My missive on the nature and sincerity of apologies ran in the April 14 issue of the Times Colonist
When I was eight, I stuck a burr in Susan Rush’s hair.
If you’ve never met a burr, trust me when I say, you don’t want one near your hair. The only escape involves scissors or a razor.
The burr bush – that’s what we called them, although I imagine thistle is the more likely name – was in an empty lot next to my parent’s store in downtown Lake Cowichan.
I don’t know why I stuck the burr in her hair. She was my best friend, but at eight years old being a best friend didn’t inoculate you from petty jealousy and meanness. I think I knew I was being mean when I stuck the burr in Susan’s hair. I tried to remove it, but burrs are like quicksand and the harder you try the more they stick.
I immediately regretted my action, not because I hated that Susan had a burr in her hair, but because I knew there would be repercussions and I would have to apologize.
It would go like this:
Parent: “Say you’re sorry to Susan.”
Me, mumbling: “Sorry.”
Parent: “Say, ‘Susan, I’m sorry I put a burr in your hair.’”
Me, still mumbling: “Sorry I put a burr in your hair.”
Parent, exasperated: “Say it like you mean it!”
Me, shouting: “SORRY I PUT A BURR IN YOUR HAIR!”
I thought of childhood apologies as I reflected on those we heard from adults this week, along these lines:
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz:
The public: “Apologize to the doctor that was dragged from his seat, Oscar.”
Oscar Munoz: “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”
The public: “Not good enough, Oscar. Apologize like you mean it.”
Oscar Munoz: “I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right. It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
The public: “That’s better.”
Premier Christy Clark, April 6
Media: “Are you going to apologize for the firings that led to Roderick MacIsaac’s taking his life?”
Premier Clark: “Government has apologized, and it’s an absolutely sincere express of regret.”
Premier Christy Clark, April 11
Media: “Will you apologize to Roderick MacIsaac’s sister for his firing?”
Premier Clark: “If she’d like a personal apology, of course, I’d be happy to do that.”
When does an apology count? When is it good enough, because to my adult ears both these apologies remind me of my apology to Susan.
The handling of the 1982 Tylenol scandal has been the PR 101 benchmark for how to handle a crisis. Apologize out of the gate. Be sincere in your apology, promise to fix things, then be seen to do it.
To my naïve thinking, a true apology shouldn’t have to be hard won. It should be the clear and right thing to do.
I’m not at all convinced that Oscar Munoz ‘s apology isn’t more about plunging stock values than his comprehension of the human affect of his airline’s actions.
And if someone I loved had been hurt in the health ministry firestorm, I’d be surprised that “sorry”, said sincerely, has been so hard to pronounce.