Yesterday, I found myself apologizing after uttering hurtful words.
I was recently asked to speak at a large gathering and in the process, offended someone I knew in the audience. I didn’t know I’d done so until I received an email from her a few days after the fact, telling me what exactly I said that was so hurtful. I called her immediately and apologized.
The first thing I did was acknowledge that what I’d said hurt her. I took responsibility – period. An apology is not about self-justification; it’s about making amends. There’s no “But . . .” after “I’m sorry.”
We talked, this woman and I. She said she needed to get it off her chest so that it didn’t come between us when we saw each other, as we occasionally do.
She’d titled her email, “The things we say . . .” and wrote that she “was hurt and disappointed by what I said,” not something she expected of me, “a wordsmith who prides herself on careful and meaningful self-expression.”
Acknowledging the harm I caused.
This cut to the core. I acknowledged that my hyperbole was ill considered. I wished I’d thought of some of the alternatives she suggested in her email. I agreed that what I said was thoughtless and hurtful. In hindsight, I see how not only unnecessary but wrong it is to praise one thing by disparaging another. I now recognize that I need to be as careful speaking extemporaneously as I try to be in writing, when I have more time to consider and control my words.
I so wish I could erase my spoken words the way I can edit my written ones.
Speaking is not the same as writing.
And here’s an irony: the man who asked me to speak is someone who speaks brilliantly extemporaneously as well as someone who’s consulted me to help him capture his words on the page. Now it’s my turn to learn from him.
I thanked the woman I offended for reaching out to me, for letting me know. Learning how I offended her and speaking with greater care is a start toward making amends. I hope that by taking responsibility and apologizing I’ve made a step toward repairing the relationship I have with this woman, perhaps even deepening it. I feel as if I’m indebted to her, even though I am also deeply ashamed.
So I can try harder, speak more kindly, and remember that writing and speaking are not only about what I have to say, but also about my audience, and what and how they will hear my words. If I don’t speak kindly, who will listen to me?
Sadly, knowing how to make a thorough apology is an important skill I’ve had to use fairly often. It would be better if I didn’t offend in the first place.