them, is a time-honored relationship killer. So it really kind of makes me wonder whether these big companies who assuredly spend big bucks on marketing consultants to develop their brand and attract customers have never run this insidious and ubiquitous damage control (damage exacerbation) phrase past their experts.

Are they afraid that saying “We apologize” with no qualifiers will leave them on the legal hook in some different way? The legal climate these days is just insane enough for me to possibly believe it.

Are they afraid it would imply that they ought to do something differently next time? Maybe.

I remember writing a long piece for Metroland many years ago about the “Sorry Works” movement, a radical approach in hospitals to stop covering up their medical mistakes out of liability fears and instead practice full responsibility and make timely and sincere and open apologies to those harmed or their families. Radically enough, those practicing it experienced a major drop in lawsuits and size of damages. I wouldn’t be surprised if over time their rate of errors also went down, as that makes a much better environment for improvement.

What would it look like to apply Sorry Works in other spheres? Late plane flights? Customer service screw ups? Foreign policy? Race relations?

Obviously for the big stuff even a sincere apology is not enough without measures to fix the harm and concrete assurances that something is changing to prevent repeats. But it can go a long way—if it’s not limited to “inconvenience.”

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Nov. 21, 2013.)

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