Sorry about lying; lying about sorry

People lie. It is a basic fact of life, and anyone who says they have never in their life uttered a falsehood is simply proving that they do.

But they lie for a variety of reasons — to save their skin, for a quiet life, for personal gain, because it’s fun; and the severity of the lie varies vastly, from ‘I’m just about to set off’ (‘damn, better go have a shower and make a move’) to ‘no, I did not murder my neighbour; I thought he was great’ (‘I so throttled the curmudgeonly old git with his own regimental tie — and I stole his life savings as well, hah!’). I may philosophize further on the reasons for lying some other time, but for now I want to concentrate on the lie of saying ‘I’m sorry.’


We British are famed for apologising for things that aren’t our fault — and that’s fine up to a certain point. You know the kind of thing: someone walks into us and we say ‘oh, sorry’ when really we’re thinking ‘oi, moron, why don’t you look where you’re going?’ This is a lie; but in the global scheme of things, it is of no importance. It avoids confrontation and is almost as meaningless as saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when we make a purchase in a shop — ‘Three turnips, please’ / ‘That’ll be £2.10. please’ / ‘Thank you’ / ‘Thank you’ — it means nothing; the shop owner wants us to purchase his root vegetables and we want to buy them; no one is doing anyone a favour or a kindness here; but these little conventions, although meaningless and insincere, help oil the wheels of social interaction and make life that little bit pleasanter — ditto saying ‘oh sorry’ when some clodhopping great lout barges into us.

So, I’ll forgive that Apology Lie (hey, this is my Blog so I reserve the right to grant absolution if I see fit).

The next Apology Lie is a kind of verbal nervous tic some people have. I’m sure you’ve come across these self-effacing individuals who seem unable to construct a sentence without an apology — a simple query becomes ‘I’m really sorry, but do you take sugar in tea?’ (not because they’ve already asked you three times and are apologising for not having taken in the information; nor yet because you are in an important meeting and they are apologising for interrupting; no, it is clearly because regret that they are not psychic and cannot, simply by looking at you, tell that you like one and one quarter teaspoonfuls of Tate & Lyle in your beverages) or, when your plane is four hours late and they have patiently awaited your arrival at the airport all that time, despite having much better things to do with their lives, they greet you with ‘oh, sorry, I’m so sorry, we’re not going to be able to do what we planned tonight after all’ (because, yeah, obviously, it’s their fault the air traffic controllers decided to throw a wobbly and disrupt everyone’s schedule).

I tend to want to slap these people, but general indolence means that never have. So, grudgingly and because it requires less exertion than trying to teach them the error of their ways, I’ll forgive them too. They’re still guilty of uttering an Apology Lie, but it’s probably not their fault that they seem to have a warped form of Tourette’s Syndrome that causes them to ejaculate expressions of irrelevant politeness rather than the more traditional obscenities.

Or how about the person who, when short-changed in a shop, says ‘Sorry, I gave you a twenty-pound note, not a ten’? Why on earth would anyone apologise because another person’s mistake has affected them in a negative way? I assume that this is just a social nicety, a way of saying ‘I appreciate that you weren’t trying to rip me off, and I’m not angry — but you made a mistake and I want you to put it right.’

If you suspect you might be one of these overly-apologetic individuals, here’s a Buzzfeed quiz so you can check:

To my mind, when a person says they’re sorry, it encompasses the unspoken corollary of ‘I will try my damnedest not to do it again and will, if appropriate and possible, make reparation.’ After all, we can all screw up. ‘I’m sorry I spilt red wine on your dress’ carries with it ‘I will endeavour not to gesticulate whilst holding a full glass; and I will pick up the bill for the dry-cleaning.’ However, for many, saying sorry seems to be a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

Take, for example, the Apology Lie some parents tell for the ill-manners of their offspring, whilst doing nothing to teach them better ones. Having routinely let their child run riot in the supermarket, they excuse their poor parenting with ‘Sorry, he’s a bit fractious today’ — once is perhaps forgivable if it’s the first time the infant has been exposed to that environment, but the parents should remove him forthwith, and, in future, find someone else to take care of him. But, hey, why bother when a simple ‘sorry’ will mean that the annoyance of those inconvenienced will instantly dissipate and harmony will reign alongside the chaos?

Until recently I had a friend who tried my patience to breaking point. Whilst this person has some good qualities (had she not, we would never have become friends in the first place), her incessant cycle of causing-offence-and-apologising, causing-offence-and-apologising — not just to me, but also to my friends — eventually left me wishing to terminate the association. Eventually is key there — because I sighed-and-forgave, sighed-and-forgave quite a few times before reaching that point, gradually losing interest in maintaining the friendship with each cyclical repetition. In fact, I was about to send her the following message, when matters came to a head (considerably to my relief) for other reasons:

[Name], this is the last message you’ll receive from me. The fact of the matter is that I cannot be friends with someone who either attacks me (but then wimps out and apologises when I respond) or wilfully chooses to take my comments as barbs (and accuses me of deliberately starting a quarrel, only subsequently to apologise and say she hadn’t meant it). As a form of banter, it gets old fast. You perhaps think that backing away from dissent and being so thin-skinned is a sign of sensitivity — alas, I just find it trying. You maybe think that the word ‘sorry’ automatically wipes the slate clean and gives you licence to be as obnoxious as you please once more. I know you have other friends who feel that that’s the case, or that because of your [personal circumstances], they should pussy-foot around you and make allowances for inconsistencies. But you’ve never thought that I was like that, and I’m not about to change just because you happen to be feeling a bit fragile and/or put-upon.

And all this continual lashing out and then saying you’re sorry and expecting to be forgiven? No, you say something hurtful, you apologise, you are forgiven once — but ‘sorry’, if it’s at all sincere, should mean ‘I regret doing that and won’t do it again,’ not ‘I regret doing that now, but I’ll do it again (and again) cos I know you’ll forgive me again (and again).’ There’s a process of attrition that goes on, and, quite honestly, you’ve worn away my patience. If you’re having a bad day, find someone else to attack — someone who’ll accept your insincere apologies and not think ‘oh, FFS, here we go again — yawn.’

Whilst terminating a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship is painful and awkward, it does happen and there are several tried and tested formulae one is able to fall back on should they be needed; but dumping a friend, as opposed to merely letting the relationship dwindle into nothingness? Oh, that’s much more awkward (less painful, but way more ungainly), especially when one of the friends seems anxious to continue the relationship whilst the other does not, as was the case here; but how could I believe a word she said when she failed to have the courage of her convictions and her apologies meant nothing?

Do I regret losing this friend? No, not in the slightest. Have I heard the last of her? Hmm… before I wrote this, I would have said not — indeed, it seemed probable that she’d be back, apologising profusely and suggesting we do something together; once she’s read this (if she does), then she’ll likely realize that her absence is more desirable than her presence.

And if she did come back, contrite and humble, what would I say? Oh, that one’s easy. I’d very politely tell her I wished her well (I do; I’m not malicious) but that the friendship between her and me had run its course. Because, just as dumping a friend is awkward, not picking them up again is much more straightforward. The real difficulty is when there’s a much stronger emotional attachment there; when the feeling of loss is so great that it outweighs the knowledge that the person who hurt you will do so again, apology or no apology. Frankie has a bad day and comes home and beats seven shades of excrement out of Sammy; Sammy knows that, for his/her own physical and mental sanity, s/he should get the hell out of there and not look back — but when Frankie is clearly so devastated by the hurt s/he’s caused and swears that it’ll never happen again, and maybe subtly hints that Sammy was, possibly, slightly, in some inadvertent way, responsible for his/her transgression, then Sammy, against his/her every atavistic instinct of self-preservation, gradually relents and thinks maybe this time, it’ll be OK; maybe this time, Frankie’s telling the truth. Not that it has to be domestic violence, of course; the same applies with any breach of trust. If my erstwhile friend said ‘I am so so sorry for the way I behaved; please let us put the past behind us and start afresh,’ I would reply ‘I too am sorry for the way you behaved; but I am not prepared to give you any more fresh starts’ — because my brain, emotions, psyche are not addled by love, or by the memory of love-that-was. I can identify an Apology Lie at a thousand paces — but even with such cerebral acuity, it took me a while to cotton on. So if Frankie says those same words to Sammy, what chance does s/he stand? Oh, eventually s/he’ll come to realize that the treachery lies in his/her lover’s very sincerity — but it’ll take time.

There are, of course, people who never apologise. Whether they are in the right or in the wrong, they do not say ‘sorry’. Arguably, this is because they are incredibly honest, and it does, to a certain extent, absolve them of any charges of uttering an Apology Lie. But it also makes them seem like arrogant tossers, and that’s not good either.

Personally, I try to avoid doing things for which I might need to apologise. It makes life so much easier and, as mentioned here and elsewhere, I am lassitudinous in nature. This doesn’t mean that, if you ask me to pick up a jar of coffee while I’m in Asda, I mightn’t forget — and then I will most certainly apologise, because I am sorry that you will be reduced to drinking tea when you were looking forward to coffee, and — though I can make no promises about the future quality of my memory — I will endeavour not to let you down next time. Heavens, I may even offer to go back specially and get you your Douwe Egberts Pure Indulgence.

But if I do something big and bad (who? me? as if!), then I do it fully aware of the consequences and ramifications, and I will not feign repentance I do not feel.

Which might mean I’m a psychopath… because, from what we read in the media, it seems that, much to the vociferous indignation of Joe Public, psychopathic mass murderers and serial killers never show any remorse. The nearest and dearest of the victims, as well as the online commenters, always seem outraged in equal measure by the enormity of the act and by the perpetrator’s unconcern at having committed it. I have always found this illogical. A murderer who kills one person and is then beset by guilt is hardly likely to go on and slay a dozen more. That’d be silly. But sometimes, society demands dishonesty. An Apology Lie won’t bring back the dead but, it seems, it will, in some way I fail to understand, make those left behind feel better.


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