It’s So Hard to Say I’m Sorry
Serena Williams wanted an apology. The American tennis star was being assessed code violations in the championship match of the United States Open a week ago, and she was furious with the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos.
“You owe me an apology,” she demanded. “Say it! Say you’re sorry.”
Plenty of fans sided with Ms. Williams after she went on to lose to Naomi Osaka, but others defended Mr. Ramos as a fair-minded official. It was Ms. Williams, they insisted, who should apologize for marring the tournament’s finish.
In the end, the only person to apologize was the one whom no one could find fault with.
“I know that everyone was cheering for her,” Ms. Osaka, who at 20 years old had just won her first Grand Slam title, told the crowd afterward. “I’m sorry it had to end like this.”
To some observers, that was the biggest injustice of the tournament. “It’s too bad that what should have been a moment of joy and triumph for her was spoiled by booing in the audience and that she found it necessary to apologize for beating the crowd favorite,” Margaret McGirr wrote in a letter to The Times.
This probably didn’t surprise Margaret Renkl, who has noted the difficulty that people have apologizing even when public opinion turns against them. Looking at a few high-profile cases, like what was widely seen as a racist tweet by the actress Roseanne Barr, “there is plenty to suggest that almost no one in public life knows what it means to be truly remorseful,” Ms. Renkl wrote in The Times. “Or at least how to express remorse.”
But that is knowledge that can be learned. Ask anyone, like Ms. Renkl, who is familiar with what is often called “Catholic guilt.”
“One of the most useful things Catholic school taught me is the fundamental structure of apology,” she wrote. And she traces that structure directly to one prayer, the Act of Contrition, which begins: “O my God, I am heartily sorry …”
By the time you reach the end of the prayer, Ms. Renkl wrote, you learn that a true apology includes genuine remorse, an acceptance of consequences, and a resolution not to commit the offense again or to even put yourself in a position where you might.
The prayer, she wrote, is “a good basic template for something that no longer seems basic at all: knowing how to clean up a mess of your own making.”
Of course, not everyone is inclined to look to catechism for guidance on contrition, especially now. “God knows the world is still waiting for the Catholic Church to apologize for some criminal errors of its own,” Ms. Renkl wrote.
But perhaps there is a method of apology to be learned from one of the world’s other great religions: soccer. If you watched any of the World Cup this summer, you most likely saw it, many times: players who have failed at a goal-scoring opportunity, raising their hands and clasping them to their heads. Stars do it. Teams do it in unison. Psychologists and zoologists have studied the move, and they say it can convey disbelief, or shame.
Or, like the Act of Contrition, good old-fashioned remorse.
It signifies that “you know you messed up,” said Jessica Tracy, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. “It’s going to tell others, ‘I get it and I’m sorry, therefore you don’t have to kick me out of the group, you don’t have to kill me.’ ”