Odds and …

This penultimate page contains a couple of miscellaneous items that I couldn’t find another home for on the website:

  • Framing an apology
  • Accepting a suggestion

I may add to the list over time. If you want to be notified of any future additions, please follow the instruction on the final page of the site.

Framing an apology

It’s disappointing to see how often people give an ineffectual apology. The classic of the genre that I see frequently these days – especially following an offensive remark on social media – is an apology that looks like this:

I apologise if anyone was offended

If you’re someone who uses that form of apology, you may not see anything wrong with it. But, if you’ve been on the receiving end of offensive remarks and been apologised to like that, you’ll probably recognise that it doesn’t feel anything like a fulsome apology. Compare it with this:

I apologise to everyone who was offended

The two versions are almost identical in their words, but wildly different in their impact. In both cases, the writer says they “apologise” and, in both cases, the apology is directed to the same group of people: those who were offended. But there is a difference – a very big difference. The first version uses the word “if” to raise the suggestion that perhaps no one was actually offended. Or that no one should have been offended. It’s a tiny word, but it’s big enough to tell us that the writer doesn’t really accept that they have done anything wrong.

Another really awful form of apology is:

I’m sorry you feel that way

This is so bad that it isn’t actually an apology at all. The words “I’m sorry” are being used here with the alternative meaning of: “I’m sad” (as in “I’m sorry for your loss”). The author of this supposed apology is actually expressing their disappointment at the way you are feeling, not their remorse for making you feel that way. It’s a cheap trick, but it’s not an effective one. Almost no one is taken in by it. My advice would always be: don’t try it.

Not surprisingly, a lot of research has gone into the subject of apologies: how to apologise; when to do so. I particularly like the suggestion that there are seven potential ingredients for an effective apology:

  •  Apology (“I’m sorry”)
  •  Request for forgiveness (“Please forgive me”)
  •  Acknowledgment of mistake (“I was frustrated and I took my frustration out on you”)
  •  Remorse (“I feel terrible!”)
  •  Self-castigation (“I can’t believe these words even came out of my mouth”)
  •  Offer of help (“I will do whatever I can to rectify the situation”)
  •  Promise to do better (“In future, I promise to think before I speak”)

You don’t have to include all seven ingredients in every apology. That would be way over the top, especially for more minor transgressions. But the more serious the violation, the further the apology should probably go. So choose your ingredients wisely!

Be particularly careful with the third ingredient (acknowledgement of mistake). In the article I linked to above as my source, the writer labels this ingredient as an “explanation”. I don’t like that description in this context because an explanation can easily become an excuse or, worse, an opportunity to pass some of the blame back to the person you are supposed to be apologising to. So I prefer the label “acknowledgment.”

This, for example, acknowledges a weakness in the speaker’s own behaviour and could well form part of an apology:

I was frustrated and I took my frustration out on you

But, in this next version, the extra words provide an explanation for why the writer was frustrated and, in doing so, they undermine any apology that the writer was attempting:

I was frustrated that you made us late and I took my frustration out on you

If you want to tell someone that their behaviour (in this case, their lateness) has consequences for your mood, that’s perfectly OK. But you shouldn’t kid yourself that it has any place in an apology.

I recently came across an elegant way to combine remorse with a request for forgiveness:

I hope you will forgive me sooner than I forgive myself

Accepting a suggestion

Most people welcome an opportunity to improve how they do things. So a constructive suggestion could be warmly received. But it doesn’t always work out like that.

Too often, the person on the receiving end of a suggestion treats it as a criticism and feels compelled to explain why their current behaviour is what it is, even if they intend to accept the suggestion. I see this a lot in business, especially when customers give a constructive response to a request for feedback.

It’s not always possible to act on a suggestion. Or maybe you just don’t want to. But, if you accept an idea that someone has sent your way, it makes so much more sense to say “Thank you. I will take that idea up” than it does to explain why you weren’t doing it previously.

Here is an example based on a personal experience dealing with a government department. My attempt to get some information by telephone was met with an automated system that, in the case of my particular query, forced me into a black hole. Despite several attempts, I simply could not find any option that either answered my question or put me through to a human being. I was left with no alternative: I had to submit my query in writing. I took the opportunity to point out the glitch in their phone system.

I got a written answer to my query. And then, a little while later, I received a follow-up from a “Customer Relations Advisor”. This is how it began:

Thank you for your email of 15 June about the difficulties you encountered when trying to contact us by telephone. I am sorry you had to write to us because our automated telephone system failed to meet your requirements when you telephoned us.

I realise that automated telephone systems are by no means popular and many customers would prefer to speak directly to a member of staff. However, because of the high volumes of telephone enquiries we receive, we use the automated system to help manage the demand.

The response, so far, is polite. It’s seeking to empathise with the predicament I found myself in. But notice how the writer has started to defend the concept of automated telephone systems, even though I didn’t challenge their use. I had written to the department to tell them that their system didn’t work for people in my situation. But the writer was being defensive and, what’s more, they were on a roll. The response continued:

We have tried to cover the most frequently asked questions that affect the majority of customers’ lives and the system is designed to allow customers to define their enquiry with a series of yes/no questions. Using this technique, we are able to provide answers that are relevant to their enquiry. If the enquiry is not of a general nature and specific information is required, there are ‘for anything else’ options in the menus to speak to an advisor.

Did any of that address the issue I had raised? No. Does it do anything other than defend the system they have been using? No. Did it undermine the sense of empathy that had been generated in the earlier part of the answer? Yes.

Then came a possible improvement:

However, it is clear that the system failed to respond to your requirements.

That looks like an acknowledgment that the system had failed to offer me the option to speak to an adviser although, at the time, I did wonder whether the writer was suggesting that my “requirements” were too demanding. But something better was to follow:

We have recently conducted a review of the automated system and have made a decision to replace it.

Finally! But look how long it had taken to get there. And then the writer reverted to giving me information that didn’t address my point:

One of the changes is that the system will now only cover the top 5 most frequently asked questions and will be much smaller than the current one. Timings show that it takes half the time to navigate the proposed system than the current one.

… before turning, at last, to the specific issue I had written about:

For other enquiries, customers will be able to speak to an advisor.

And then, to close:

It is important that we hear about the service we provide as this tells us how we are doing and helps us identify areas where we can improve.

I have therefore passed your feedback to colleagues to take forward. Once again, thank you for letting us have your views.

That was quite a long slog for me (and now you) to get through. How much simpler it would have been just to say that they recognised the current system was broken and were in the process of replacing it. Finding the words to accept a well-intentioned suggestion should be easy:

Thank you for your email of 15 June about the difficulties you encountered with our automated telephone system when you tried to contact us.

We have recently conducted a review of the system and have made a decision to replace it. I have passed your specific feedback to the relevant colleagues to take into account.

The current system does include options in the menu to speak to an advisor. But it is clear from your experience that it is possible to navigate through the system without that option ever coming up. We will remedy that.

Thank you for your suggestion.

That would have required a lot less writing time from the Customer Relations Adviser – and a lot less reading time from me.

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Pauline Armitage

Guarding language, use of the conditional, it’s so common in apologies and I’m glad you’ve highlighted it. A particularly irritating announcement purporting to be an apology is: “We are sorry to announce that the 1753 Southern service to London Bridge has been cancelled. We apologise for any inconvenience to your journey this may cause”