Sometimes, All You Can Do is Apologize

I had a friend in high school who played with me on a community league softball team. One evening the team we were scheduled to play didn’t show up. A lot of our dads were there, so I suggested with enthusiasm that since we had the field to ourselves, we could play a fathers’ and sons’ game of softball.

My friend said to me “My dad is not going to play softball”.

“Why?” I joked, “Does he have a wooden leg or something?”.

With suddenly red-rimmed eyes, my friend said softly “Yes”.

What are the odds? I was so sorry and I said I was sorry over and over and even as I write this three decades later I am consumed with remorse over how I upset my friend. But at least over the intervening years I have heard other stories that console me somewhat with the realization that it could have been even worse.

Dick Cavett was once walking on a beach when he ran into someone he knew he sort of knew, but couldn’t recall his name or anything else about him. The man clearly knew Cavett though, and started engaging him in conversation. Desperately trying to find something to talk about while not letting on that he couldn’t remember who the man was, Cavett recalled that he had seen in the NYT Arts and Leisure section that a new play was opening on Broadway. He hadn’t read the article, but remembered the title of the play, so he asked if the stranger could believe that “junk like that” was getting on to Broadway.

The stranger replied “I wrote that”.

But it could even worse still, as I found out from John Cleese’s recent autobigography So Anyway. Cleese had written a script to a film and heard from a colleague that a particular director, Jay Lewis, had liked it enormously. A few days later, Cleese rang Lewis to ask him to direct the film:

The phone was answered by Jay’s girlfriend, the actress Thelma Ruby. I greeted her and told her that I was delighted to hear the news about Jay. “We buried him this afternoon,” she replied. I stammered that I was not delighted that he was dead, just that I was delighted he’d liked the script before he died, but that, on the contrary…Then I said, “I’m sorry,” put the phone down and killed myself. Several times.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

13 thoughts on “Sometimes, All You Can Do is Apologize”

  1. Are shame and embarrassment distinct emotions or the same feeling, one where it has a dimension of moral wrong, the other merely a social one? I suspect they are the same, and the intensity is driven by the social aspect of the blunder.

    We can practise readily pardoning merely social gaffes. I heard a story that once at an official dinner at Buckingham Palace, the guest of honour was seated next to Queen Elizabeth II. In his nervousness, he knocked over his wineglass. Quick as a flash, the Queen knocked over hers, and commiserated with him over their shared clumsiness.

    1. IMO, it helps to think of embarrassment as the feeling you get when you violate someone else's norms, and shame is when you violate your own.

    1. A language snobbery version of this. A Harvard professor of English comes home early one day to find his wife (or husband, let's be modern) in bed with a colleague from the department. Professor A: "Jack, I'm really surprised at you!" Professor B, from the violated marital bed: "No, Jim, I am surprised – you are astonished."

      1. LOL. I like the cartoon "Two English professors in the desert" which shows them bedraggled and near death in the searing heat. One turns to the other and says "Do me a favor. Stop beginning sentences with 'hopefully'",

  2. I'd heard that anecdote about an African entourage (naturally) drinking from the fingerbowls at Buckingham Palace, after which Lizzie did the same. And indeed, even Post & Vanderbilt agree that good manners are about making your guests feel comfortable, not about raised pinkies on the demi-tasse.

    But I must disagree slightly about shame and embarrassment. Shame sure has the moral rather than the social component in higher degree. If in pique I push my dog away a bit too hard, and she squeals in pain, I am ashamed for having hurt her, but I suffer no social embarrassment, The shame is internal. Then, if you missed a lay up that would have won the game, you're embarrassed at blowing the easy shot, but there's no particular shame involved. And of course sometimes it works both ways, like a dream about boinking a sister — you're ashamed at the incest, you're embarrassed that your mind actually went there.

    Anyway, on the beach the other day, I asked a friend if he and his wife were expecting a third child. He gave me a surprised look, then chuckled no. At a barbecue that evening, his wife came out of their rental home with a pitcher of margaritas, laid a glass in front of me, and began pouring, while calmly intoning, "I heard your question to John on the beach". I stammered and lied and fabricated some sort of flimsy example that might have sounded something like the question, but she had me, dead to rights. She smiled at me icily, and said "think no more of it, it was an honest mistake. And maybe even a productive one — I was online this afternoon looking for local gyms, so you've prompted me to improve myself. You little shit."

    1. I have always thought of shame as involving others' observing or the person imagining others observing.

      Your story is funny. I remember something similar with a pregnant woman and an overweight woman and someone (thank God not me) asking the pregnant woman when she was due and then turning to ask the heavy set woman when she was due. To her credit, the portly one laughed and said "Never. I'm just fat".

      1. I don't think shame requires the observation or imagined observation of others. For example, no matter how strongly I might believe that the world would be a better place without Person X in it, even if I was absolutely sure of evading detection, I wouldn't murder Person X because the shame that would consume me would be, to me, far worse than the continued existence of Person X.

        1. I don't think it's useful to argue much about the meaning of words, but FWIW I would call it guilt if you personally felt something was wrong whether anyone knew it or not.

    2. And p.s. There is a white house story like this as well, with a Russian leader spilling the cream on the coffee tray and some man of state promptly doing the same.

      1. There's also a joke about a dinner with Queen Elizabeth and leaders from Germany, France and Ireland. (I think I heard this joke from an Irishman, FWIW vis-a-vis political correctness.) As the dinner goes on, the Queen lets out a loud belch. Immediately, the Frenchman says "Pardonnez moi, your Majesty. Sometimes my rich French diet gets the better of me." A while later, the Queen belches again. The German immediately says "I am so sorry. I had a lot of beer at lunch." A while later, the Queen farts. The Irishman jumps in: "Don't worry boys, I'll take this one."

  3. Reminds me of a high school teaching job I interviewed for in Pagoasa Springs, Co years ago. I had interviewed in another town a hundred miles away 2 weeks earlier. I casually mentioned that I had interviewed in this town and what horrible place it was. Turned out the principal and his assistant head both grew up there! I never repeated that mistake.

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