Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Sorry, I just don't buy it

The TV was awash these past few days with Eurostar officials being grilled about their trains' bizarre inability to function when it's colder outside the Channel Tunnel than in it.

Every spokesperson, irrespective of whatever first question the interviewer put to them, started by saying they were personally very sorry.

When several trainloads of passengers have been marooned underground for up to 16 hours in the dark and freezing cold, having panic attacks, running out of medication, unable to quiet screaming babies, being handed a small bottle of water to share between six or a Danish pastry between nine, and all with zero leadership or organisation, one would very much hope that these officials were extremely sorry!

The question is, though: does saying so at every opportunity make the situation better or worse?

Not so long ago, public officials just didn't do sorry.  Getting a politician, council leader, senior police officer or business bigwig who had fouled up to utter the 's' word was tougher than pulling an impacted wisdom tooth.  Then those wretched media trainers (and I should know, I used to be one) sprang out of nowhere and began teaching the Great and the Good 'how to communicate more effectively' and 'how to present a positive image in TV interviews'.  What this really meant, of course, was 'how to smoothly avoid answering any embarrassing questions whilst appearing sincere and forthcoming'.

As part of this cynical plan, some genius hit on the idea of saying 'sorry'.  Why not?  It doesn't cost a penny.  It doesn't involve any work, planning or decision-making.  It makes you look less like a remote cabinet minister and more like a decent bloke who's merely doing his best.

And to start with, it was effective because it was new, different, attention-grabbing.  Pretty soon, however, it became, inevitably, a victim of its own success.  If everyone is personally sorry about everything all the time, it becomes meaningless.

We've now reached the point where politicians apologise personally for things that occurred before they were born.  Whilst we can all agree it's terrible that people used to be sold into slavery, and that the bombing of Dresden in 1945 was, at least, questionable, if you weren't around at the time, you surely cannot, by definition, have anything to feel personally sorry for.  Didn't we establish 2,000 years ago that the sins of the father shouldn't be visited on the sons?

In a different arena, have you noticed that every announcement about a delayed or cancelled train now includes a personal apology?  The trouble is, you know it's impersonal: the announcer can't be genuinely moved by the late-running of the 17.42 to Guildford and the cancellation of the 18.06 to Strawberry Hill and every other service irregularity day in, day out.  What's more, most of these announcements are now recorded messages, scheduled by computer: no member of staff even has to be sufficiently sorry to press a button.  What could be more patronising, not to mention downright nonsensical, than a machine saying "I am very sorry..." - not even "we" or "South West Trains are very sorry..." - "...for the late running of this service"?

And, of course, it seeps into everyday life.  How often now do you see a mum out with her two children and, when one does something unspeakable to the other, the only punishment is being told to: "Say sorry to your sister"?  The offender does so willingly - it costs him nothing, unlike a smack or the withdrawl of privileges.  He isn't sorry at all, though, and all parties know it, so where is the sense of justice for his walloped little sister?  Once she's finished howling, she will strike back for the retribution her parent failed to obtain, safe in the knowledge that she too will only be required to utter a meaningless word as punishment.

How are we ever to turn the tide on all this handwringing, crocodile tear-splashed regret?  I suppose we can only hope those in power, their mouth pieces and their media trainers will finally realise we no longer believe they're remotely sorry - if we ever did. 

Don't hold your breath.

1 comment:

  1. I hear what you're saying... but I reckon an apology is better than no apology. If things have to be either black or white (which we know they seldom are), then I'd as soon err on the side that is kind. It is kinder to say you're sorry than to give the impression you don't give a monkey's. I guess there are two schools of thought on this one - many people hate Americans' habit of wishing you a nice day, whereas I reckon that there are far worse things in life than someone wishing me a nice day. They don't actually have to mean it!