Friday, June 12, 2009

I'm sorry. No, really.

I'm sooooooo sorry.

I apologize to about 100 people a week. When school's in session, it's more like 500.

Of these apologies, about half are for things that I really believe that I've done wrong. The other half, I'm saying "sorry," while thinking, "I really didn't do anything wrong, but if this is what you need to move on..."

Why? The life of a college instructor demands it, and - let's face it - I'm a man, and my species isn't known for its thoughtful introspection or listening skills. So, if you think I've wronged you - fair enough, maybe I did. "I'm sorry."

When you're an instructor, you're standing up in front of a group of people talking, talking, talking all day, every day, and you're prone to put your foot in your mouth from time to time, get ticked at someone who's not listening, or tell a "hilarious" joke. And it's all happening in "real time," which means you don't get a second take. Just like Jack Bauer on 24 - oh, wait: he does get a second take, lucky guy. Kiefer, not so much.

My grade 12 computer teacher, Mr. Yoshida, once accidentally said, "Fuck," instead of "function," and the class cried with laughter for about an hour, give or take 10 minutes. No one demanded an apology - it was accidental, and to err is human, right? Poor guy.

I once noticed a student sitting glumly at the back of the room, with a hood pulled down over her eyes, sunglasses on, and body language that said, "stay away." I didn't. Instead, I said - hilariously - "What's wrong? Didn't your lawn mower start today?" A pretty innocuous version of the Corn Flakes line, I thought.

I apologized the next day for singling her out - guilty! - and for "pointing out her age," which she felt the lawn mower reference was designed to do - not guilty! But while I was in the neighborhood, I figured I'd apologize for that as well.

The apology was accepted, and we became best friends for all time, which is what usually happens when you "suck it up."

Apologies are a growth industry

Demand for apologies seems to be going up: see Letterman's non-apology apology to Sarah Palin this week, above. It's funny that we want more people to apologize to us, when we know that our own apologies are empty at least half of the time.

Part of what's happening, I think, is that we're seeing a collective "thinning of the skin" in society in general - we're feeling wronged more, and we want people to apologize more. It's almost "revenge by apology," where we feel that we "win" if the person who wronged us has to apologize. The more public the apology, the better the revenge.

There are times I dig my heels in and won't apologize, but they're pretty infrequent, and usually only when:

1. I know that the motivation of the person who wants an apology is to get revenge (these are the people who go "above your head" before discussing the problem with you).

2. When the person did something to motivate my supposed "wrong" (like skipping three classes in a semester, which causes me to do exactly what I say I'm going to do).

3. Or when the person uses the classic card-stacking technique, "Everyone thinks that you're unapproachable and unfair! It's not just me!"

Otherwise, take a number, and get in line. Apologies on the house!

The stand-up comedy apology

Before I was a college instructor, I was a stand-up comic. To this day, I'm surprised at the thin skin of stand-up comics, who can go onstage and offer a no holds barred, public attack on anyone and anything, only to cry like little babies when insulted themselves. Hypocrites, all!

Update: Dave Shorr has provided me with a link to great online discussion on that very topic here.

Of course, comedians are also called on to apologize for their jokes from time to time (like Letterman). It's a tricky business.

Sometimes the apology is warranted: like the comedian who confidently tells a joke about a local tragedy, only to find out that there's a family member of the victim in the audience. Sometimes it's not: the staff of a flight company felt wronged when my friend told a joke about the safety of the airline - after one of its flights had crashed. Sorry, that's the airline's fault. Wait - was that an apology?!

Sometimes, it's not clearcut. Once, a fine local comic, who is Metis, but looks white, told jokes about attending a sweat lodge ceremony. The jokes were great - but the audience didn't buy his Metis heritage. Two audience members gave him a lecture after the show, and he looked crestfallen. I think he apologized.

I'm sorry that you're an idiot

There's a famous story about Canadian stand-up impresario Mark Breslin. He received a letter of complaint about a joke told by one of his comics. He called the comic into his office and said, "Did you tell this joke?"

"Yes, I did," said the comic.

"I thought so."

He pulled out a stamp from his drawer, applied it to the letter, and sent it back to the sender. It said, "Fuck you."

If you find yourself apologizing more and more, this might help. It's Vanity Fair's all-purpose public mea culpa:

I'm sorry if this blog offended anyone.

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