Rhiannon Harries: I'm sorry but apologising really isn't that difficult

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The Independent Online

I should probably start by saying a quick sorry. I've no idea what for, but that doesn't matter – it's a word I use as an involuntary preface for everything these days. Step on my toe on the Tube and you can expect an apology. Give me dirty cutlery in a restaurant and you're guaranteed my complaint will begin, "I'm really sorry but..."

Even I find this mealy-mouthed, please-don't-hate-me strain of Tourette's rather irritating, not least on account of its blatant insincerity. But it certainly seems to get results – usually there's a bit of reciprocal apologising, goodwill is established and everyone goes away happy.

A recent study showed that disgruntled customers are twice as likely to keep using the services of a business that apologises for bad service than one that offers financial compensation. Clearly, the British love a bit of verbal contrition, so why wait until you've actually done anything wrong to start winning people over?

It's all the more surprising, then, when public figures who have well and truly ballsed up or offended a large section of the population, even inadvertently, seem so recalcitrant about using the s-word. The truculent-sounding apology from the former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith (pictured) over her expenses claims last week was so overdue and well-qualified when it finally did come that she may as well not have bothered.

Likewise, the power of an apology seems to have been lost on the nation's erstwhile favourite old dodderer Bruce Forsyth. It might have been Anton du Beke whose comments kicked off the Strictly Come Dancing race row, but somehow his "unreserved apology" on live TV has left him in considerably better stead than Brucie, whose BBC statement seemed to lack any real expression of personal regret for his own rather ill-judged contributions.

For too many people, an apology simply translates to an admission of guilt, which is probably why I've yet to meet anyone within the finance industry who would touch the word "sorry" with a bargepole.

But saying sorry is also a simple acknowledgment of regret at the effects of one's actions, unintended or not. Anyone who has ever apologised for something they feel genuinely bad about will know how inadequate one's grovelling seems, and yet more often than not the gesture goes a long way towards healing a rift.

I suppose it's actually helpful that not everyone is jumping on the apology bandwagon. If someone is so unrepentant that they're not even willing to muster a convincing "sorry", at least we know where we stand. They're clearly not sorry now – though I suspect most will be later.