Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Never Apologise, Never Explain... Except

No-one knows where this comes from. In England it's supposed to be a working principle of the Royal Family. So what's wrong with apologising or explaining? You're late for a meeting because the public transport broke down - where's the harm? There isn't. Unless you have a boss who says things like "Why didn't you take an earlier train? You knew this was important." If your regular train journey has a little slack time in it, the guy's a jerk. If you're regularly making it with seconds to spare, he may have a point.  Now you get home and your partner gives you the "you always do this" speech about something you did that morning. Maybe you left the toilet seat up - who knows and it may not matter. "Why do you do it?" is an essential part of it. She doesn't want to know, of course, and she could care less about the reason. You know that, right?

Have you ever been asked why you did something right? (Except as a prelude to having that right action contrasted to several wrong ones?) When someone asks you to explain why you do something, it is because they think you should not be doing it, that they will be the judge of what you should and should not do and they will set the rules about what is and is not an acceptable excuse. That is why you cannot win an argument with an angry woman. She doesn't want to understand why you did it, she wants to be mad at you. Nothing you can say will make any difference, because she's not interested in anything except her own feelings.

The same thing applies to campaigners for any cause. They are not interested in arguing facts, interpretations, alternatives and policy, they want you to feel like a bad person and stop doing it (whatever it is). They already know what is right and wrong, they know what you must do and they really don't care about your opinions. Why do you eat meat? What justification do you have for that foreign holiday? Why haven't you given away ten per cent of your salary to a charity?

And then there are times when explaining does not help. Like why the surgeon couldn't save your husband. What she says may be true, but what does it matter? Indeed, if they aren't careful they could come across as blaming you for not getting the poor guy into hospital faster ("He was too far along"). And their legal department are not going to let them say they screwed up, even if they did. A simple expression of sympathy ("I'm sorry for your loss") is all that's needed and appropriate.

Apologising puts the other person in the position of forgiving you ("that's okay") or being seen as not  forgiving you and thus being a grudge-meister. So they pretend to say it's okay and resent you for putting them in that position. Explaining just lets them know you weren't deliberately jerking them around, and anyway you should have called when you knew were going to be late.

Never apologise and never explain, except in business when you're calling ahead to explain why you can't keep you promise of whatever it is. That's just courteous. And if someone keeps on at you for reasons and apologies, consider that one or other or both of you may be a jerk. And take action as needed.

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