NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We are living in a sorry age. Just the last month alone has been rife with regrets, apologies and general contrition. From JetBlue's blues to the Tim Hardaway apology tour, public figures keep throwing themselves on our mercy with mixed results.
This hour we're talking about the art of the apology, what works, what doesn't and what makes things so much worse you need to apologize again. Later in the hour, leaving you husband? There's a card for that. Signing up for AA? A card for that, too. We'll talk about Hallmark's decidedly modern Journeys cards.
But first, if you've ever said things you shouldn't have, forgotten a birthday, said unfortunate things to the cops after that DUI, call and tell us your best or worst apology given or received. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation, all one word.
Navigating the world of remorse, both public and private, is the province of Amy Dickinson, author of the syndicated column "Ask Amy" by the Chicago Tribune. She joins us every other week to help us sort through all the unwritten and written rules of modern life. This week she joins us from the Aspen Opera House with the help of our team at Chicago Public Radio. Always nice to have you, Amy.
Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hey, Neal. And by the way, I'm pre-apologizing for anything I may say or do during the next hour.
CONAN: Well, I thought your performance tonight in Fledermaus, you might want to apologize in advance for that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah.
CONAN: There sure have been a lot of apologies lately. Has the culture of chagrin changed?
Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I think that it has, actually. I think that people are expected to apologize. And, you know, in my mind, this started with - do you remember the Tylenol case?
Ms. DICKINSON: Was that in the '80s?
CONAN: I think so.
Ms. DICKINSON: Where Tylenol had been tampered with and there were deaths. It was very, very serious, and I think it was Johnson & Johnson, which owns the brand, did a sort of an unusual thing. Instead of hunkering down, they stood up, they took - you know, they like grabbed everything off the shelves. They tried to educate the public about the tamperings and they apologized. And I feel in my mind that's sort of when some of this started, some of the corporate apologies. So yes, I think we do expect people to apologize.
CONAN: That's also when they started putting on those tamper-proof tops, and they haven't apologized for that yet.
Ms. DICKINSON: Right.
CONAN: I wonder, do you get a lot of questions about apologies?
Ms. DICKINSON: Everyday because, you know, faux pas is my middle name, apparently. Yeah, people do things every day that they feel bad about, and they are looking for - then they want to know what should I do next, because a lot of us actually make things worse when we apologize.
CONAN: For instance?
Ms. DICKINSON: Well for instance, repeating the offense sometimes. Well, Isaiah Washington. You know, his problems...
CONAN: Yes. A word he may or may not have said that he then said in talking about whether he said it or not.
Ms. DICKINSON: Right, and actually his first apology, the text of it is just right because he says that is beneath me, I am appalled at my own behavior. You know, he did a very good job, but then he blew it by using the offending word in a second statement. Oops, not good.
CONAN: Not good. A little sarcasm kind of undercuts the apology, doesn't it?
Ms. DICKINSON: It totally does.
CONAN: In fact, any kind of a qualifier can damage the authenticity of the apology.
Ms. DICKINSON: Right. The two words you don't have to have in an apology: if or but. For example, a person I know actually recently did something that I felt was a breach. It was out of bounds, and I said so to him. And he was very surprised at my reaction, and that was genuine. But then he said, well, I'm so sorry if you feel that way. And I thought no, that didn't quite do it for me.
CONAN: Yeah, that's the variant of the ever popular if I offended anyone, I'm sorry.
Ms. DICKINSON: Exactly, and so there are a lot of ways to mess up an apology. One is to be too indirect. This is the classic: Mistakes were made. Not good, not good enough. You have to be very direct and specific, and genuine and contrite.
CONAN: We want to get some listeners involved in this conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, email@example.com. Let's begin with Brian, Brian's calling us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
BRIAN (Caller): Hey, thank you for taking my call.
BRIAN: Yeah, I'm Brian from Charlotte. Basically, I have a good friend of mine. His name is Taylor Dalstrum(ph). Taylor, if you're listening right now, man, just listen up. Basically what happened was I went out with a group of friends of mine and his ex-girlfriend was present.
We had a bit to drink. You know, we were having a good time, doing some partying at a friends house. And later that night, I returned to his room because that's where I was staying that night, but he was out with another girl. And basically I ended up sleeping in the same bed as his girlfriend - ex-girlfriend, I'm sorry - and this was back to back, you know, completely clothed, very innocent.
And he got wind of this and was very, very perturbed by it. And so basically I wanted to say that I apologized to him, told him that it was innocent, and he's been livid ever since and we're still not talking.
CONAN: Some apologies just don't seem to go over, do they, Amy?
Ms. DICKINSON: Well, and it's funny because Brian, I feel like I need a little more from you because you've explained your behavior, but you haven't really said I can understand why he's so upset, for instance. You know, you need to express some empathy. Can you imagine how he's feeling?
BRIAN: Well, the thing is I definitely told him when I called him that I crossed a boundary and that I did apologize. But I do feel that as long as it's not his girlfriend anymore and we didn't do anything whatsoever that he does not have the reason to be as made as he is.
At the same time, I feel that a barrier was crossed and that I should be mindful of that and be sincere in my apology.
CONAN: Well, the sincerity, as we suggested a moment ago, undermined by the insertion of that word but.
Ms. DICKINSON: And that's the thing, Brian. I really appreciate Brian's explanation, but what undercuts his whole apology is when he says basically that his friend is overreacting. Because even if it seems that he's overreacting, you need to deny that in your apology.
You need to say I totally get it. I totally get it, man. That was a mistake, and I'm so sorry. And here's something people forget to do, and this is the hardest part. Then you have to say I hope you can forgive me. And, you know, that's hard.
BRIAN: (Unintelligible) because I think this situation made him think that I do not value our friendship, which could not be further from the truth.
Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, I love what you just said.
BRIAN: I'm definitely going to implement this advice you guys have given me. I appreciate it.
CONAN: Okay, Brian. Thanks very much. Good luck.
BRIAN: All right, thank you.
Ms. DICKINSON: And you know, Neal, the last thing Brian said was perfect because then he really got to it. He said he's worried that his friend thinks that he doesn't value their friendship as much as he does, and that - boy, if you can express that, that's huge.
CONAN: He didn't apologize for not turning down his radio, though.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Anyway. Paula, Paula's with us Sichuate(ph) in Massachusetts.
PAULA (Caller): Hi, I wanted to share the worst apology ever. My best girlfriend slept with my boyfriend and then told me the reason that she did it was because she loved me so much that she couldn't help but express herself that way.
CONAN: That goes right to the hall of fame.
Ms. DICKINSON: Wow, that's truly awesome, yeah. So you're no longer friends, I gather.
PAULA: No, no, no, that one's all done.
Ms. DICKINSON: You know, here's another thing people do, which Brian sort of touched on before, is you know, alcohol creates a lot of very truly terrible and sometimes tragic situations between people and it's always a fine line how much you can blame alcohol. I think it's not bad to mention alcohol, because I think a lot of people understand that alcohol makes people do things that they then regret, but you cannot blame alcohol.
CONAN: Paula, good luck finding a new best friend.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PAULA (Caller): Yeah, well thank you.
CONAN: Of course, public apologies are the ones we could also learn from, or just shake our head at. Paul Slansky chronicled the damage in his book, "My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior that Inspired Them." He's also a regular contributor to the New Yorker magazine. He joins us now from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. PAUL SLANSKY (Author, "My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior that Inspired Them"): Nice to be here.
CONAN: And public apology, has that culture changed as well over the past quarter century or so?
Mr. SLANSKY: Well I think what we've been seeing is just, you know, an enormous explosion of them, as you were just saying before. I think that, you know, it is expected. People are required to apologize publicly in order to kind of rejoin polite society after an offense like the Mel Gibson offense, for example.
Mr. SLANSKY: An apology is required. We can't just let that go.
CONAN: Absolutely, but are there ones that stick out in your mind as especially good or awful?
Mr. SLANSKY: Well, you know, I liked - Robert Packwood had a good one, and we were talking - you guys were talking about it before. He said if - you know, we all know the women, the groping women, he had to resign from the Senate. He said: If I did the things I said I did, am I sorry? Do I apologize? Yes. But again, that huge if we were talking about before.
CONAN: And then that Rumsfeldian asking himself a question.
Mr. SLANSKY: Right, exactly. But the ifs - you know, that if quality is always there, and if I offended someone, if you took offense, and it always implies that somehow or other the other person is the offender. The other person, you know, was too sensitive. The other person somehow or the other is at fault, not the guy who actually committed the offense.
Ms. DICKINSON: Didn't...
CONAN: Go ahead, Amy.
Ms. DICKINSON: Didn't Janet Jackson do that after the whole wardrobe malfunction thing? Didn't she say something like, if that bothered people, I'm really sorry. I mean, that's not enough. Yeah.
Ms. SLANSKY: No, no, no, you can tell that the apologies aren't sincere in a lot of these cases.
Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah, in fact, her quote I think I remember is: If I offended anybody, that was not my intention.
CONAN: I thought she was just going to go out and - never mind. As we go along on this, Paul, are there apologies - well, I guess maybe the Janet Jackson one - are there apologies so bad they're good?
Mr. SLANSKY: Well, you know, there are offenses that are so amazing sometimes that no apology can really sort of quite do them justice. Like, for example, David Clayton-Thomas from Blood, Sweat and Tears. He was at a concert, giving a concert in Michigan and he said that it was a hot day. And he said the whether is as hot as the last train car going to Auschwitz. I mean it's like, what are you going to say after that? Where does that metaphor come from?
CONAN: Yeah, that's - so there are rules that you might want to live by; among them, never bring up the Holocaust.
Mr. SLANSKY: The Holocaust is tough, it's true, because people seem to forget that it's not funny. That's the thing...
Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah, really.
Ms. SLANSKY: You often find that that's one of the kinds of apologies is the oh, I forgot the Holocaust isn't funny kind of apology.
Ms. DICKINSON: It's so not funny. But, you know, I'm also intrigued by this idea. I think we're aware that much more lately that people are very forgiving if they're asked for forgiveness. And, you know, I grew up in a kind of a faith practice where every week you basically confessed. And how we do it is we say: I'm sorry for those things I have done and for those which I have not done. I mean, it's really kind of this blanket thing.
CONAN: It's the presidential pardon of apologies. Anyway, we're going to have to take a short break. We'll be back after it. Join us, 800-989-8255. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
With all the recent public apologies, we're talking today about the art of apology, what works, what doesn't, and what just makes things much, much worse. And we've posted an audio quiz at our blog. Try to figure out which public figure is doing the apologizing. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation, all one word. We also have an e-mail challenge for you today.
A little bit later in the program, we'll talk about a new line of greeting cards that addresses some of our more awkward modern moments. Things like divorce or surgery or chemotherapy. We want you to write your own version. What does your card say on the front? What does it say on the inside? Send it to us by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll read the best ones later on in the hour.
Right now, we're talking with Amy Dickinson. She writes the syndicated column "Ask Amy" for the Chicago Tribune. Also with us is Paul Slansky, author of the book, ""My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior that Inspired Them." And as always, you're welcome to join the conversation. What are the best or worst apologies you've given or received? 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail: email@example.com.
And let me ask you both, we've recently seen in a trial here in Washington - reminded that it's not the crime so much you have to worry about, but the cover-up. Are there apologies so bad that they make the situation unrecoverable, Amy Dickinson?
Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I think the caller before who mentioned her best friend who slept with her boyfriend and then issued this appalling apology, yeah, that's - she's done and that's it.
CONAN: So you can go over the top. Paul Slansky, are there versions of that in the public sphere?
Mr. SLANSKY: I think - I mean the Mel Gibson case was interesting because his first apology was so inadequate that he had to come back and recover from it. And I mean had he not, that would have been one of those apologies that was just inadequate. I think what's important in a lot of these cases is for the person to actually show up. I find - to me, you lose a lot of points when a statement is issued or somebody else reads it for you. And part of it when you're doing a public apology, I think part of what people wants is to see the person apologizing. I mean, the Hugh Grant one back in...
Ms. DICKINSON: I was just thinking about that, yeah.
Mr. SLANSKY: ...1995. You know, he's an actor and he's very polished and he's very good at this kind of thing anyway. Plus he has that, you know, kind of disarmingly...
CONAN: Sheepish I think (unintelligible).
Mr. SLANSKY: ...sheepish, you know, presentation when he did it. He - I think that's the most effective public apology I've seen probably because...
Ms. DICKINSON: You know what, I think...
Mr. SLANSKY: ...it seems clear that he was really embarrassed at least.
Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And that's an ingredient that I counsel people through my column. I'll say, you know, one great way to apologize is to say oh, I can't believe I did that. I'm so embarrassed and I'm very, very sorry. And Hugh Grant sitting on Jay Leno's couch sweating - I mean, he let us watch him squirm and then it was over.
Mr. SLANSKY: Right.
CONAN: And his career suggests that the public has forgiven him.
Mr. SLANSKY: Exactly.
Ms. DICKINSON: Yes.
Mr. SLANSKY: A catharsis is required. It really is. It's like, you know, just a ritual that you have to go through.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Jason(ph), Jason with us from Vermont.
JASON (Caller): Hi. I was wondering how you square the idea that society has gotten more coarse and disrespectful with the need to apologize, and especially public apologies. And it seems like celebrities go out of their way to apologize and go into rehab to express how sorry they are for their behavior, and yet everyone seems to think that society has gotten really disrespectful and coarse. You know, I was wondering how you square those two.
Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I think that, you know, the idea that rehab is sort of a truth squad or - you know, rehab doesn't fix everything, but rehab is a way, you know, it's like a movie star's shortcut to oops, my bad. I have a problem. And actually I think that they see rehab as a shortcut, and it's not. And I agree that our society's gotten much more coarse, but our feelings are still the same. We still feel offended by things that are offensive.
CONAN: Isn't there also an aspect of, again, blaming your sickness or your addiction for your behavior?
Ms. DICKINSON: Oh yeah, that drives me crazy. It totally drives - you know, if you look at something because - look at something like the South African Truth Commission. This was a countrywide, desperately important issue, apartheid, where hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, many, many, many people killed. Truly, truly something to apologize for. And they set up these truth squads and this commission where victims could come, and victims said we just need to hear the truth.
CONAN: And perpetrators came and told the truth, and some of the victims said wait a minute. We need more than apologies. These people should be in jail.
Ms. DICKINSON: Right. But I think it's generally acknowledged that that worked, that, like, hearing the truth helped heal relatively quickly this incredibly drastic situation.
CONAN: I wonder, Paul Slansky, that's about the greatest example of public apology, collective public apology, that I can think of.
Mr. SLANSKY: Well, doesn't the government occasionally apologize for things like slavery or, you know, taking the land from the Indians and stuff. Every once in a while, some official, you know, body will issue some apology and, you know, maybe on Black History Month or something like that.
CONAN: Last month, in fact, the state of Virginia issued its, not apology, but profound regret for its role in slavery.
Mr. SLANSKY: Right, and profound regret is just a notch below an actual apology. I think - but getting back from the rehab thing we were talking about, though, I think my favorite one recently was the Mark Foley incident, where after he was caught with the Internet porn stuff he immediately rushed into rehab and blamed alcoholism. And it was like in some cases really you'd rather be known as an alcoholic than whatever the other thing was that your offense reveals you as.
CONAN: And also that he'd been abused as a child himself. So anyway, Jason, thanks very much for the call.
JASON: Thank you.
CONAN: So long. Let's go to Kathy. Kathy's with us from North Carolina.
KATHY (Caller): Hi.
KATHY: Well the other night I hit someone with my car. She's my neighbor and I had a run-in with her about her letting her dog poop in my yard and I asked her not to. And then she did it again, so I kind of got a little bit ill with her. And, you know, a few weeks went on. She stayed out of the yard with her dog, but Saturday I bumped her with my car when I was backing out of my driveway; it was night and I didn't see her. And I went back to ask her if she was okay and she absolutely said to me: Go away, get away from me. She got up and she walked home. Well I called 911 and had them come out, make sure she was okay, and the police - and they wrote the report.
But I talked to her husband and she was like, go away, go away. So I mean she won't let me apologize. I did today send her some flowers.
CONAN: Probably a first good step, right, Amy?
Ms. DICKINSON: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, I don't always like flowers, fruit baskets, whatever, because sometimes they think it's sort of like you're floundering around and it's apology overkill. But in this case I think that's a great idea. But you should also write her a note. I mean, there's some bad stuff going on between you, and actually it sounds like things were better and then this happened. And then you - I think you should try and craft a very sincere, genuine note to her along with, of course, you have to express your desire to become cordial again.
KATHY: Okay. It's very awkward for me. I don't know - (unintelligible) I did send her a card with the flowers that said I'm truly sorry, I hope you'll forgive me. I mean, I didn't know what else to say to her, though.
CONAN: Maybe two tickets to the demolition derby?
(Soundbite of laughter)
KATHY: Yeah, that would be good. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Kathy. Let's go now to - this is John Paul. John Paul's with us from St. Paul in Minnesota.
JOHN PAUL (Caller): Yes, I was wondering of this trend of accepting responsibility's going to extend to class-action lawsuit settlements where generally the corporation denies all responsibility but pays off people.
CONAN: Well, that's sort of a legal situation and they sort of agree to the settlement in part so they don't have to say anything. Right, Paul Slansky?
Mr. SLANSKY: Well, you often find with the corporations that they don't actually apologize in those words because that is somehow or another seen as, you know, accepting blame. And, you know, for the future lawsuits that'll come, they tend not to do that. I mean, I think with the Tylenol incident it was so clear that there was a problem that there was no way around it. But there are things like - I think Firestone and the tires years ago. You know, they issued a statement that was not really an apology because, again, the apology would have been to...
CONAN: Would open them to lawsuits.
Mr. SLANSKY: Would open them to lawsuits more than they wanted to be.
Ms. DICKINSON: You know what...
CONAN: It doesn't mean it wasn't mealy-mouthed; it just opened them to lawsuits.
JOHN PAUL: Another quick question: What do you suggest people do when they truly aren't sorry but everyone around them is calling for them to apologize?
Ms. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, that happens a lot. I mean, I see this a lot in my column where it's - I guess if you aren't sorry, don't apologize. But, you know, there are consequences to that.
Ms. SLANSKY: Exactly. Line Ann Coulter for example. She said sorry.
CONAN: And she's not apologizing.
Ms. SLANSKY: She's not apologizing and the rest of us get to judge her on that.
CONAN: John Paul, thanks for the call. Appreciate it.
JOHN PAUL: Bye.
CONAN: And Paul Slansky, I wanted to thank you for your time today. We thank you for coming in.
Mr. SLANSKY: It was my pleasure.
CONAN: Paul Slansky, a regular contributor to the New Yorker magazine, author of "My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior that Inspired Them." If you'd like to see a short video inspired by his book, you can go to our Web site at npr.org/talk, and he joins us today from our studios at NPR West in Culver City.
Sometimes you need a little help composing a proper apology. Robert Stevens is the owner of WriteExpress.com, which provides templates for composing the perfect apology. Robert Stevens joins us now from member station KUER in Salt Lake City. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. ROBERT STEVENS (WriteExpress.com): Hello, Neal. I'm happy to be here.
CONAN: And there's a whole different kind of - the list of different apologies that you have in here - apologize for a defective product, apologize for missed deadline, all the way to apologizing for hurt feelings or a betrayed trust. How did you come up with this list?
Mr. STEVENS: You know, what we did was we looked at every article and book and software, any information which we could locate. At the time that we originally did our research the Internet was not available. Since then we've used the Internet, and you know, what we had to do was to hire lots of writers who had a lot of history in how you would write certain apologies under certain situations.
CONAN: And so you have a list of alternate words that can be used in various circumstances like - and phrases too.
Mr. STEVENS: Yes, we do. What we do in our software is we offer you step-by-step instructions how you write the letter and sample sentences and phrases for each of the steps.
CONAN: And so all of these various phrases pop up. I am so sorry. I'm eternally in your - you know, various, all things. I didn't see the word mortified in there though.
Mr. STEVENS: Mortified. I'll add it, Neal.
CONAN: Okay, we came up with a sample apology to use your template with. Let's say somebody has to apologize to a colleague, John, for accidentally revealing something personal about him in a meeting. And this would, I guess, fall into the category of betrayed trust, correct?
Mr. STEVENS: Uh-huh. Okay, excellent.
CONAN: And so we looked at your template, we plugged it in and we went through the steps and here is what we came up with. Robert?
Mr. STEVENS: Okay.
CONAN: Go ahead.
Mr. STEVENS: I don't have it here in front of me.
CONAN: You don't have it there in front of you.
Mr. STEVENS: I thought you had it in front of you, Neal.
CONAN: Well, I'm going to have it in front of me shortly.
Mr. STEVENS: Okay. That sounds great.
Ms. DICKINSON: You know what? You know what I love about this?
CONAN: I'm sorry about this. Anyway, go ahead.
Ms. DICKINSON: There's something very old-fashioned about this. You know how in those old like Restoration comedies somebody is always hiring - like Cyrano de Bergerac?
Ms. DICKINSON: You know, somebody is always secretly writing something for someone else. I love the idea of - it's a very, very old, old-fashioned idea of sort of letting somebody else provide the words for you to say to express something very personal. It's really sweet.
CONAN: It is also a throwback to the idea of sending a letter.
Ms. DICKINSON: Ah, yes. A letter.
CONAN: You know, those are - this is a lost art, the, you know, the handwritten note, even if your handwriting isn't so great.
Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, there's nothing like it. And frankly, I'm shocked that they don't have the word mortified in there because mortified is exactly the word to use if you have embarrassed yourself in the process of embarrassing someone else.
CONAN: We're going to - we're talking with Amy Dickinson and Paul Slansky about the art of the apology and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.
And Paul Slansky, we're still looking for that copy of the apology. This is insane. I have to apologize for that. So in the meantime, why don't we get another caller on the line, and this is going to be Kevin. Kevin is with us from Williamsburg in Virginia.
KEVIN (Caller): Hi. I'm coming to you today in my favorite role, which is that from devil's advocate. And I just think that when you talk about apologies and as we fall all over ourselves trying to figure out ways to say I'm sorry, it's important to define good reasons not to say I'm sorry. And the first example that popped into my head was Rosa Parks. I'm really glad she didn't apologize, regardless of what people around her expected her to do. And there's a lot of examples of that.
CONAN: Well, Rosa Parks -
KEVIN: It's important for in that you don't apologize for things you believe in.
CONAN: What we're just saying, Ann Coulter is not going to apologize for what she believes in, however much everybody else may want her to. Nevertheless, you shouldn't apologize for everything. Correct, Amy?
Ms. DICKINSON: Correct. Although, you know, in my work as an advice columnist, I get a lot of letters, for instance, about infidelity. Now, here's a classic case. Let's say a woman is unfaithful to her husband and the husband can't get over it. And the woman says, I apologized. What does he want from me? I already said I'm sorry.
Well, you know what? It takes more than that. Sometimes other people need for you to find all sorts of ways to not only express but demonstrate how sorry you are.
CONAN: Now, we have - we have now gotten our copy of the letter that we ran through the template through Robert Steven's Web site at WriteExpress.com. And this is the sample letter.
John, this is the hardest letter I've ever written. I feel terrible that I let Jane know you were going through a divorce. I foolishly mentioned it without thinking. I obviously said too much. I don't blame you for being very upset with me. I can only ask your forgiveness and try to make it up to you somehow. I value your friendship very much and hope it can continue in spite of my stupidity.
Amy, what do you think?
Ms. DICKINSON: Awesome. Honestly.
Mr. STEVENS: Thank you, Amy.
Ms. DICKINSON: That is - that's terrific. It's got it all. You know, it admits. It frames, you know, he - a lot of people when they apologize, they can't bring themselves to say what they did, the bad thing that they did. It does that really well. It frames the action and it asks for forgiveness, and then it offers - and this is where the JetBlue CEO did such a good job - you know, it's enough to say we're sorry, we're sorry, we're sorry, we admit it. But then he gave people a reason to come back to his company. You know, he gave them refunds and money. Yeah, that's very good.
CONAN: I just wanted to read some of the sample phrases that we are talking about on the WriteExpress.com site. Sorry about thoughtless disclosure. Told me you did not want - totally slipped my mind - truly sorry - I told Jane - was not supposed to - wished there was a way to - confidential - before I - were you getting into depression when you were writing down these phrases, Robert?
Mr. STEVENS: No, we weren't. However, we tried to look at every single situation and to make sure that we had some sentences and phrases that the customers who use the product would be able to reuse.
Ms. DICKINSON: Do you know that one -
Mr. STEVENS: Sometimes we have to alter the words -
Mr. STEVENS: - just a little bit, but it's reusable.
CONAN: Robert Stevens. Thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate your coming into Salt Lake to join us.
Mr. STEVENS: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Robert Stevens is the author of WriteExpress.com. He joined us from member station KUER in Salt Lake City.
Let me remind you, a little later in the program we'll be discussing Hallmark's new line of cards for situations like divorce or chemo; they're Journey series. We're asking you to write your own journeys cards and send them to us at npr.org. No cheating in using a template now. Write your own and send them to us. We'll be back after a break.
It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
And let's continue now, the art of apology. Our guest is Amy Dickinson of Ask Amy fame. She writes that syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. If you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
And Amy, here's an e-mail we got from Jonathan in Portland, Oregon.
While in a small punk rock bar in Tokyo a middle-aged Japanese businessman with whom I've been sharing drinks with leaned over to me and said, I am sorry for Pearl Harbor. I was obviously taken aback by this statement. I was born in 1977, and I then proceeded to apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are things that you could be totally taken aback by.
Ms. DICKINSON: You know what? I love that. I love that story. One of my favorite apology stories that I read recently has to do with, I think it was the island of Fiji, where in the 1800s some of the natives killed and then consumed a British missionary. You know, they ate him.
Ms. DICKINSON: Generations later, the descendants of this missionary came back to the islands and the descendants of both sides of this met. And they shared this ritual apology and forgiveness. And even though that may sound silly or like way out after the fact, I actually love that idea of saying no, you didn't participate in Pearl Harbor, but your country did. And while we're at it, I'm ashamed of this. Yeah, I love that.
CONAN: Forgiveness, that's the interesting part of it; the other half, in a way. And sometimes I guess forgiveness is harder than the apology.
Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, forgiveness is - it's the toughest ticket there is.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Mike, Mike with us from Salem, Oregon.
MIKE (Caller): Hello. How are you doing, Neal?
CONAN: Very well, thank you.
MIKE: Thank you very much for your program. I appreciate it. I listen almost every day.
CONAN: Well, thank you for that.
MIKE: I have a question for Amy, and also, although Robert has left the scene, the question might also apply to him. A derivation of the term my bad. I mean I have to confess I'm a baby boomer and I'm over 50, so I might be out of touch with some modern terminology. But it seems to me that that term my bad just rings with insincerity. Whatever happened to actually being able to use the words my fault or my mistake.
It seems to me that we are - as a nation we are so ego-oriented that we, that we just can't get away from the my, the I thing, and we don't even want to admit something that is really our fault. Can Amy shed some light on this?
Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. You know what, you've totally put your finger on what's going on with that phrase. It's like, it's like the equivalent of whatever. You know, it's this ironically comment on something that somebody wants to hold completely at arms length, and I detest it, frankly.
CONAN: Well, I thought it originated on the playground, and my bad might be appropriate for throwing a pass away as opposed to your teammate, but it's probably not appropriate for something more serious than that.
MIKE: Well, it seems that we just, we just try to go to a shorthand term for practically everything these days. I mean, my wife would be the first one on the Earth to call me verbose, but if I offend her in some way, my bad just isn't going to get it. I mean, it's totally insincere.
And I like what Amy had to say about forgiveness. It is very difficult sometimes to actually bring yourself to say something for which you want to ask forgiveness.
Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, completely. It's very, very challenging. And of course when you ask for someone's forgiveness, then there's that gaping maw where you're waiting for it. And you may not get it. And I - one thing I like about asking for forgiveness is it's this incredibly humbling experience. It's very, very humbling.
MIKE: Well, and that's very true. And that was part of my point too. It just seems that - that all the advertising in the world points, points to whatever you can do to make yourself feel the best. And so that a humbling experience is probably the last experience we want to take part in on the face of the Earth.
Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. You know, when we have kids and they're little, say they're two and three and they start to do things that are purposeful and maybe not so good, we teach them to say I'm sorry. But we also need to teach them to say - to reflect on what they did and to acknowledge that it hurt someone else. So it's not enough - you know, I lived in England for years, and when people brush past you in England, they'll say sorry, sorry, and I always felt like no you're not, you know.
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Ms. DICKINSON: So not so much.
MIKE: Exactly, exactly. I think you made a very good point there, because it generally takes some time to really think about something, and some of the examples that you used of people actually writing letters, nowadays even Eddie would probably say that an apology should not really take place in an e-mail if you're proper about your feelings and proper about your respect for the other person offended, that you would actually take the time to have a conversation with them face to face, or one step removed from that would maybe be actually writing them a letter or a card of some type.
Speaking of cards, I hope we don't see a Hallmark with a my bad on the front of it. Thank you so much for your comments.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Mike. We're going to be talking about Hallmark cards in just a moment. But I wanted to end this segment, another e-mail. Amy, this is from Connie in Middleton, Idaho. Whenever my husband and I have a little tiff, I just wait a few minutes, put on a contrite look, and I say to him, I'm really sorry you're so hard to get along with. We both laugh, and then it's over.
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Ms. DICKINSON: I like that. My husband and I used to do this thing where I would say, you know, my lawyer would like to speak to your lawyer and issue an official apology on my behalf. I mean it was a way of like cutting through the - and sort of laughing about something. Yeah, I love that.
CONAN: Amy, thanks very much.
Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you.
CONAN: Amy Dickinson joined us from the Aspen Opera House courtesy of the folks at Chicago Public Radio. She writes the syndicated column Ask Amy for the Chicago Tribune, and she'll be here to answer your question every other week on TALK OF THE NATION.
If you have a question for Ask Amy, ask her. E-mail us, email@example.com, or post a comment on our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation, all one word.