“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is the same as saying ‘I apologize.’ Except at a funeral.”
– Demetri Martin
A few days ago, there was a…
Actually, I just realized that since this involves a real case going on at a real hospital with possible legal ramifications, it would be a terrible idea for me to describe it, so I’m going to change it around so far that it bears no resemblance to the original except a certain ambiguity around the idea of apologies.
So, a few days ago, there was a mishap at my hospital. A patient was having some pain, but was already heavily sedated already and further painkillers might be dangerous. I am still a lowly intern and wasn’t sure what to do, so I called up my attending, who told me to go ahead and administer the drugs. This was late at night, so immediately after doing that I signed the patient over to night shift and went home.
The next morning I came in and learned the patient had gotten loopy from being over-sedated and fallen down trying to walk to the bathroom. This can start a minor panic in a hospital, because we tend to have elderly people who don’t tolerate falls very well, and a bad one can mean anything from broken bones to a big lawsuit.
But in fact, the patient hadn’t gotten any broken bones or head injuries or anything like that. He had scraped his elbow. My attending came in a little after me, heard there was a fall, and freaked out that was some critical injury. I said “Oh, don’t worry, he just scraped his elbow.” The attending was very relieved, and we went into an office and discussed how to change our painkiller policies and prevent problems like this in the future.
A nurse heard the comment and when the patient’s wife came to ask about what had happened, she told the wife that the doctor had said the injuries weren’t a big deal. The wife then very reasonably filed a complaint against me, because all she knew about me was that I had administered the drug that caused the problem and that I had dismissed the resulting fall as “not a big deal”.
The complaint made its way up to a Head Honcho, who called me in for a meeting. I explained that I had consulted my attending about using the drug, and that what I had said had been said in private as an attempt to communicate that the patient was okay. The documentation supported me on both counts and I was Cleared Of Wrongdoing (thank God).
I then said I would call up the patient’s wife to apologize. The Head Honcho told me that I was quite right to want to call the patient’s wife to explain what had happened, but that I hadn’t done anything wrong and I shouldn’t sell myself short by saying “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” or any permutation thereof. It wasn’t about legal issues – the wife has already said she’s not suing us. He was just a nice guy and and thought it would be unfair to make me “confess” to something not my fault.
This incident has gotten me thinking about what exactly “I’m sorry” is supposed to mean.
First, it can mean “This problem was entirely the fault of my own moral failings. I admit to these moral failings, will try to give you whatever recompense I can, and will do everything possible to make this not happen again.”
For example, I cheat on my wife. Then I realize that was wrong and I apologize to her. It’s unambiguously my fault I cheated, and I accept that fault.
Second, it can mean “You are sad. I am sad that you are sad. I wish that this had not happened.”
For example, as per the quote at the top, I go to a funeral and tell the family I’m sorry about their loss.
Third, it can mean “You are sad. The reason seems to be very tangentially related to me or my actions, but no reasonable person would call it my fault. I am sad that you are hurt and if I could have prevented that I would have.”
For example, a doctor tries her best to save a patient, but the patient still dies. She tells the family “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.” Or my friend in China is upset and I say “I’m sorry I can’t be there to help you get through this.” Or the hero tells the villain “I’m sorry it had to end this way” before shooting him.
Crucially but annoyingly, the first and third meaning are almost opposite each other. The first one is a way of saying “This is my fault”. The third one is a way of saying “This isn’t my fault.” They are both polite, deferential, and respectful of the pain that the victim is suffering. But only one of them admits wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, the English language really doesn’t have a great way of politely and deferentially being respectful of someone else’s pain that you are tangentially related to other than saying “I’m sorry”.
And also unfortunately, the English language really doesn’t have a great way of saying “This was not my fault” without sounding impolite, disrespectful, and like you’re trivializing the other person’s pain.
This is why myself and the Head Honcho are having so much trouble getting together a good statement to give to the patient’s wife. All of his proposed statements sound something like
“I heard you were concerned about my conduct in the case of Mr. X. I appreciate your distress, but I was not the one who chose to administer that drug, and when I described your husband’s injury I only meant that it wasn’t medically critical. The implication that it wasn’t a big deal was a misinterpretation by the nurse who gave you that statement.”
This is completely honest, yet it oozes “I am a callous businessperson who is concerned entirely with covering his own ass and doesn’t care about your pain.”
But all of my proposed statements sound something like:
I’m very sorry that your husband fell. I handed off the decision to give painkillers to a more senior doctor, but I recognize that this was partially my fault as well. Likewise, although I only meant to say that your husband’s injuries were not medically critical, I realize I could have chosen my words better. Please accept my apologies for this distressing incident.”
This makes me sound like a potentially decent person and a responsible doctor. But as the Head Honcho points out, there’s a sort of dishonesty in admitting more blame on paper than I’m willing to admit in my heart. Like, it’s true that I could have chosen my words more carefully, but if someone else were to accuse me of this, I would instantly object that since I had no idea someone would overhear them, distort them, and report the distorted version to someone else, there’s no reason I should have wanted to. The level of misinterpretation that happened to me could have happened to practically anyone at any time if they had the same bad luck – that utterance was not unusually careless by normal human standards.
The miniature angel on my right shoulder tells me I should do everything I can to let this woman know that I care about and regret her suffering, even at the cost of my own pride. It tells me I should accept “heroic responsibility” – that anything that happens is my fault at least far enough that I can learn from it and use it to be a better person next time. But the miniature Robin Hanson on my left shoulder tells me that I am just signaling my own virtue and responsibility while secretly I don’t believe any of what I’m saying.
Right now I’m leaning towards the angel (not that it matters; I can recommend, but the Head Honcho will make the final decision). I think my outlook is that people are reasonable: the patient’s wife, upon hearing what really happened, will read between the lines and realize it wasn’t quite my fault, but will appreciate my phrasing it in a way that emphasizes the importance I place on her concerns. I have talked to the patient’s wife before, I respect her, and I trust her to be a good apology-accepter.
The Head Honcho, who doesn’t know the patient’s wife, might worry otherwise. Perhaps she will be the sort of person who, when I give my apology, won’t buy it. She’ll shout “You could have chosen your words better?! No sh*t, Sherlock!! You chose those words in a very hurtful way, you’re irresponsible, and I’m going to ask the hospital to fire you for not caring about offending people!!”
Not only have I just made her angrier, but I’ve also abandoned my one advantage in this situation – the fact that I didn’t really do anything wrong. By admitting to some wrongdoing, I can no longer make the defense I made above – the one where I couldn’t reasonably expected my words to be twisted in that particular way – without being accused of backtracking and flipflopping and outright lying.
I feel privileged to be hanging around basically decent people like my patient’s wife, and so to have a lot of options in terms of how to apologize. You know who has it really bad? Politicians. I cringe every time I see a story in the media about politicians apologizing or not apologizing.
Politicians can either give the first sort of statement I mentioned – a very dry “It’s not my fault” sort of statement – and look like shifty sleazy people even if, in fact, it was not their fault.
Or they can try to give an apology of the same type I was considering above, and then have all their words twisted and used against them forever until they eventually have to backtrack on it and get torn to pieces for doing so.
Suppose that an attractive female Senator is bringing a motion to the floor, and a male Senator mutters to himself under his breath “I’d like to motion her to the floor.” Unbeknownst to him, his Official Senate Lapel Microphone is on and broadcasts his statement to the entire C-SPAN watching public (so, like, five people).
Of course, the entire nation instantly suspends talking about boring things like the war in Syria or anthropogenic global warming to focus on the new scandal. “Sexism In The Senate?” the cover of TIME says. “Are Female Senators Just Objects For Men’s Amusement?” asks the cover of US News. And eventually the sound of a million screeching voices and the occasional death threat convinces Male Senator With Microphone that he should probably apologize or something.
Male Senator With Microphone probably feels terrible. He embarassed himself in front of his colleagues, he offended the female Senator he was talking about, disrupted the proceedings of the Senate, annoyed millions of average Americans, and maybe in some vague way contributed to sexism. He certainly has every reason and every right to feel bad.
On the other hand, noticing – just to one’s self! – that other people are attractive seems like a harmless and rather universal thing to do, and is hardly anything to feel bad about.
The most honest apology he could give would probably be “I’m sorry I said that aloud instead of just thinking it. I didn’t realize my microphone was on at the time. I will be more careful in noticing when my microphone is and isn’t on in the future.”
But of course that would mean the end of his political career. Everyone would say he was so tone-deaf and out-of-touch that he couldn’t realize the problem was that he was sexist, and not that he got caught being sexist. And the cries for his head would grow three times louder.
He could go a little further than that and remain honest. He could say something like “I am sorry that lots of people were offended by my statement. I did not mean to hurt anyone’s feelings and I will try to do better in the future.”
And then the newspapers, in front page headlines, would gleefully point out that he had only apologized “that people were offended” and not actually admitted wrongdoing. People would shake their heads and talk about how politicians always gave stuttering non-apologies, and eight different activist groups would hold large public demonstrations demanding he show real contrition instead of trying to “deflect the issue”.
Or he could go all out. He could say “I’m incredibly sorry that I wronged Senator Y in that way. Clearly I have some sexism issues I need to work on. I promise I will never do it again and I hope the American people can forgive me for being a bad Senator and a bad person.”
And then he would be torn to pieces.
First, everyone will demand he resign, throwing his own words about being sexist and a bad person back at him. Then, if he doesn’t resign, they will demand he “atone” for his misdeeds by oh, let’s say doing everything that feminist lobby groups want all the time, with the threat of getting constant “I GUESS SENATOR X WASN’T REALLY SINCERE ABOUT WORKING ON HIS SEXISM” any time he can’t comply quickly enough.
And the worst part will be that he will have no defense, because deep in his heart he knows he has given up his pride, his integrity, and his right to stand up for himself in order to very temporarily quiet the hordes.
This Hobson’s Choice between three terrible options is all the average politician has when accused of anything – whether or not the original accusation is even fair (and I have a gut understanding of this, having previously been a politician myself).
So is it any wonder that the average politician usually responds by denying all wrongdoing and accusing someone else?
I am okay at apologizing for intellectual mistakes. There I can get new data and realize I was wrong. This is one reason I so want to apologize for prescribing the wrong painkiller. I thought listening to my attending’s advice and giving that painkiller would be okay. Events proved me wrong. I can apologize for my misjudgment without a hint of dishonesty.
The same is true of honest mistakes, like coming to work late because I accidentally set my alarm wrong. If anything, I over-apologize for these until everyone is sick of hearing me and tries to reassure me with “Really, it’s just an alarm. Not the end of the world.”
But I’m not very good at apologizing for moral mistakes. When I think courses of action are clearly wrong, I don’t do them. When I think courses of action are clearly right, I do them, but then I tend to continue thinking they are right and don’t see anything to apologize for.
Actually, my Yom Kippur was kind of a bust. I tried really hard to repent and I couldn’t really think of anything especially bad I did. It’s not that I’m a bad person, just that my life is kind of boring. I got exasperated with a couple of people more quickly than they deserved, but I feel bad repenting for it when I know that the next time someone is equally annoying I will probably get exasperated equally quickly. I mostly just have nice conversations with nice people, browse the Internet, and do my job moderately well.
I am tempted to ask other people if I have wronged them. It might provide useful data. The problem is, I’m afraid they’re going to say yes, and they will explain the way I wronged them, and then I will say “No, you’re wrong, I acted entirely correctly in that situation”, which would sort of break the whole point of repentance.
But although I am bad at apologizing, I think I am pretty good at accepting apologies. Accepting apologies requires understanding the Principle of Charity, not to mention the Fundamental Attribution Error. It requires going into a person’s shoes, imagining whether you could have done the same thing in the same circumstances, and gradually paring away at your anger until you can picture the absolute minimum amount of wrongdoing and malice they could have had consistent with them doing what they did, which is usually the amount they actually had.
It requires thinking “Yeah, I sometimes notice other people are hot, and so me and that senator are morally equivalent, and since I don’t blame myself for sometimes admiring people’s appearances, well, there but for the grace of not having a microphone in my lapel go I.”
Or “Well, I didn’t know everything about my job immediately after I started either, so if I had called my boss and asked for help and she had been wrong, I wouldn’t want anyone to take it out on me.”
Since English has no good way to express regret and compassion without also expressing fault, I think it is appropriate to apologize for things you don’t think were completely your fault – and I also think it is appropriate to accept those apologies in the spirit in which they were offered.