One of my mom’s best stories tells of a time when she was in Grad School at the University of Florida. She lived in an apartment with two roommates who had nothing in common. One of them had made some pepper steak with noodles and left it in the refrigerator, intending to eat it the next day. But by the next day, all the pieces of pepper steak had vanished, and nothing was left but the noodles. The roommate left the following note on the fridge: I HOPE THE BASTARD THAT ATE MY PEPPER STEAK ENJOYED IT! (By the way, there’s a whole website dedicated to passive-aggressive refrigerator notes.) Later that day, a reply was found attached to that same note: DEAR PEPPER STEAK, YOU WERE DELICIOUS! SIGNED, THE BASTARD.

Funny, but not exactly an apology. Most of us apologize only slightly better than this. We say, “Look, I’m sorry… but you really need to lighten up, it wasn’t that big of a deal.” Or, “Hey I’m sorry if you got offended, but you kind of deserved it.” (Ever heard those ones before? Did you feel any better afterwards? Probably not.)

I think nursing home residents rarely, if ever, get any real apologies. The staff throw out a hasty “Sorry, but I was busy” when they forget to bring a meal tray, or forget to help someone into bed. As a volunteer, I’m not much better. I don’t show up when I say I’m going to, or I forget to bring something from the store that I promised I would pick up. I see a resident flagging me down and I say, “I’ll be right back”, but then I forget and never come back.

I think the reason I don’t apologize much for these things is that, deep down, I feel like I’m providing a service to the nursing home residents. I’m taking time out of my busy day to visit them, right? If I don’t do a perfect job, they should just get over it, right? Deep down, I feel like I don’t owe anybody at the nursing home anything, so why apologize?

I’m trying to be more mindful of this, and offer real apologies to nursing home residents when one is deserved. I read an interesting article about apologizing in Enterpreneur magazine of all places. Did you know there are 3 (sometimes 4) steps in a real apology? I sure didn’t. They are:

  1. Admission of guilt (this is especially important if the other party isn’t even aware of what you did).
  2. Explanation of your actions (you can defend yourself a little here)
  3. Expression of remorse
  4. Reparations (optional, in some cases the apology itself is enough).

To apply this to our pepper steak incident:

  1. Sandy, I was the one who ate your pepper steak.
  2. I knew it wasn’t mine. But I was hungry Thursday night, and it looked so good. I couldn’t stop myself.
  3. I’m really sorry I did that. I promise to be more respectful of your possessions in the future.
  4. Could I make it up to you by cooking you a new pepper steak this weekend, and we could have dinner together?

Now there’s a real apology! See the difference between that and, “Look, I’m sorry, but get over it, it was just a stupid pepper steak”?  Now, for the a nursing home:

  1. Hi, could I speak to Mrs. Clark? Hello, Mrs. Clark? It’s me, Steve. I know I didn’t come by to see you today, even though I said I would.
  2. I got held up at work, and then the kids were anxious for me to come home.
  3. I’m sorry I did that to you. I promise next time I’ll call beforehand to let you know, so you won’t be waiting for me.
  4. I’m not doing anything this Saturday, what if the kids and I stop by for a visit?

As is often the case of the lessons we learn at the nursing home, they transfer into our personal lives too. This I promise you: a well thought-out and sincere apology can melt a heart of stone. As the receiver, we succumb to its power; it swallows up our anger even against our own desires (because dammit, I still want to be mad at you!). It replaces that anger with compassion and forgiveness. An apology works wonders for our relationships – I have witnessed its powers first hand when I’ve been brave enough to offer one. For whatever reason, it usually stings a bit to apologize. But sometimes, if you dig deep enough and admit to yourself that what you did was wrong, it can feel really good.

Hey, I’m sorry that this reflection on apologies was so long, but it’s your own fault for reading it anyway! (Ok, guess I’ve still got some work to do…)