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From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

       Apologies are important in interpersonal relations. Just think about the emotional turmoil caused by a person who never apologizes, never says “I’m sorry.”  Probably, that person will get called some rather ugly names.

       It seems that the inability or refusal to apologize has been in the news a lot lately. First, on Wednesday, September 9, 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, showing a complete lack of respect, interrupted President Obama’s speech before a joint session of Congress by heckling “you lie.” Although he called the White House the next day to apologize, he did it only after “the leadership called” and asked him to do so. But, how sincere was it?: News stories reported that the Congressman refused to apologize again, saying in effect, that he apologized Wednesday night and it was accepted. So that should be enough. He refused to issue an apology to his colleagues, a “public” apology. In response, the House of Representatives voted 240-179 (with five lawmakers voting “present”) to admonish and rebuke him for his breach of decorum and “[degrading] the proceedings to the discredit of the House.” (See, Notably, initially, he blamed his rude outburst on his emotions.   

       Then, there was the outburst by Serena Williams towards a line judge when the latter called a double foot fault in the semi-final women’s match at the U.S. Open on Saturday, September 12, 2009. That fault was to cost Ms. Williams a point, if not the match. So, Ms. Williams went after the line judge, a petite woman, holding her racket as though it was an assault weapon and threatening (with interlaced obscenities), to shove the ball down the line judge’s throat. When the line judge later reported that Ms. Williams threatened to kill her, Ms. Williams denied it, evidently not comprehending that a threat to shove a ball down someone’s throat is, in essence, a threat to do deadly bodily harm.

       Nevertheless, Ms. Williams came out with some sort of statement the next day, but did not use the word “apologize” until two days later. Because it did take her 48 hours, the question arises: did she really mean it, or was it simply a matter of maintaining good public relations?  

      The latest was by Kanye West who quite rudely interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, September 13, 2009 by grabbing the microphone and declaring that Beyonce Knowles should have won. Initially, Mr. West blamed his rude outburst on the pain of his mother’s death two years ago and/or on the fact that he was drunk. Only as the bad publicity rolled in did he realize that something other than a justification was needed: an apology, He finally apologized to Taylor Swift two days later – on Tuesday – which she accepted.

       Where is all this rudeness coming from? While these examples involve public figures, are they indicative of how life has changed for us everyday common folk. Have we become rude and simply accept it as a facet of our everyday lives like these three examples? (No doubt, Miss Manners is horrified by this very thought). When we do “mess up”, do we then attempt a self-correction solely out of “public relations” concerns by making a half-hearted apology but not really taking responsibility for our actions or looking deep within ourselves to figure out why we did it and how not to do it again?

       Awhile ago, in one of my other blogs, I discussed the different types of apologies, (“I am Sorry”). First, there is the simple full apology: “I’m sorry” in which no excuse or explanations are attached. Indeed,  the Oxford English Dictionary defines “apology” as: “To acknowledge and express regret for a fault without defence.” (See, “Apology Matters” The Indian Arbitrator, Vol. 1, Issue 8 (September 2009) at page 12- (This was certainly not the type used here! All three wrongdoers proffered excuses.) Then there is the “partial” apology in which the speaker apologizes for how the listener feels but not for what happened. Is this the type that Ms. Williams initially sought to use? Perhaps. Then comes the third type – the phony kind. The “apology” is there but the apologizer does not accept responsibility, is insincere and conveys it to comply with political correctness or etiquette. To me, this is the type of apology conveyed by all three public figures. They “apologized” for public relations reasons and nothing more.

       What concerns me is that these three instances are not unique but simply epitomize what our everyday interpersonal relationships have become. They are why disputes arise and lawsuits get filed. Civility is so lacking everywhere that both the Los Angeles County Superior Court and the State Bar of California have found it necessary to mandate civility in their respective rules! Crafted from “guidelines” adopted by the Los Angeles County Bar Association, the Los Angeles County Superior Court local rules go so far as to provide that “counsel should at all times be civil and courteous in communicating with adversaries whether in writing or orally.” (Rule 7.12(d)(1) entitled “Litigation Conduct”)(.lasc-court-rules)

       Similarly, the State Bar of California approved “Civility Guidelines” on July 20, 2007 publishing a 46 page “Civility Toolbox” which proffers guidelines on how to be “civil” in all aspects of practicing law, including “civil” litigation. It attempts to put the “civil” back into “civil litigation.”  In essence, it teaches what we should have learned in kindergarten: The Golden Rule. 

           In many of my mediations, I find, that while the parties may be at loggerheads over a “breach” of contract or  the acts or omissions of an “unfair” landlord or  of an “unwilling” auto maker to do what the consumer thinks is the ‘right” thing  to do under California’s Lemon Law, in truth the dispute is about the relationship between the parties. It has broken down. One party did or omitted to do something that upset the other and the response was the lawsuit. Given the state of our society, as shown above, it does not dawn on the other party to apologize until the mediator or a third party suggests it, or even once suggested, the party refuses to do it,  viewing it as a sign of “weakness” or an admission that could later be used against him/her in a court of law.    

        What have we become? Where are we going? So much could be avoided (including mediation) if we would “think before speaking” rather than speaking on impulse and if and when we do “mess up”, we simply offer a sincere apology with no excuses and “without defence”…. Nothing more. 

       . . . Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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