The Sorriest Word in the Language

The Sorriest Word in the Language June 2, 2011

My friend Rick is like an ancient manuscript in an obscure and long-dead language. His meaning, more often than not, is profound, but grasping that meaning can require a long and frustrating process of guesswork. One day he told me: “You know what word I _______ hate? What word I wish I could rip out of everyone’s throat? ‘Sorry’. It’s the most retarded word in the English language.”

His opinion on the word “Sorry” was clear enough, but when I asked him what, exactly, made it retarded, he sputtered and clawed the air with such fury that I was afraid he’d swallow his tongue. I felt so bad, I almost said the forbidden word myself, and decided to let the question remain a mystery.

5 Reasons Not to Apologize, Craig Hembusch makes a go at unraveling it — and fails. In listing five types of situation where apologies are inappropriate, he helps out only the kind of palpitating neurotic who apologizes compulsively. (The British are said to apologize when people step on their feet. Let someone re-print this in the Times of London.) What makes apologies potentially so toxic is their way of causing resentment even in the people to whom they’re rightfully owed.

When you get down to it, an apology is a social ritual with a very rigid pattern of call and response. You say “Sorry”; the other person — either right away, or at some length — says, it’s okay,” “Don’t worry about it,” or whatever (or, indeed, “Whatever”). To apologize, then, is to corner someone. Refusing an apology is as difficult as ignoring a proffered hand, or ducking an air kiss — it can be done, but at inestimable cost to the feng shui of the whole situation.

Forcing an absolution is especially sneaky when the motive behind it is a desire to escape some kind of retribution. If he could find the words, Rick could tell you all about this. He runs a direct-marketing phone room; many of his employees are ex- or future convicts. One day, he caught a phone rep sneaking a few hits off a crack pipe in one of the men’s room stalls. The man’s cries — “I’M SORRY, RICK! I’M SORRY! DON’T FIRE ME, RICK! I’M SORRY!” rang off the walls and reached all the way to the sales floor. Peter Lorre himself couldn’t have pleaded so pitiably with the gendarmes at his back.

Rick had exactly two words for the man, and they weren’t “Te absolvo.”

At other times, the harm done may be so grave that issues of right and wrong are beside the point. One time, after Rick and I had boozed the night away, I woke up in his guest bedroom to feel his vodka, his beer and his nachos with his special Maui salsa verde with jalapenos and ground pineapple hurtling up my esophagus. By the time it forced its way out, I was in his bathroom, but alas, not quite over the toilet. The evening’s entertainment splashed all over the shower curtain his wife had bought at Bed Bath and Beyond for over $80.

I know the price because at that moment, Rick barged in and screamed, “MY WIFE BOUGHT THAT SHOWER CURTAIN AT BED BATH AND BEYOND! IT COST OVER $80!”

The reason I’m alive, typing this, is because I found the good sense not to say, “Sorry.” Instead, I helped him clean up the mess in a stony silence. After waking up early the next morning, I drove to an ATM and took out $100. Slipping back through Rick’s front door, I left the bills on the kitchen island, wrapped in a sheet of notebook paper — blank notebook paper. Then I drove home.

Rick didn’t call me the next week, which he would almost certainly have done, had things gone differently. Neither did I call him. After another week went by, I saw his number on my caller ID. I picked up, knowing what was coming. “Hey, Maximus,” he said, chipper as anything. “Wanna come over for some cocktails?” (This was his euphemism for “boilermakers.”) I allowed I did. This time around, we juggled the order of the refreshments, and everything worked out fine.

Whatever the norms might be for sacramental confession, nothing helps two people reconcile like a well-timed conciliatory gesture, a bit of breathing space, and a firm purpose of amendment.

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