A proper apology

I hold no brief for Trevor Mallard. I don’t care for his seemingly overwhelming attachment to sports, I don’t like his pugnacious attitude, I remain unimpressed by his handling of the Auckland waterfront stadium proposal, and I am appalled by his lack of self-control in resorting to punching another man, even ‘though that man had been taunting him. If “she was asking for it” doesn’t excuse domestic violence, then it doesn’t excuse violence between grown men either.

However, he has done something very impressive in recent days. He has given a real apology. That is a very rare thing.

When I returned to university in my late twenties, I formed friendships with some of the younger students, but for the most part, I spent my time with other ‘mature age students’. There was a group of us who used to gather every day in the cafe, to drink coffee, gossip, and being the nerdy swots we were, do some study. One of our number was a lovely young woman, Kathy. Kathy was a nun, so we always tried to keep our language a little restrained around her. Until the days when one of my friends said something like, “I’m sorry that I did x, but…”, and Kathy interrupted with:

“Everything before ‘BUT’ is bullshit.”

Right. We all laughed, and after that we weren’t so careful about what we said around Kathy.

My friend gave a proper apology for whatever it was – I can’t remember now. And I have remembered Kathy’s words of wisdom ever since.

Listen to what people say, and what you say yourself, in apologising. The form, “Yadda yadda yadda BUT…” is not an apology. People excuse their behaviour, give reasons for it, and try to shift the responsibility for the behaviour to other people. It’s a weasel way of appearing to apologise, but not really doing so at all.

“I’m sorry that I upset you but…”
Translation: I was right to upset you and I would do it again, because my behaviour was justified.

“I’m sorry that you’re upset but…”
Translation: It’s your fault that you’re upset

“I’m sorry for hitting you but…”
Translation: I’m allowed to hit you if I think I have a good reason for it.

“I’m sorry for doing x but I have been under a lot of strain recently.”
Translation: I didn’t really do anything bad at all.

I’m sure you can find plenty more examples.

To Trevor Mallard’s credit, he didn’t take the “Yadda yadda yadda BUT…” option. He apologised properly. No excuses. No references to his personal life, which we all know has been difficult recently. No suggesting that it was really the other man’s fault. No trying to say that his behaviour was excusable at all. He simply said, “I’m sorry. I did something wrong, it was stupid, and I am ashamed.” (Or words to that effect.) It was a genuine apology.

Try it yourself sometime. It’s remarkably refreshing.


10 responses to “A proper apology

  1. I live by the credo that BUT negates everything before it…and it is a dead giveaway and I see political blog commenters use it alot. Works for HOWEVER as well.
    That type of argument has a name, is it a mutually exclusive statement?
    I study prosody, as a drivelly poet I find it useful.

  2. So if you take the BUT out of the equation, does that make it ok? It seems to me that the BUT makes what follows an excuse that negates what came before, whereas a full stop would mean the second bit becomes a reason, rather than a justification or excuse.

    “I’m sorry you’re upset. I was trying to be funny.”

    as opposed to

    “I’m sorry you’re upset but I was trying to be funny. ”


  3. Yes, take it out and you have a genuine statement without a conditional clause.
    And you could use a comma, maybe. It’s also about the tone, usually something like…
    …I’m not usually one to complain, but…

  4. Thanks merc, sorry to hijack the comments, I was just curious, as it is something I am trying to change in my own behaviour.

    Interesting to note the discussion at PA System about this, and also that Farrar has weighed in with a post at Kiwiblog using the BUT apology as if it is a genuine apology.

  5. We are definitely onto something good when we start to look at our own behaviour. It opens up all kinds of clarity in the dealings we have with others.
    This BUT word is a great example. You may find this interesting, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociolinguistics
    There are people who are very good at using linguistic techniques to change the tone and meaning of what they are saying.
    Mea culpa, I used to be a copywriter.

  6. I have some linguistics papers buried way back in my first degree – it’s fascinating stuff.

    That word “but” does such a lot of work in the non-apology form.

    “I’m sorry you’re upset. I was trying to be funny.”

    The implied third sentence there is, “I got it wrong.” And that’s what makes it a genuine apology, not an excuse.

  7. Linguists, to me, is where the rubber meets the road, as it were.
    Watch out ,for example, if someone keeps saying “must” and “should” to you a little too much. Often we give our own best advice to others. “Should” used to drive me crazy, now if said, it makes me laugh, especially…”oh it should have worked”, a software support clanger.
    Indeed much of what irritates us linguistically (love that word) is an insight into our own inner state, in my pedantic opinion.

  8. Gosh, I mean linguistics…

  9. After exhaustive introspection…I can live with that, hehe. Which introduces another interesting linguistic modernism, that of the…”I’m going to call myself a pedant (or…), but don’t you call me one (BUT is in there).
    Maori TV (Marae show) was interesting last night. A kuia from Tuhoi was being interviewed and she described the English language as being much more ambiguous (twisty) than Te Reo. In the instance of the post-arrest media coverage, the kuia made reference to the use of linguistic obfuscation to warp the reality of the arrests (especially the school bus incident).
    Maori TV is very interesting and I love hearing Te Reo spoken, French pah, Te Reo rocks!