How To Apologise (For Snapping A Pencil)

Contrary to popular belief, I did sometimes get in to trouble at school.  I didn’t always, though, know how to apologise.

There was one teacher who I seemed to get in trouble with more than any other for no reason at all that I could see.  It’s rumoured that she was having a break down, although I’m unsure about whether that was just a case of putting all the evidence together and assuming she was, or whether she had been clinically diagnosed.

The first instance, if I’m pushed, I could maybe guess why it was a problem.  At the time, a UK supermarket called Farmfoods had this really catchy jingle on a TV advert.  We were in class and one of the girls walked in late carrying a Farmfoods carrier bag.  I pointed to it, turned to a friend and quietly whispered said jingle.

I was reprimanded with the usual “What’s so funny?” causing me to explain something that, even then, I wouldn’t have described as funny, and at the end of class was held back to apologise to the carrier bag owner.  Albiet I didn’t know what to apologise for.

“Umm, sorry for pointing at your bag and humming a tune…” I ventured.

I can only assume that that was good enough, because I can’t remember anything else.  I understand now that the bag contained “feminine products” and there’d been a bit of an issue of which I was unaware when I hummed the tune.

The same teacher also once gave me a lunchtime detention.  I was sat in class when my friend, who had forgotten to bring his pencil case, asked if he could borrow a pencil.  Only having one myself, I proceeded to snap mine in half.  I gave him one half and a pencil sharpener and the job was done.  Apparently, though, it would appear that there was a rule at school that you can’t snap pencils so, even having explained the circumstances and the fact that it was my pencil to snap in the first place, off I went to spend an hour stood outside a room in the science block.

As I was there, another teacher walked past and asked what I’d done.  “I snapped my pencil.”

“Ooh,”she said through pursed lips. “I hope you apologised.”

Now, I like to think I’m a reasonable and decent individual and, if I need to apologise, I do.  I’ve often been told that I apologise too much, but “sorry” is my default response to doing things like putting the crispy chilli beef spoon in the chow mein.  It’s less inflammatory than anything else I could think of.  Of course, “sorry” is also my default response for being told that I apologise too much, thus perpetuating the situation.

Earlier this year there was a study entitled “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies“.  It highlighted 6 key components:

  1. Expression of regret.
  2. Explanation of what went wrong.
  3. Acknowledgement of responsibility.
  4. Declaration of repentance.
  5. Offer of repair.
  6. Request for forgiveness.

When I looked at these and placed them over my humming, pencil snapping and over-apologising, the thought crossed my mind about whether I’d actually done something wrong at all if one component, except for the request for forgiveness, couldn’t be achieved.  If there was nothing to personally regret, nothing tangible to repair, nothing physically going wrong…

Frank Partnoy, the author of “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay” suggests that one of the best things to do is not always to apologise immediately, but to wait to give people chance to “yell and vent” and fully process what’s happened.

This is important when it comes to understanding why someone is upset.  It would help in achieving the two most important parts of the six as suggested by the research – accepting responsibility and offering repair.

I found “offering repair” interesting.  In the case of snapping my pencil, the offer of repair would be, presumably, sticking it back to together.  In the circumstances, though, I think this would probably have incited more arguments!

In my experience it’s rarely the physical act that people want you to apologise for, it’s hurt feelings or causing offense.

What have I got to do to make you love me
What have I got to do to make you care
What do I do when lightning strikes me
And I wake to find that you’re not there

What do I do to make you want me
What have I got to do to be heard
What do I say when it’s all over
And sorry seems to be the hardest word

It’s sad, so sad
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd
It’s sad, so sad
Why can’t we talk it over
Oh it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word

What do I do to make you love me
What have I got to do to be heard
What do I do when lightning strikes me
What have I got to do
What have I got to do
When sorry seems to be the hardest word

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word by Elton John


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