Sunday, September 12, 2010

Nose Down, Eyes Up: The Art of Apology

The art of apology is a tricky thing. People have been working on it since the first ape stole somebody else's bananas. Dogs mastered it back in the caveman days when we decided it was worth our while to put up with humans. If we hadn't figured out how to melt hearts, we would still be sleeping outdoors.

Apologies make big news. How Pacific Gas and Electric Co. apologizes for an exploding neighborhood is a touchy business. Everyone wants to hear they feel bad - that it won't happen again - even though it will. Pacific Gas knows that have to say sorry but they don't want to get in trouble. Maybe it isn't even their fault - I haven't heard yet. But Pacific Gas has had plenty of practice in apologizing for everything from power outages to SmartMeters so they may do just fine.

Other companies like Enron, BP and the U.S. government struggle with the art of apology. BP and the government have still failed to apologize properly for the wrecking the Gulf with their arrogant drilling. This makes people mad and cynical and drive past BP gas stations shaking their fists. Although cars still need gas so I doubt BP is very worried.

A good apology always has three elements - acknowledgment, regret, and responsibility. Bill Clinton 's non-denial made him look stoopid and brought more wrath upon him than a simple acknowledgment could have ever done. Tiger Woods did a better job than Bill with speedy acknowledgment and, even though he messed up on a far grander scale, his scandal blew over more quickly. Of course, he just plays golf.

When I am discovered wallowing in shredded evidence (oh, glorious trash!), it is pretty obvious that acknowledgement is the first step to clearing the air. It just doesn't work to say,"I did not have dining relations with that garbage can, Kitchen Trash Can."

Regret can be tricky. Do I really feel bad about strewing trash around the kitchen. Not really. Do I feel bad about getting yelled at by family?  Most certainly. But I found that a well-executed apology can bring peace much faster than arguing, smirking or walking away looking non-plussed. (Watch and learn, Boy#1.)

As I said, successful dogs everywhere figured out the power of apology back in the cave days. We have been working on smoothing human-canine relations for thousands of years. I think we have it down.

Nose Down, Eyes Up: A Novel
Nose Down, Eyes Up: A Novel
Nothing deflates people wrath like sad dog eyes. In Merrill Markoe's book, Nose Down, Eyes Up: A Novel, the main dog Jimmy leads informal motivational seminars for the neighborhood canines to instruct them in the art of manipulating their human masters. Jimmy is certainly right that "nose down, eyes up" can get you a place sleeping on the bed, a treat, a walk. But it also makes for a fine apology.

Susan's childhood springer spaniel Cecil would launch pre-emptive apologies by putting himself into a time-out, alone in the bathroom, long before his infraction was discovered. Although it sometimes took the family awhile to figure out exactly what he had chewed up, his sad spaniel face flat on the bathmat and "time served" got him off lightly every time.

My Susan's lack of speeding tickets is the stuff of legend in our house. Here are three stories that demonstrate the art of apology - acknowledgment, regret, and responsibility. It also helps to be a little clueless. (So...this trash limits?)

Story One: Ditzy Teen
Susan tells of her first brush with the law as a freshly licensed teen zooming through an industrial park at night. She wasn't joy-riding, she was lost and so quite relieved when the squad car following her pulled up alongside her mom's car.

"Oh! Thank goodness you are here! Lucky me!" she exclaimed, "Can you tell me how to get to...?"

The police officer raised his eyebrows, glanced amusedly at his partner, "Do you know why we pulled you over?"

"I am so lost! I am trying to get to..." she said waving her map.

"Do you know why we pulled you over?" The officer persisted. A blank look from Susan (They pulled me over?). "You were going pretty fast. Do you know how fast you were going?"

"Oh gosh!  I am so sorry! I was speeding? I didn't mean to speed. I'm just so turned around here..."

Nose down, eyes up. Acknowledgment. Regret.

As Susan tells it, the officers rolled their eyes at each other, gave her a firm lecture on attentive driving and escorted her back to the main road.

Story Two: Young Mother
The next time Susan was caught speeding was in Arizona, Boy#1 strapped in his car seat. They were on vacation and driving a rental car with a much bigger engine that her accustomed Honda Civic. It was an open, straight highway with no cars in sight. Well, other than the Arizona state trooper bearing down on her with the flashing lights in the rearview mirror.

"Ma'm, I need you step out of the car." The sunglasses glinting, hand resting near his gun. Gulp.

Susan couldn't help noting as she got up and straightened up her full six feet that the officer was a little fellow - maybe 5' 5". He noticed too and puffed himself up.

Separating woman from her baby and husband, the patrolman marched her back behind the car. She stood in the hot sun in public humiliation as cars whizzed by (Wasn't it an empty road before?).

The officer sat in his car running her license. Susan waited on the shoulder. Finally, the trooper strode over slowly and stood looking up her, hands on hips. "Do you know how fast you were going?"

At which point Susan burst into tears and tried to look as small as possible. Nose down, eyes up. Heck, belly up.

lecture on attentive driving and "protecting the little one" ensued.

Story Three: Veteran Mom with Teen Cargo

A dozen years later, Susan and the boys headed north. (And no, I am not completely clear why I was left behind...something about keeping Dave company and their need to eat in restaurants...humph.) Susan was driving the familiar highway going south from Grand Marais. A fun day behind them, they were gabbing as they zoomed along.

"Bad word! Bad word! Bad word!" Susan yelled pulling over at the sight of sheriff lights in her mirror. "Keep quiet, boys, Mom was speeding."

"Afternoon ma'am. Do you know how fast you were going?" asks the sheriff.

OK, a word about this question, which is obviously in the cop manual. How do you answer this question?

1. No. (implying you are inattentive)
2. Yes. (implying you are flaunting the law)
3. I was speeding? (classic non-denial, could be read as manipulative and disingenuous)

"Afternoon ma'am. Do you know how fast you were going?" asks the sheriff.

Now, Susan had known full well this fellow wasn't pulling over her to give her directions. Dollar signs rolled through her head as she calculated the price of the ticket pondered the implications on future car insurance. She wondered if the past warnings remained in his squad car computer.

It seemed to her, this one was the one when luck would run out. Three strikes and all. And she would take it on the chin. Pay up. Be a good role model for the boys in the back. Make it a teachable moment and all that.

"I'm sorry, I don't know how fast I was going, I was distracted. I am really sorry." She sighed, resigned.

The sheriff's eyes flicked over the Subaru wagon, packed to the gills with camping gear and vacation detritus. He took in the wide-eyed boys and perhaps the lack of adult partner (possibly sliding her into nice, single mom taking boys camping category). He absorbed Susan's resigned silence and wafting embarrassment.

"You were going 74 in a 55. Looks like you have plenty of distractions - so you need to slow down and take care."

Susan's driving record remains clean.

Now, you may be wondering where Responsibility comes in, as Susan talked or cried her way out of every speeding ticket. This is why, when she parked facing the wrong way at Como Park early one morning - and caused, through her example, the entire street of cars to park backwards and receive parking tickets too - she paid up without argument and wished she could pay the other thirty tickets too.

You may also be wondering why I am thinking about the art apology. Did I eat one of Boy#2's stuffed animals? Have I been exploring under the deck again? What happened to those muffins on the counter?

If I get pulled over, I'll let you know.

1 comment:

  1. So many chuckles! Thanks.

    In my experience, men are much more likely to get tickets in the same types of situations. Perhaps it's one time when sexism works to our advantage. The only time I actually got a speeding ticket was from a woman trooper.