Commentary: An Apology Can Ease Frustration

Sep 10, 2014

We have all heard the saying, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” In this commentary, Patrice Gopo says an apology can be just as important.


Patrice Gopo

Recently, as my husband and I were leaving a hotel, a stranger tried to hand him her keys with the expectation that he would park her car. What followed was the awkward moment when my husband explained he was waiting for the valet to bring his car around.

“Oh,” the woman said. “You were just standing there.”

Her voice trailed off as she looked for the appropriate person to take her keys. Moments before she had asked a parking attendant to bring her car around again because she had forgotten something. Just after she retrieved the forgotten item, she popped out of her car and tried to hand my husband her keys. As he and I climbed into our car and drove away, I saw that the young men working at the valet counter all wore matching navy blue Polos.

“I guess she didn’t notice your green shirt,” I said to my husband. And we couldn’t help but wonder if the stranger assumed my husband’s role because of his brown skin. “But all the valet attendants are white,” I added, still puzzled by what had happened.

It seemed there was much this woman hadn’t noticed about the parking situation. Of course we have all been in situations like this before. In Target I stop and ask a woman with a red shirt for help without noticing her cart holds a baby and not merchandise for re-shelving. Only after apologizing for my mistake do I see she’s also wearing jeans instead of khaki pants.

We use mental shortcuts to help us process large amounts of information in a split second. These shortcuts enable us to make sense of what we see and experience. Without thinking too hard, a yellow light tells us to slow down, a green light instructs us to proceed. The person wearing the red shirt at Target becomes the employee. A brown-skinned man standing near the curb becomes the valet.

“Did the woman apologize,” I asked my husband since I wasn’t close enough to hear the full conversation. “Did she say she was sorry?”

“No. She just walked away.”

Perhaps an apology could have righted this story. Instead of justifying her confusion about assuming my husband to be the valet, she could have just said, “I’m sorry. I apologize for my mistake.”

Mistakes happen. We all make them as we allow mental shortcuts to help us navigate our lives. However, when mental shortcuts bring us to the wrong conclusions, the lack of apology can communicate, it’s not my fault. I didn’t make a mistake. You shouldn’t have been wearing a red shirt in Target. You shouldn’t have appeared how I assume the valet looks.

While our mistakes can cause awkward moments, our apologies can demonstrate that we are people who are learning and growing. Sure a strange woman tried to hand her keys to my husband for perhaps some stereotypical reasons. But her choice to defend her mental shortcut and not apologize is what causes the lingering frustration.

Patrice Gopo is a Charlotte writer.