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Lynn Hummel column: Stop making excuses and apologize

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What are the two most difficult things any of us ever have to do -- if we do them at all? One is to admit we were wrong. The second, even more difficult and painful, is to apologize for it.

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I was introduced to a guy last week who was explaining to a friend that earlier that day he had chewed out an employee for a mistake she'd made, and he did it in front of other employees. She cried. He realized he'd made a serious mistake and he didn't know how to make it right. He was trying to decide how to make an appropriate apology. It was a short conversation and the guy moved on. When he left the friend and I agreed -- "too late."

A much more embarrassing situation showed up in England just over a month ago. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was out campaigning for members of his Labour Party. He was stopped by a woman who complained about the economy and specifically, that immigrants from Eastern Europe were pouring into the country and taking jobs from Englishmen. Brown was as polite as he could be because he was wearing a small mike a radio station had clipped on him. When the conversation was over he got into his car with his driver and his handlers. "What a disaster that was," he said. "Whose idea was that anyway? What a bigot that woman was." Brown had forgotten that his mike was still live and still broadcasting.

First, all of England heard it, then the radio people quickly got back to the woman and told her Brown had called her a bigot. Her eyes bulged out. "He called me a what?" When Brown heard about it he immediately had his driver take him to the woman's house to personally apologize.

The conversation was not recorded, but what could the guy say? How do you apologize for calling a woman a bigot? Even bigots don't want to be called bigots. Regardless of what he said, the British press said Brown failed to look apologetic in subsequent interviews. They wrote, "You have to look sorry when you say you're sorry." One reporter called the whole incident, "a big, slow motion train crash." Brown didn't help his cause by blaming the media for broadcasting a private conversation. Brown, by the way, is no longer Prime Minister. His Labour Party lost its majority in Parliament and Brown promptly resigned as Prime Minister. Yes, the British Parliamentary system is vastly different than our presidential-congressional system.

In politics somebody is always demanding an apology. The demand is mostly nonsense -- political rhetoric. Politicians never apologize to other politicians, but occasionally they choke an apology out to a voter or group of voters.

As children, we were commanded to apologize. So you hit a kid and made him cry. "Lynn, tell Bobby you're sorry."

"No, he started it."

"Lynn (being pulled by the ear), tell Bobby you're sorry."

"I'm . . . (mumble) . . . orry."

"Say it so he can hear it."

"I'm s . . . rry."

"Say it loud (ear being twisted)."

"I'M SORRY!"

"There now, let that be a lesson." (I'm honoring the memory of my mother as I write this -- today would have been her 99th birthday, but she's been gone now for almost four years.)

It is my opinion that about 5 percent of all apologies are sincere. About a month ago a guy lost his temper and burned my ears for a while on the phone. He was having a bad day, he was frustrated and he took it out on me. Two days later he called to apologize. I considered the apology sincere and accepted it. It took a real gentleman to make that apology. He was one of the 5 percent.

The other 95 percent go like this:

Elliot Spitzer (after being revealed as a regular customer of a New York prostitute): "I'm sorry I embarrassed myself and my family." (Meaning I'm sorry I got caught and now I have to resign as governor of New York.)

Mark Sanford (after being caught returning from a trip to Argentina for a fling with his mistress, when he said he was going to spend the weekend hiking on the Appalachian Trail): "I'm sorry I embarrassed my family. I love my wife." (Meaning, I'm sorry I got married and had four sons before I met my true heartmate. By the way, I'm not resigning as governor of South Carolina.) The following were intended to quiet the demand for an apology, but are not apologies:

• I'm sorry you were offended by what I said.

• I'm sorry your feelings were hurt.

• That's really not what I meant.

• I was paying you a compliment.

• I had no idea you would feel that way.

• I was only kidding. You know I didn't really mean it.

• I'm sorry for the pain I caused when I murdered the guy. Please give me a light sentence.

But here's the bottom line. While an insincere apology lacks class, it has more class than no apology at all. Stop making excuses and apologize.

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