If you are honest with yourself and others, you probably should to apologize for something or other several times a day. You forgot your sister’s birthday. You stumbled into an ad rep while walking backward down the hall and expounding upon last night’s episode of “Scandal.” Or maybe you screwed up something more serious at work.
It is that last possibility with which we concern ourselves today.
Earlier this fall, a very nice lady named Cody Davis posted the following comment on a five-year-old story:
Hey, I’m a female! And I graduated as Airman Apprentice Davis, thank you very much!
Would that all complaints were so polite. At issue was a 2008 brief in the Half Moon Bay Review noting a local’s graduation from a military program. It began:
Navy Seaman Recruit Cody E. Davis, son of Paula E. Garst of El Granada and Pat I. Davis of Pescadero, recently completed U.S. Navy basic training at Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Ill.
Somehow. in those 34 words, we managed to get her gender wrong, misspell her mother’s name and botch her rank. That is strike three and completely defeats the purpose. Good grief. …
So what now? At this point, your words and your tone are going to determine whether you make a friend or an enemy.
I am pretty free with apologies over the phone and via email, and pretty stingy with them in print. I’m not talking about corrections. Those are different and have been discussed elsewhere in the blog. People understand that we make mistakes, even if at first they are pretty outraged. I often point out to people that we print more than 30 locally written stories every week, maybe 10,000 words worth. We are bound to misplace a couple of those words from time to time. I think reasonable people can understand that. In most circumstances, there is no shame in admitting you made a mistake. (There are select instances with legal consequences that require a different kind of nuance. If you think you run up against one of those, consult your supervisor.)
When I need to apologize to a reader, I usually say that I’m terribly sorry for the mix up and that I’ll get to the bottom of it. Then I point out the possible ways it may have happened, noting that sometimes mistakes aren’t solely our fault. Here’s my note to Cody, after reading her comment:
We are terribly sorry, Cody! Since this was five years ago it’s hard to know where we went wrong — whether the press release we got from the Navy wrongly referred to you as a “he” or whether we just flat screwed up, which is certainly possible.
What are you up to these days, if you don’t mind my asking? I’ll run a correction and I’d love to say what you’re doing now.
Again, my apologies and congrats on your service.
We traded another couple of emails and I sought to find out what happened in this case. That search led me to a guy named John Sheppard, who is the public information officer for the Navy’s Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Ill. He told me that thousands of trainees come through his program and they are all given a form to fill out, by hand, and turn in to a contractor in another state entirely. I think it’s more likely that whoever was transcribing Cody’s handwriting in Virginia messed it up long before we got our mitts on it.
Which brings me to tone. I could have told Cody it was probably the Navy’s fault. I could have railed about the arcane Naval process that cost me an hour’s sleuthing. Instead I wrote this. I acknowledged the mistake. I explained it as best I could. And I tried really hard not to sound defensive.
Apologies are an art. You know an insincere one when you hear it. If people don’t respond the way you hope, work on your tone.