IN general I am in favor of punctilio; the brittle forms and empty rites of polite usage, ‘ by your leave ’ and if you please ’ and the exchange of compliments, are a necessary screen and a becoming veil to the naked egos that live in the world together. But I can dispense with apologies. I learned something of the essential nature of the apology at an early age.
My parents were hard put to it to think of punishments for their children; they were squeamish, and did n’t like to beat us; they disapproved of denying us dessert or shutting us in dark closets because it ran in our family to be thin and afraid of the dark and they hesitated to encourage either tendency; and to keep us home from a party was not a punishment, because we were farouche and preferred to stay at home. But they discovered one day that it humbled our proud spirits to be made to apologize, and from then on we were sent on solemn missions of self-abasement to the cook, the French teacher, ladies who called on our mother, the postman, the man whose door-knocker we took on Halloween.
They rather overdid the thing. We hated it at first; it made us feel silly to say we were sorry for something we had done on purpose; it made us feel abused to say we were sorry for something we had not intended as an overt act; we felt our position in either case to be weak and ridiculous. But, being average bright and adaptable children, we learned in time to wring a little amusement from these trying situations in which we found ourselves so often. We learned to apologize so offensively that the breach we were sent to heal was irreparably widened. There were several ways of doing this: there was the rather crude way of tendering the olive branch in a surly and hostile manner with the lower lip stuck out; there was the more irritating and slightly more subtle way of being specious, wordy, and obviously insincere. We became more fluent and objectionable with practice; we began to enjoy it, and sought out occasions to apologize. Many offenses which would have passed unnoticed were in this way turned into permanent rifts.
For we learned rather soon that the man who apologizes is in the saddle; he has the whip hand of a situation that is from first to last of his own making, and power can go no further. You do someone a wrong, which makes you dislike him and wish to annoy him further; so you stand on his doorstep and refresh his memory of the harm you have done him, poking up the wound. You say you never meant to do it, which is either untrue or evidence that you are rather absent-minded about his welfare. You say you are sorry you hurt his feelings, which is presumptuous. Then, having added insult to injury, having virtually had your picture taken with your foot on his chest, you expect him to acknowledge you have done the handsome thing, to kiss you ou both cheeks and invite you to dinner.
Not that we had any such ridiculous expectations; we knew the uses of apology, and that conciliation was not one of them. If we did a wrong to someone we were fond of, we were not so reckless of his affections as to apologize; we allowed a decent interval of silence to elapse, so that his resentment might be dulled, and then we gave him a present. We had a sound instinct that words were the wrong medicine; better go softly and let it all pass, and then make a concrete gesture of good will that anyone could understand. There was an element of bribery in this, but bribery is the essence of human amenities. Animals and children have too much social sense to apologize. Cats stand around and insult you, showing they don’t care, but permitting you a little human dignity; dogs lower their tail, avoid your eye, and hide; children, being higher in the scale, offer you a bribe. . . .
We learned the underlying insolence of the apology, and that the more elaborate form was the more insulting. It would be unreasonable to suspect the sincerity of the man who mutters ‘ Sorry ’ in a hangdog way when he steps on your foot; this is merely a routine acknowledgment of an unintentional offense. But when a friend says, ‘ My dear, I can’t tell you how sorry I was not to look you up when I was in town; I had been looking forward to seeing you, but I was so frightfully busy’ (follows a list of engagements, detailed and tedious); ‘I thought about you continually, and up to the last minute I meant to telephone you, etc.,’ you are justified in sulking. The offender, by way of conciliation, makes the following unlikable assumptions: that you are so unreasonable you cannot take it for granted that people’s plans are subject to change, so spoiled that you demand constant attention, so frail that you mope when neglected; that the offender is so kind he would n’t hurt a fly, so frank and handsome that he is ever ready to admit his delinquency, so popular that he is full of engagements. All these assumptions may be true, but they are not soothing.
The innocuous apology in such an instance is to say briskly and without transition, ‘I am sorry I missed seeing you. Did you know the Chalmers’ bought a new horse?’ — which releases the injured person from saying, ‘That’s all right, really it’s quite all right,’ in an embarrassed and monotonous refrain, strophe and antistrophe. The more rambling, effusive, and ornamental form is the highest expression of egotism; the injured one is reduced to the position of listener, willy-nilly; he is not permitted to explain that he was, as a matter of fact, busy and happy all the time he was being neglected because the apologizer is having too much fun being remorseful. He has not only enjoyed the pleasure of doing as he pleases at our expense, but also works himself into a lather over our injured feelings, enjoying every minute that he is pouring salt into the wound. He knows we are bound by the rules of the silly game; we must swallow our rage and pretend that everything is all right now. Mate in two moves.
The innocuous apology is to be inarticulate, avoid the appearance of cheerfulness, and send flowers; the appeasing and assuaging apology is a divine inspiration which cannot be counterfeited. An ill-fated and awkward young man once paid a call on an old lady whose father had been an ambassador to a foreign court where he had been presented with a tea set by an emperor. The old lady naturally cherished this relic (which was her favorite topic of conversation), but, not realizing her young friend’s lack of physical coördination, she served tea out of it while he was calling on her. He, to point a moral and adorn a tale, made one of his sweeping and unpredictable gestures which endangered the welfare of anything within reach, and smashed a large proportion of the imperial souvenir. He turned quite white, started to his feet, and stumbled blindly toward an open window. ‘My God, Mrs. Ransom!’ he said. ‘Shall I kill myself?’ This apology had a deserved success. The old lady appeared for a moment to toy with the idea of permitting him to throw himself out of her window, but perhaps, like Walter Savage Landor, she thought of the violets — and perhaps she was moved by his evident sincerity. In any case she forgave him. The amends he suggested was, after all, adequate; it showed a sense of values.
A good rule to remember is the simple mathematical formula of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; if you have done a really salient wrong you must be prepared to do something rather striking in the way of amends, or let it all go. Unless you are hunting for trouble. In that event, in the words of Roget, extenuate, palliate, excuse, varnish, slur, gloze, put a good face upon, gloss over, propugn, rue, regret, recant, plead guilty, sing miserere, cry peccavi, beg pardon, etc., etc.