Monday, February 4, 2013
Letter from Butiama: When and how to say "sorry"
This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011. Publication date: 2 July 2006.
There are proportionally far fewer people who will commit a mistake and say, “I am sorry”, or “I made a complete fool of myself.” You are likely to hear a far greater number of people justifying their mistakes.
To err is human, but to make excuses is even more so. Humans make errors, and are experts at making excuses.
We learn from childhood that we are likely to face serious consequences when we admit mistakes. The result is that we grow into adults who instinctively make excuses for our mistakes so that blame is shifted to some other person or factor.
Considering some of the problems we may encounter by admitting mistakes, it is understandable that we do not readily accept blame. If you break the law, the consequences of admitting guilt in a court of law are known: a fine or a jail term - or a one-way ticket to heaven or hell for the serious offences. It seems that the more serious consequences of admitting fault are permanently registered in our memories from childhood and so, in adulthood, we spend a great deal of time disassociating ourselves with our mistakes.
The excuses are sometimes ingenious. The whole World except Argentina believes that footballer Diego Maradona scored with his hand, while playing for Argentina in a FIFA World Cup match against England on 22 June 1986 at Mexico City’s Aztec Stadium. His excuse: “It was the hand of God.”
The football matches we see on television show some of the players praying each time they score, or when they enter the pitch. It creates the impression that many of the players are extremely religious individuals, but Maradona’s excuse had the effect of elevating excuses to an unprecedented level. There are few who would attribute Maradona's goal to God. The more conventional justification would have been to blame it on the devil.
To be fair to Maradona, footballers have no mechanism for admitting fault on or off the pitch. Maybe FIFA, the World’s football federation, might want to add confessions to its “fair play” campaign.
By spending time in excusing ourselves we end up lengthening an extremely short story with only three words, “I am sorry” (only one word in Kiswahili, samahani) to one containing hundreds of words.
Sometimes apologies are not enough and people demand to know the reasons for committing a mistake. There are many reasons for making mistakes, which are often grouped under the heading, “reasons beyond my control”. If you are tempted to utilise this overused phrase, you might consider leaving that judgement for others to make. A reason beyond control is not a good excuse, a Tsunami is.
The simple advice is, unless you are not facing a judge, when you make a mistake just say you are sorry, don’t make excuses. However, there should be a limit to the number of times one can apologise. If you begin to sound like an old phonograph record, stuck on the same three words all the time, then you do not become believable anymore, but may only reveal that you are addicted to those words.
When you find you just have to make an excuse, try and make them believable. I failed that test years ago during a visit to Washington D.C. I phoned for a taxi and waited for an extremely long period outside the house I was staying in. When I called the company again to find out the reason for the delay, the dispatcher pointed out to me that I had provided her an erroneous house number, which did not exist on that street. The taxi driver had been driving around for a long time looking for house number 2065, when he should have been looking for house number 2056.
When after my second call the taxi driver was given the correct house number he arrived at the house furious. I was quick to apologize, but made the error of justifying my excuse. Instead of providing a three-word apology, I transformed the apology into an excuse of about ten words. I told him I was actually a visitor to Washington D.C., suggesting that was the reason why I made the error.
He told me he didn’t care where I came from because “…twenty fifty-six was twenty fifty-six, even in Chinese!” Even in Kiswahili script, 2056 was and remains 2056, and I should have not had a problem translating that into English.
To be fair to myself, I only had a few seconds in which to come up with a believable excuse.
Under normal circumstances I would have immediately laughed at myself for making such an amateurish excuse, but I had no wish to further provoke the taxi driver.