Montreal — It happens that I share my life with someone who is unfailingly punctual: if you tell him you’ll pick him up at 7:30, he’ll be outside waiting by 7:20.
I am less punctual. I’m not chronically late, but I do tend to get to places at the last possible minute, mainly because I rarely build in for myself the margin for things going wrong that one ought to.
And so it was on a chilly, blustery Friday afternoon recently that I was 15 minutes late picking up my beloved, which meant he spent more than 20 minutes cooling his heels, quite literally, on an icy, windswept street corner. By the time he climbed into the car, his ears and feet were frozen to near-Popsicle state; the greeting I got was frosty, if not glacial.
I could have said, right off, that I was sorry I had kept him waiting. And I was. But I didn’t. I said the traffic had been heavy. It had been heavy. But hearing that only made him more irritated. Why, he asked, couldn’t I simply apologize?
Now, I’m not convinced that apologizing would have helped much right then: he was freezing and frustrated, and I wonder whether an apology, however heartfelt, would have mitigated his annoyance. A rebuke beginning along the lines of “You’re always late …” was bubbling up inside him, and it was going to come out, whatever I said.
As with so many things, timing is crucial in an apology. In her entertaining and brightly written new book about embracing our imperfections, “Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong” (Riverhead Books, $32.50), Alina Tugend cites a study that found that apologizing immediately is not necessarily good: for an apology to be effective, a person has to be ready to receive it. “They quote a colleague saying to someone who was apologizing, ‘Don’t apologize. I’m not done being mad at you,’” she writes.
The study, published in 2005 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, concluded that postponing an apology until the person who feels wronged has had a chance to feel heard — and understood — just might be the best way to right wrongs.
Convenient of me to cite such a study, of course: it’s me trying to defend my position. Truth is, I have a hard time apologizing. Does that mean I’m unwilling to take responsibility for my actions? To some degree, that’s true — but I think it’s more complicated: a considerate person would not leave someone waiting on a street corner (and since my beloved makes his way through life with no cellphone, he’s unable to call to ask, “Where the #$@% are you?”). And I want to think of myself as a considerate person. So I managed to convince myself, presto, change-o, that what I had done was no big deal, not wrong at all.
“Most Americans know they are supposed to say, ‘We learn from our mistakes,’ but deep down, they don’t believe it for a minute,” social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson observed in their 2008 book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).”
“They think that mistakes mean you’re stupid. … This attitude means that people treat mistakes like hot potatoes, eager to get rid of them as fast as possible.”
So for whatever reason, whether it was the dissonance that exists between these duelling views of myself, concern that an apology would be perceived as a sign of weakness (parenthetically, I note that my beloved rarely apologizes to me), or simply a reluctance to acknowledge that I’d done anything all that bad, I did not apologize.
“We all know the familiar cycle that grows out of this, especially in long-term relationships,” Tugend writes. “One person makes a minor mistake — forgets to pick up milk — and so someone else has to run out to get it. A brief, if sincere, apology would remedy the situation, but the person who forgot thinks it’s such a small slip it doesn’t warrant an apology. Anger brews. And so on.
“The point is, while it’s true that forgetting milk is not a federal case, an ‘I’m sorry’ acknowledges the other’s feeling of being slightly let down and slightly put out.”
Intellectually, we’re aware that apologizing and acknowledging our accountability would defuse the situation. And yet we don’t do it. Things escalate, and the original mistake “becomes completely clouded in the ensuing rage and resentment,” as Tugend puts it.
In the embers of the smouldering resentment that afternoon, I thought how much better it would have been to have acknowledged my mistake — first to myself, so I could forgive myself for it (because we are not perfect and we do screw up), and then to my beloved, who really did deserve an apology. Because I truly was sorry.