I was recently a (very small) party to a discussion among authors about how to handle an aggrieved reader. The said reader was disappointed in the author’s second book, and left a message that seemed both strong and articulate. It’s never pleasant to hear that someone didn’t like something you did, but the reader did express a clear and honest reaction to the work. The question was how or if the author should reply.
I expressed the opinion that it might be appropriate to say something like, “I’m sorry the work disappointed you. . .” and go on to acknowledge the reader’s obvious investment in the work (and the author by extension) but some of the other writers felt it was wrong to apologize.
It’s not the first time I’ve encountered this idea that an apology instantly means accepting fault of some kind. I think, rather, that it’s an expression of compassion. A way to acknowledge that the other party feels hurt. It’s also a way to instantly defuse a difficult situation. Recent studies suggest that families suing physicians over significant injury and even death will often settle for an apology.
Is it a sign of weakness to express your regret for something that another person finds upsetting? If a friend’s pet died, we would likely say “I’m sorry,” as a display of solidarity. And in a conversation that is getting nowhere, the words “I’m sorry, I think we’re having a failure to communicate” can often get the conversation back on track by suggesting that both parties find a better way to express–and to hear–what should be said.
I sometimes wonder what might happen if more people were willing to practice, as the poet Piet Hein put it, “The noble art of losing face.” And if you don’t feel the same, well, I’m sorry.