Christopher Smith laments the onset of the non-apology apology
Cli8DE3_Pic-1In 1995, preparing for ordination and about to move into the curate’s house in Wantage, I bought a washing machine from the MEB. As I write, it is still with me, but clearly on its last legs.

I now have to move the dial round by hand, which is not useful in a kitchen appliance. So I have ordered a new one, and a new tumble drier, since the old one now takes twice as long as it once did to dry my clothes, and, before you ask, no, I don’t have a washing line, because I don’t have a garden!

I ordered both machines on-line, from John Lewis, purveyors of household and fancy goods to HMQ no less. On the website, each appliance boasted a £50 `trade in’ if you had an old machine to give away in exchange. This was clearly a bargain, as since the decline of the rag and bone man, we usually have to pay someone to take our big rubbish away nowadays. But when I got to the end of the process, some three-quarters of an hour after I had started, I was only able to enter the discount code once.

Clearly, this was a fault in the system, since if I had bought them in separate transactions, all would have been well. But since I was losing the will to live by this point, I decided to let the thing go through without the second discount, and ring the company the following morning.

I will not bore you with the full details of the half-hour phone call, but in the end, they had to concede the point. I had been bumped up to a `manager,’ who made what I considered a fatal error, and this is why I recount the whole, tedious tale. Instead of saying, `Sorry, sir, we can see we have a problem with the way discount codes are put into our website, and we will immediately refund your credit card with fifty pounds’, he started his sentence with the words, On this occasion…’

In other words, there was no apology, and no admission of any problem except one that I had unwittingly committed by ordering two discounted items together. In his desperate fear of admitting any liability, he had to present the refund as a one-off favour to a benighted customer.

I tell this story only to illustrate the wider problem of the non-apology apology. It has been in my mind for some time now that apologies that start `I’m sorry that; or `I’m sorry if, are not usually apologies at all. `I’m sorry you felt like that..: carries an unspoken conclusion like reaction to my perfectly reasonable comments. My theory has been confirmed by the author of a little book that was in my Christmas stocking: Sorry, by Max Davidson. He calls this the `conditional apology,’ and gives some prime examples. Here is one from Tessa Jowell MP on the expenses scandal `If you feel that we, the government, fall short of what you expect, then I say sorry for that: So the whole business was not their fault, but ours, for having expectations of our elected representatives that were too high.

Frankly, she may as well have said, You, 0 lumpen-proletariat, simply cannot understand what it’s like to be an MP. Shove off In the sporting world, Davidson reminds us of Mike Atherton’s non-apology to a Pakistani journalist whom he had referred to as a ‘buffoon’ during the 19% cricket World Cup: `I’m sorry if I caused offence to a local journalist:

And do you remember Cherie Blair and the Bristol flats? Through the tears, she began, I’m sorry if [there it is again] I have embarrassed anyone, but..; and on she went in an attempt to justify herself. Indeed, Davidson identifies a whole sub-category of apologies that double as excuses, as with this fictional grovel from Mr Darcy: As an only son, I was spoilt by my parents who, though good themselves, allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing’

Perhaps, dear reader, Lizzie’s first instinct was correct! And how about I could not be more sorry about what has happened’ (Fred Goodwin in 2009). He may well have been, but was he sorry for what he did?

Here are two more from 2009, from opposite sides of the House, again about the expenses scandal. See how they each deflect the blame away from themselves. Andrew MacKay MP: `I am sorry we have all become embroiled in this expenses row, particularly as I was following advice’; and Jacqui Smith MP, then the Home Secretary: `I want to apologise to my constituents. They are my main priority, and for too long this investigation has been allowed to overshadow the work I do for then: So it is all the fault of the advice and the investigation, rather than the MPs themselves.

If there is an equal and opposite problem to the non-apology apology, it is perhaps the modern habit of apologising on behalf of others, and indeed on behalf of people one has never even known. This is a particular affliction of prime ministers and presidents. But for now, it suffices to say that, as Christians, we should know the value of self-examination, contrition, and saying sorry. If an apology is to mean anything, it should be unqualified, concise, and in plain English. Sorry! ND