The art of apologising is being lost..

20th June 2003 at 01:00
...In every walk of life, all we come up against are excuses, euphemisms and, sometimes, lies

Maybe it's the exhaustion that sets in at this time of the year, or maybe it's the weather. Maybe it's a bizarre alignment of Neptune and Venus, or maybe it's that other people simply can do their jobs properly. Whatever it is, it most definitely is not my fault.

Recently, I've been making an embarrassing series of mistakes. Not howlers, but stupid, thoughtless things. Sending the wrong form to the wrong person.

Calling a meeting, then forgetting why. Working with a kid and neglecting to inform the relevant people. Things that have come to light and caused that extra bit of annoyance, that unnecessary phone call or memo and hassle when I could have been getting on with something else. My line manager has been patient and understanding. The people involved have brushed it aside because, thankfully, I'm not always screwing things up. But it's begun to play on my mind.

The first time it happened, I looked for someone to blame. My instructions hadn't been clear. The office staff must have directed the post wrongly.

There's an evil resident goblin in our school who comes out at night, sneaks into pigeonholes and takes away perfectly good memos, then deletes all memory of them from the relevant hard drive. But the second time it happened, the goblin story wouldn't wash. It was squarely down to me. I considered my options. Then I took the line of least resistance. I apologised. I took the blame. The effect was surprising. And here's the wonderful thing about apologising: it catches people out. They're just waiting for a string of excuses - overworked, underpaid, too little time - so when you come clean and distance yourself from the usual litany, you get a brilliant response. Everyone I've apologised to over the past few weeks has been charming. Understanding even. It's proved to be a brilliant tactic. After all, when faced with an apology, what can you do? Say "that's not good enough"? You could, but you'd come across as a meanie, if the person concerned was going all out to make reparations.

On reflection, I may have picked this up from the kids. Think of all those homework excuses you get: "I lost it", or "I left it at home", or "I had grade 8 oboe last night and when I got in I didn't have a chance to do it".

Each is a frustrating admission that your subject isn't the most important area in this kid's life when, like most self-respecting secondary teachers, you believe that it should be. But what do you do when faced with the simple, "I'm sorry Miss, I just didn't do it"? I always cave in. There's not a sarcastic riposte to that. "You'd forget your head if it wasn't screwed on" doesn't work; neither does "Does your dog make a habit of eating your homework, or does he just have a particular taste for English?"

Faced by unabashed honesty, there's not a lot you can do.

The art of apologising is being lost. In every walk of life, all we come up against are excuses, euphemisms and, sometimes, lies. We're not so computerised that human error has been completely eradicated, and there's something reassuring in knowing that other people make mistakes. Not that I'm trying to justify mine. I have been flagellating myself constantly since each one occurred. I'm just trying to practise what I preach with my form every morning. Take a bit of responsibility.

Gemma Warren is an assistant special needs co-ordinator at a London secondary school. Email:

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