Saturday, 14 November 2020

Three Little Words by Lynne Benton

 Some years ago, the famous actor Charlton Heston was asked in an interview, “What is the secret of your long and happy marriage?”

He smiled and said, “Three little words – ‘I was wrong.’”

Not what people were expecting to hear, I’m sure, but I think he was spot on!  It was the equivalent of saying “Sorry”, only it meant much more – it meant being prepared to admit he was not always right. 

And how rare a quality is that?

When did you last hear a politician utter those words?  You may have to think back, and back, and back…  They may, very occasionally, say “Sorry”, though even that is rare, but they will never, never admit to having been at fault in the first place.  Instead, when forced to admit they got something wrong, it’s not only politicians who sometimes avoid apologising properly by adding that weasel word “if”.  There is a world of difference between saying “I’m sorry I upset you”, which means “I regret that what I said upset you, and I apologise”, and “I’m sorry if you were upset by what I said”, which effectively means “I was right to say it, so if you were upset it was your choice and I take no responsibility."  It puts the onus right back on the person who was upset, or offended, so it is no apology at all.  Everyone gets things wrong sometimes, so why not admit it?

The words “Never apologise, never explain”, are often attributed to Winston Churchill, but were actually a misquote from Benjamin Disraeli, who said, “Never complain and never explain.”  Which is rather different. 

We all teach our children to say sorry for any misdemeanour, as in “Say sorry to your brother for taking his toy!” or “Say sorry for being naughty.”  Though admittedly a forced apology is not as good as an unforced one, we hope that by the time they are grown up they will have imbibed the necessity to apologise for whatever they have done wrong.  They should all be familiar with the word from an early age.

When I wrote my first book, many years ago, it was a retelling of a folk tale for the educational market.  It was the story of a couple who were given three wishes but foolishly misused them, so they end up apologising to each other.  A very moral tale – and of course I needed to use the word “Sorry”.

However, my editor told me the advisors had said I couldn’t use “Sorry” – because 7 year-old children couldn’t read that word!!!  I was horrified, but at that stage not confident enough to argue, so I asked what they wanted me to put instead.  The reply was, “You should write 'I shouldn’t have done it',” which seemed to me very unwieldy and a lot more difficult to read than “Sorry”.  Still, I did as I was told and altered it accordingly, though I wasn’t happy about it.  Shortly after that my editor got back to me and said, “We’ve decided you can use “Sorry” after all!”  Apparently someone else writing for the same series needed it for her book too, so they’d decided maybe children should learn to read it!  And a good thing too.

It is such a valuable word, and it makes so much difference to the person who is being apologised to.  Whenever we do or say something that upsets someone else, saying “Sorry,” really does help. 

An article in The Independent in 2004 said:

"Sorry'' is a necessary word in marriage and friendship, unless you happen to be a saint, which is a rare condition. "Sorry'' is balm to wounds, and breaks cold silences. It's often the prelude to kissing and making up. It may be painful to say "sorry''. It means you have to swallow your pride. But such apologies have to be spontaneous to be worth anything. An apology extracted is a humiliation that satisfies only the pride of the recipient. It heals no wounds, may even breed resentment in the person forced to say "sorry''.

I’ve always thought it a great shame, even though I know there are legal difficulties, if someone is involved in a minor accident, that they are not supposed to say “Sorry!”.  Legally, apparently, that means they have admitted blame, even if it’s not their fault.  But I still think it would make people feel a lot better if someone actually apologised for something they’d got wrong.  I often think it would be very useful to have a little button in your car that you could press if you realised you'd made a mistake, such as getting in the wrong lane, or forgetting to signal.  If "Sorry!" flashed up on the back windscreen, the driver behind would know you were apologising for your mistake.  Hopefully he/she might accept your apology instead of getting stressed and shouting at you or giving you the finger.  It could even lead to less road rage!

Of course, in order to properly apologise, we have to admit to having been wrong in the first place.  In other words, we have to be a bit humble.  Some people seem to think this is a sign of weakness – I’m sure we all remember a certain person in a position of authority across the pond telling an interviewer “I am a very humble person.  I am more humble than you can possibly imagine!”  Without realising that insisting that he was the best at everything, including humility, somewhat negated what he was trying to say!

Sometimes those three little words, "I was wrong", may make all the difference to how our friends, and in some cases the world, see us.

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Susan Price said...

I'm sorry, Lynne! -- Sorry to argue, that is, because I agree with your argument. But I rather balked at Heston being your example. He's a very right-wing gun lobbyist. His rifle would 'have to be prised from his cold, dead hand' as I remember.

With what I know of him, I take his marriage advice as a piece of pure sexism: 'Silly women always have to have the last word, so tell them you're sorry and they'll be happy, like the children of greater growth they are, while you can stand there smirking in your superior masculinity, knowing you were right all along.'

Sorry, Lynne! My problem really isn't with you -- a sincere, honest apology truly is a rare and valuable thing, especially in politics.

But Heston? Can't stand the man.

Lynne Benton said...

Oh dear! So sorry, Sue - and of course I agree re the gun thing - I should have done more thorough research into the man, rather than just remembering the one thing I knew about him which I liked! (But I still think apologies are important!)

Susan Price said...

Apologies are important! No argument there.

Andrew Preston said...


Is that quote actually of something Heston said, or is it an extrapolation of your views. It's just that I find it rather hard to accept that readership of The Guardian, or perhaps The Independent..., or the holding of left of centre, Democratic, or 'woke' views... automatically endows a superior knowledge of, or insight into, the dynamics of someone else's marriage.

Sue Purkiss said...

Lynne - what an interesting - and different - post! Would be interested to know what provoked it...