“I’m sorry,” my friend Michael said. He wasn’t even in the room yet. He had just opened the door and was in mid-step when his “I’m sorry” filled the air. And my anger, which had been brewing, percolating, disappeared. Just like that. One minute it was there. The next minute it was gone.
I was at a gym when Michael appeared, replaying in my head what had happened just minutes before. Nursing a wound, my father would have said. Ridiculous. But my brain does this sometimes, gets stuck in a loop.
Michael had embarrassed me. “Who is this?” he’d asked, catching me off guard in the hallway of a place where he and his wife and my husband and I were vacationing. He was chatting with a young man we’d dined with the night before. This man had sat on my right. We’d talked for more than an hour and I’d known his name then, but when Michael, covering the man’s name tag, asked, I went blank.
And I was embarrassed.
Then I got angry.
Friendships have gone south for less. If I’d had more time to steam, to play the loop over and over, I might have inflated this small misstep into a shove off a cliff. Intentional. Deliberate. Mean-spirited. Instead of what it was. Michael being Michael. Just joking around.
But Michael apologized quickly. He said he was sorry, “I shouldn’t have done that.” And that was that.
And this got me to thinking about apologies. And how my daughters say I always apologize with an asterisk. And a codicil. I’m sorry, BUT.
I’m sorry, but I was just being honest. I’m sorry, but I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. I’m sorry, but I think you’re overreacting. I’m sorry you feel that way, but. That’s how I apologize.
Right before Thanksgiving, my cousins invited me to a paint night. I love my cousins, all five of them, so I said yes even though I was on the fence about the paint thing. I cannot draw. Come on, they said. There will be wine. We’ll have fun.
And we did. But here’s what I did that was very, very wrong. I painted a sign not of a cornucopia with a cheerful “thankful” at the bottom, as instructed. A whole room full of people had no problem following these simple directions. I tried. Really. I swear. But my cornucopia looked like a big, brown blob. So I painted over it in black, then scrawled in white letters “Don’t Tell Me What to Do.”
Which is exactly what I was feeling at the time.
However, this sentiment was not my idea.
I stole it from my daughter who had only days before told me that she was planning to give a sign with these exact words to her sister as a Christmas gift.
My daughters say I always apologize with an asterisk. And a codicil. I’m sorry, BUT.
I knew this. But I rationalized. It was not a done deal, I told myself. Who knows if she could even find a sign with these words. Plus, here I was with paintbrush in hand, feeling the moment. A bird in hand, you know.
So I painted the sign. And then I left it on my other daughter’s doorstep.
I’m sorry, I said, when the error of my ways was pointed out to me by both daughters. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to steal your idea. I didn’t think. Don’t you love the sign?
I should have stopped at “I’m sorry.”
Here’s the difference between Michael’s “I’m sorry” and mine. His was immediate. And sincere. Mine was neither.
Michael has taught me something I wish I’d learned before now. And that is that “I’m sorry” should never come with excuses and disclaimers. No addendum. No “I’m sorry,” but. “I’m sorry I stole your idea.” “I’m sorry I was such a jerk.” “I’m sorry I embarrassed you.”
Just “I’m sorry.” Two little words that said sooner rather than later and can right any wrong.Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at email@example.com.