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There’s a difference. It’s your doing, but not your blame.

Monday 7 September 2009

Here’s a distinction.

A: You decide, you aim, you stamp on someone’s foot. You intended to hurt and achieved it. Pain: yes. Blame: yes.

B: You’re minding your own business and trip over something that someone-not-you else left lying around. In regaining your balance you stamp down heavily, and just at that minute someone comes round the corner. Your stamping foot lands on theirs. Pain: yes. Blame: no.


Sorry has three stages:

  1. recognising you did wrong
  2. saying so – the apology
  3. doing something to make it right

(Note that feeling bad is not a requisite, though it often goes with stage one.) In both cases A and B, stage three would involve giving the other person some arnica, an icepack and preferably TLC, checking how bad it is, and if you broke a bone driving them to hospital.

In case B, you aren’t to blame. You intended no harm – you intended no action at all. It was your bad luck just as much as theirs. Now, here’s the first controversial bit. Even though you are innocent, you still should perform stage three of sorry: doing what you can to put the wrong right. Part of how it was ‘your bad luck too’ is that you now have this task, even if it makes you late. Even if a toenail has come off and it turns your stomach. You and the injured person are in this together.

You should do that. ‘Should’ means that if you don’t, you’re in the wrong – even though you’re not to blame for the hurt, you are to blame if you do nothing about making it better. You would not be justified in reasoning, ‘I had no intention of causing this pain and therefore I have no duty to help.’ I think the same applies with stage two of sorry, the saying. You should not claim, ‘Since it was accidental I will not (or need not, or ought not to) apologise.’

The flipside of my argument is that apology is not confession; by saying sorry, you do not imply that you meant to do any harm or that any blame attaches to you.

You may have felt my controversial statement was uncontroversial, as obvious as the first one. But do you see now that it can be disputed?

I didn’t warn you: this is allegory. Here, I’ll make it explicit. In case A and case B, the foot-stamping is not foot-stamping. It is hurtful speech or unfair behaviour. Case A is deliberate name-calling, sarcasm, ridicule, secret-spilling, whatever. Case B is when you assault by accident, when you say loudly that you hate the colour of a room when the person who’s just painted it is in earshot. It’s saying something like, ‘The person that wrote the screenplay for Mamma Mia is an idiot,’ and then finding that the person you’re talking to is the one who wrote that screenplay. It’s failing to reply to someone’s anguished pleas, because you haven’t heard because you were distracted by Top Gear. For example.

To most of us, stage two would come automatically: ‘God, sorry, I didn’t realise.’ I’m sticking my neck out and stating that you owe stage three as well. Once you know about the hurt, you need to do more than explain why it happened. You need to hear and respond after all; to find out what else they’ve written and declare how brilliant it is; to find out why that colour was chosen and how much better it looks at a different time of day. Or something.

Otherwise, you leave distress in your wake. What does it matter that you didn’t mean to?

You might as well whine that you didn’t notice you’d dropped the cigarette. The forest burns anyway.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday 8 September 2009 12.32 am

    Interesting thoughts.
    I heard something once which I wish I could quote properly and identify but it was along the lines of ‘you never touch someone so lightly that you don’t leave a mark’ – I like that. I think you’re right – we need to take responsibility for our impact on others. In a civilised world courtesy is not optional and I think really, we’re talking about courtesy in its essential sense.
    Too often ego comes into it, or people conflate responsibility with guilt and they’d rather not have the icky guilty feeling so they deny the responsibility. Everyone loses that way.

    • Tuesday 8 September 2009 4.38 pm

      I had a google and found: ‘We never touch someone so lightly that we don’t leave a trace.’ – attributed to, guess who: ‘Unknown’. ;0)

      Yes, courtesy is a word that often comes to my lips when i’m trying to put this point across!

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