Sincere apologies can save time, cash

Tuesday, November 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:47 p.m. CDT, Friday, June 27, 2008

It really doesn’t surprise me that people in certain professions, including the practice of medicine, need to be taught the value of apologizing when they make an error. This is an idea being fostered by some who are urging malpractice reform.

I’ve been noticing this trend of refusing to apologize for a long time, especially among politicians. I’ve been convinced for years that many conflicts might have been avoided if people could have brought themselves to apologize for their words or actions. Still, I’d have to say, in my experience, this phenomenon tends to be more prevalent among men than it is among women.

Perhaps suggesting to doctors that an apology to an injured patient might somehow reduce the amount of money involved in malpractice damage suits, as being set forth by advocates, might carry enough weight to improve the area of civil behavior. In a world where money talks in every language, the possibility that good behavior might be rewarded in dollars and cents might be the only method that convinces people to change the way they behave. (You know, though, I don’t mind saying that I remember when I was innocent or perhaps naive enough to believe that even the majority of professional people believed in the ethical value of doing the right thing).

This subject brings up an area in which it took me many years to learn a valuable lesson. One of the hardest things for me to accept was that many people brought up in the United States did not learn basic good manners from their parents or their teachers. For most of my life, I assumed everyone knew such simple forms of etiquette as not slamming doors in other people’s faces, sending thank-you notes and covering one’s mouth when coughing. It wasn’t until my circle of acquaintances began to include more diverse groups of people, especially younger ones, that I realized I had made an incorrect assessment. I no longer assume anything about manners and behavior.

Even among people brought up to be well-mannered, there seems to be a disconnect between childhood behavior and one’s deportment after achieving professional credentials. It’s as if achieving professional status frees one from the necessity for civil behavior.

It wasn’t until after I first brought this subject up that I learned this is a matter of great concern to a lot of people. People, especially older people,are becoming alarmed at the treatment they are receiving from people supposedly in the business of customer service. The old saying that the customer is always right has taken a detour. Today’s customer-service people seem to take the position that customers are necessary nuisances and need to be cut off from communication as soon as possible. And if the customer wishes to complain, he will probably have to work his way up the line to the individual who actually has his own hard-earned dollars invested in the company before he receives any satisfaction.

I have a theory that much of the disrespect people show toward one another has its genesis in the elimination of courtesy titles in discourse. It seems to me that addressing each other by the titles Mr., Mrs. and Ms. seemed to establish certain rules of engagement. Once every person we met became Joe, Sally or Bill, the rules of respect were relaxed. I can remember the shock I experienced when I went into a nursing home and heard a teenage caregiver refer to a 90-year-old patient as “Stella.” It seemed the mere drop of the courtesy title empowered the teenager to assume a degree of familiarity with the older woman that had no history of existence. I still cringe when I hear people address strangers by their given names even when that person is three times their age. Frankly, I find this anomaly the best example I know of the adage of familiarity breeding contempt. Society seems overrun with people who mistake familiarity for friendliness and co-dependency for mutual respect.

I’ve always marveled that in our technologically advanced world we so often have to go back in time and learn basic common sense. For example, even the most primitive cultures have a natural regard for nature. We had to virtually kill all the wild animals and mow down all the trees before we realized our mutual dependence on the natural world. I hope this new regard for acknowledging our common humanity means we will not have to decimate civilization in order to understand its significance to orderly existence.

Before we become overwhelmed with apologies from every direction, we can only hope that these malpractice-reform advocates will take the time to learn the role sincerity plays in seeking forgiveness from those whom we have offended. Otherwise the apologies will be, in the words of William Shakespeare,“full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Gosh, who would have ever thought being sincerely sorry could be so complicated?

That’s what happens, I guess, when simple words become legal language. In the meantime, if you really mean it, could you put it in writing?

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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