The value of an Apology? Usually Nothing

I have never been good with my temper but there are some things that really tick me off. Near the top of my list is an empty apology. I get these a lot when I call the help line of a large company. Something isn't working so I call. I eventually end up with someone named "Bob" or "Susie" (who definitely does NOT sound like a Bob or Susie). I explain my problem and immediately receive the programmed, standard issue, repeated so many times it is committed to memory apology, "I am so sorry for your inconvenience, I am sure that must be frustrating."

Quite often Bob and Susie can't help me so I am transferred to "Bill" (again, sounding like no Bill I have ever met). After repeating my previous information verbatim, Bill inevitably says, "I am so sorry for your inconvenience, I am sure it must be frustrating."

I must confess that on a few occasions I have replied, "What is really frustrating is having someone half way around the world repeat an empty and meaningless apology! I would prefer it if someone just fixed my problem!"

The empty apology has become a part of our culture. Doctors are notorious for this. Too many patients have waited for over an hour in an office, ultimately to be told  "I am sorry for your wait." I don't think they are truly sorry, it seems to me that if someone is truly sorry that they should do something to make amends, something to indicate that they actually care.

I have started doing this in my practice. If I am not in the exam room within 30 minutes of an appointment time, I give the patient a Starbucks gift card. On those extremely rare occasions where the wait is over an hour, I waive co-pays or don't charge at all. Perhaps it is because meaningful apologies are rare, but I have seen these gestures have a profound impact. Frowns turn into smiles and anger fades when the patient realizes that we value them and their time.

There is another benefit as well. Now that being late actually costs me something, I seem to make a more concerted effort to be on time! Makes me think I should be like this in all areas of my life. Imagine if every time I was rude, late or inconsiderate my apology was accompanied by a gift card! If being a jerk had real consequences, I might be nicer!

- Bart

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