Can we really elicit an apology?

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We may expect to get an apology for an offense committed against us but we sometimes don’t get one. Henry Alford’s opinion piece in the NYT offers one solution: apologize to the person who should have done the apologizing. It goes something like this:

(someone bumps into him)

Alford: Oh, I'm sorry you bumped into me.

Bumper: That's okay.

Alford calls this “reverse etiquette.” In an effort to elicit the expected politeness routine when somebody bumps into him, he tries to prime the pump by apologizing to the bumper. He admits, however, that this strategy doesn’t seem to work. But he tries again, more explicitly upping the ante with something like this:

Alford: I didn’t really mean for you to bump me with your bag.

Bumper: Don’t mention it.

Still no real recognition of what Alford wanted. He couldn’t seem to elicit an apology that way, which suggests that attempts to shame offenders into making apologies are likely to continue to fail. It’s questionable whether his term for this, “reverse etiquette,” is the right way to describe what is going on. Letters to the editor about Alford’s column weren't too happy, calling his strategy “passive aggressive misanthropy,” “judgmental,” and “self-righteous.” It doesn’t look much like etiquette at all.

I once tried the same thing when I wasn’t thanked for some act of kindness I’d performed. I thanked the person who should have done the thanking but I learned that this wasn’t a wise thing to do. It was actually an act of shaming. The first response I got was a frown. Then the non-thanker got angry with me for challenging his lack of etiquette. And he was probably right. It seems that it’s worse etiquette to shame people for their etiquette failures than to vainly (and self-righeously) attempt to help them recognize what they should have said in the first place.

If the speech acts of apologizing and thanking aren't genuine and conscious, they just don't work. And when we try to elicit them directly and explicity, we enter into an entirely new speech act, which comes pretty close to complaining, warning, or even threatening, all of which can be considered negative speech acts. In fact, it can sound a lot like the way our mothers used to correct us when we were children. So when we experience the uncomfortable absence of a positive speech act, like apologizing or thanking, there doesn't seem to be anything useful or productive that we can do about it. It seems to be better to just wince and let it go because it's much worse to appear holier than thou–or to sound like our mothers.

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