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The Art of the Apology – Canadians wrote the book on ‘I’m sorry, sort of’

There’s a long-running joke, told at our expense, pitched to viewing audiences by UK or American talk show hosts, with openers such as: “How can you tell if a person you just met is a Canadian?”

Pause for punchline.

“Well, if when you say, ‘Nice to meet you,’ they clutch both your hands (pre-COVID) and blurt out, ‘I’m sorry. I’m SO—ooo sorry, eh?’ Well, then you know they’re from Canada. It’s like an intro thing with them (us). Maybe it’s the cold, who knows?”

Ha ha hah. Good times. With Fallon, Kimmel, Corden or Colbert getting all the belly laughs.

The comedic shout-out to Canada still gets laughs because we’re seen (or depicted) as a nation of nice people (generally) who sprinkle their speech with more ‘I’m sorries’ than seems necessary or humanly possible.

My generation comes by it honestly.

Growing up, we learned that a well-timed and tearful ‘I’m sorry,’ after bad behaviour, could save us from all kinds of perils and punishment. Lost TV privileges, no allowance, or being “grounded.”

In public school, most classroom conflicts and recess rough housing got resolved by teachers urging us: ‘Now, say you’re sorry to each other.’ And we did … and poof, it was over. Like magic.

So by adulthood, we were well versed at saying ‘sorry’ as a first line of defence, or to lessen any unpleasant consequences of our actions. Or, in legal language, to mitigate our damages.

The word ‘sorry’ comes more easily for some than others. But while outsiders may think we’re all profusely or habitually sorry-sayers, that is only true for some people.

A Scots friend of mine, once rebuked me sternly for my mea culpa, my bad, all my fault, heartfelt apology — with card and bottle of Bacardi rum — for forgetting his 70th birthday.

“Listen, my little darlin,’ ” he said, in his Scottish brogue, “never, ever, apologize. Not to nobody. Not for nothing. Never.”

I spared him my usual pedantic lecture on polite parlance (and good grammar.) But he waxed on, waving his nicotine-stained finger at me, then leaning in close, as if sharing a trade secret:

“Apologizing is a sign of weakness,” he said.

He kept to his mantra till the day he died. And I never once heard him say he was ‘sorry.’ Not for being rude, being late, opinionated, or much less charming and more caustic with  friends — with each successive rum and coke.

Yet, he was never without an appreciative pub audience who laughed at his jokes and egged him on to re-tell hilarious, tall tales of his police service in Winnipeg, and later life as jail guard.

I still think he was wrong on the ‘no sorries.’

Just as I think a romantic Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal) and his doomed love Jenny (Ali McGraw) in the movie, Love Story, were wrong in saying: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Certainly I’m no movie producer, or scriptwriter, but as a former editor, I’d have left the line in that scene on the cutting room floor. It’s just silly.

Mortals like me — who aren’t big movie stars —  know there’s times to bite your tongue and say ‘sorry’ to make amends or keep the peace. And there’s no script or app for that. We just have to wing it, choosing if, and when, to say, “I’m sorry’ based on feelings, war fatigue and wisdom.

Leaders, politicians and all people in those lofty positions of power, prestige and influence, on the other hand, they need to know when it is the right time to offer an unequivocal apology. 

So when Ms. Julie Payette, Canada’s vice-regal representative of our monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, announced her resignation this week, it was  like waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The Canadian-made, “I’m sorry” shoe.

All this came about, of course, after a CBC investigative probe, and the recent release of an independent report based on talking with Rideau Hall employees, some of whom alleged a “toxic” “poisoned” workplace environment there.

So I was disappointed that in Payette’s exit speech, there was no clear, contrite, famously Canadian, “stand alone,” apology to staff in the lead of Payette’s exit speech. Instead, there is some “sort of sorry,” buried in the body of it.

There may be any number of reasons for this: Personal choice, protocol, legal considerations. However, we are told Payette did make this remark in the House, an apology, “for that.”

“Tensions have arisen at Rideau Hall over the past few months and for that, I am sorry,” she said, while also highlighting that, “no formal complaints or official grievances were made during my tenure.”

The only ‘sorry’ in that admittedly out-of-context remark, was for any tensions and the focus was on what was not reported. Quite baffling, really. For me, her departing script needed a sincere, sure-footed, “I am sorry.”

But I’m not one of 92 or more people who most needed to hear Payette’s apology. That may come in, what Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (the one at the top who selected Payette) often terms, somewhat vaguely, as “the coming days.”

I won’t hold my breath.

Teresa Mallam is an award winning writer. Her credits include a Jack Webster Award of Distinction, BC Law Society Award for Excellence in Legal Reporting and Canadian Authors Association (CAA) award for Best Investigative Journalism, as well as several Black Press media  awards for her columns, court coverage and news features.

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