I’m Sorry … And I Mean It!

Last week my husband was on a flight to Boston when the stewardess spilled a can of V8 all over the man sitting next to him. The man was drenched – V8 juice soaked into his lap, suit jacket, and white shirt. Some even got in his hair.

“I’d like to apologize,” the stewardess said, “But it wasn’t my fault. The can exploded. I can’t apologize for something that wasn’t my fault.”

Outrageously, the V8 can never apologized to the passenger. Perhaps because it was lacking lips and a brain.

A similar incident occurred several years ago. A teenage driver was speeding on our street while texting and lost control of her car. She deftly landed in our yard, though she had to crash through our picket fence to get there. When the girl’s mother arrived at the scene, she studied her daughter’s car and our fence before saying, “This isn’t so bad.” She then proceeded to ask us to not report it to our homeowners insurance.

Of course we were going to. This resulted in an exchange of some heated words.

Woman: My daughter is a good kid. She was in church all day.

My husband: I was in church today too, but you don’t see me crashing through people’s fences. What if my daughter had been in the yard when this happened?!

Woman (looking around): I don’t see any kids.

A simple “I’m sorry” would have made all the difference. Had the woman apologized, perhaps we would have calmed down and not contacted our insurance. We may have taken the woman’s offer to give us money to repair the fence and left insurance out of the equation. But nothing in her attitude gave us the impression she would follow through with that offer. Responsibility was not taken. A much needed apology never given.

If the stewardess on my husband’s flight had apologized for dumping a can of tomato juice on a passenger, other passengers might have felt bad for her. They may have left the flight talking about how well the stewardess handled the situation. Instead they spoke of how rude she was, and encouraged the V8 drenched man to file a complaint with the airline. When she shifted the blame to the self-imploding can, it made her look callous and immature.

Research has shown that patients are less likely to sue a doctor over a medical error if the physician simply says, “I’m sorry” in a kind way.* Whether it is pride or fear of a lawsuit, many doctors don’t take the time to apologize, which only makes the patient more angry and wanting retaliation – usually in the form of suing the doctor who made the mistake. But if the doctor apologizes, anger is quelled and a lawsuit is less likely to happen.

In most circumstances, it seems that two little words can change the course of events in a very big way.

* sources: Apologies and Medical Errors and Physician Apologies