Saturday, June 12, 2010

We Apologize for the Inconvenience

Yesterday, while sitting in a doctor's office, I overheard a woman coming to a full rolling boil over a $12.00 surcharge. It was, I gathered, the final straw in a weighty bale of problems she'd suffered at the hands of the office staff, due largely to their indifference. She requested an audience with a supervisor, who listened quietly to her litany of complaints and then spoke the classic line, "We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused."

The line was delivered in a neutral tone that bespoke neither embarrassment nor contrition. If the supervisor was sorry, it was most likely a private sorrow for the time she'd spent away from her other duties and for having her ears scalded by someone with whom she had no real connection. It was a kind of corporate sorrow, on the same level as "We appreciate your cooperation" in circumstances where one has no choice but to cooperate or the endless thanks we receive for our patience while waiting on hold.

The scene brought into focus something I’d read recently. In Krista Tippett’s book Einstein’s God, she recounts an interview with Michael McCullough, professor of psychology and author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. In the interview, McCullough says a couple of interesting things,

“Anger in response to injustice is as reliable a human emotional response as happiness is to winning the lottery, or grief is to losing a loved one. And if you look at the brain of somebody who has just been harmed by someone . . . [it] looks exactly like the brain of somebody who is thirsty and is just about to get a sweet drink to drink or somebody who's hungry who's about to get a piece of chocolate to eat.”


“Apology is really important, because when I apologize to you for something I've done, you see me squirming. You see me uncomfortable. You see me trying to reassure you that I'm not going to harm you in the same way again. You see me giving you respect as a human being with feelings. And all of a sudden, I've turned on a lot of the slider switches that make forgiveness happen in your head.”

Receiving an apology, in other words, is from the brain’s point of view, the next best thing to getting revenge.

(Read the full transcript of the interview here.)

If we go back to our irate patient at the doctor’s office: she has been inconvenienced, has perhaps lost time and money, might be in some unnecessary pain and all because someone couldn’t be bothered to spend an extra minute or two doing their job. When confronting the supervisor, she has the expectation that the supervisor will be embarrassed and conciliatory, and may make an extraordinary effort to right the wrong.  Instead, she gets a canned statement of official apology that is perfunctory, pro forma and, while we’re using words that begin with ‘p’: kinda piss-ant. It did not produce the neurological equivalent of getting a piece of chocolate.

* * *

The Japanese have long lived with the consequences of crowding a large number of people into a relatively small space. When you are constantly rubbing up against others both physically and socially, it’s inevitable that you will offend and be offended on a fairly regular basis. Some hundreds of years ago, they decided that the best way to deal with these slights was not to whip out your sword and run the offender through, but to deliver apologies in a very formal and stylized manner. Here, authenticity of emotion can be successfully supplanted by words and gestures that are well understood by both the offender and the offended. This is the grease that soothes the gears of society and prevents the machine from overheating.

Here in the West, we have no such formal structure for that sort of, shall we say, pacifying insincerity. Like the Japanese, we’ve had our eras of using violence to settle scores (think: gunfighters of the Olde West or ganster/gansta vendettas) but the general trend of society has been toward reducing or removing violence from our disputes. If someone insults your gal, instead of saying, “Oh, yeah!” and punching the chump in the snoot, you might, what? flame him on Facebook? It’s never satisfactory and what it does is to rub the edges raw so that the next conflict might become violent – or the violence might come out in a different way; toward an innocent loved one or even toward ourselves.

It’s hard to say how best to go about fixing this problem. It is a given that there will be more and more of us in the same space as time goes on. We are already interacting with more strangers every day than was the case in the past and this means that everyone has to be on their best behavior in order to avoid misunderstandings and friction. Problems are showing up as a general increase in incivility, road rage, mass murder sprees and, yes, terror attacks. We cannot look to ‘the authorities’ to keep the less self-controlled in check – at least, not forever. So, what then?

I am going to suggest that we embark on a national – or perhaps even worldwide – program of educating people in civility. We certainly have the resources to do it with all of the media at our disposal. With the efforts of creative people brought to bear on the problem, it could be made palatable for the masses. But we really need to do something and it’s not a minute to soon.

For further reading:
Einstein’s God by Krista Tippett
Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct by Michael McCullough
Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct by P. M. Forni