When I lived in Johannesburg, I was struck by South Africans’ tendency to apologize for occurrences that weren’t their fault. Early on I remember walking along a sidewalk and stubbing my toe against a root that was bursting through the cement. “Sorry, sorry,” the friend I was with said.
“What are you sorry about?” I asked. “You didn’t do it.”
“I know,” my friend replied. “I’m just sorry that that happened to your toe.”
Thus my introduction to what I now call the South African Sorry.
I grew up equating an apology with an admission of guilt. In the charged arenas of family dramas, school popularity contests, and romantic relationships, I would hold back sorrys until I was good and sure something was my fault. And when I felt wronged, I’d often take someone else’s apology as evidence that I was in the right. It always felt like the supreme gotcha.
The South African Sorry was different; it implied no guilt necessarily; just an acknowledgment of pain.
These different approaches to contrition stem in part from the varied ways people and cultures approach the individual versus the collective. The United States surely must be the capital of I; sometimes I feel like I’m moving among a mass of people who are each trapped in a bubble, oblivious to the fact that other people are actually fellow humans that compose a “we.” I fall prey to this as much as anyone; I often think, If everyone takes care of themselves, individually, we’d have a pretty good collective meld going on. Take care of your shit, and I’ll take care of mine. In this context, there is no need to apologize for anything unless it stems from one’s actions as an individual.
In contrast, in a more collective culture, which South Africa arguably is, despite its dark history of apartheid, it’d be fitting to apologize simply because a misfortune occurred in your midst — the collective has taken a hit, and it’s only sensible that witnesses to that would express sympathy. A friend once told me that she still harbors painful memories from childhood of tripping or banging her shin and no one in her large family offering any words of comfort. She wanted to know someone had noticed her misfortune.
I suspect America’s litigious culture also plays a role. Because lawsuits are so common and courtroom dramas have populated our screens for decades, I wonder sometimes if we go through our days subconsciously perceiving our interactions almost like court cases. We don’t want anybody to “have” anything on us; a record of an apology might just be used against us someday.
In the big picture, it’s not surprising that South Africa followed the end of apartheid with its extensive Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was established to help heal rather than assign blame: victims of politically motivated (read racial) crimes were able to tell their painful stories, and perpetrators of such crimes were invited to come clean on their transgressions. The commission traveled around the country and was broadcast on national television. It was an imperfect process, but there were many powerful moments: former president F.W. de Klerk apologizing for apartheid; chairperson Archbishop Desmond Tutu weeping uncontrollably at the words of a former Robben Island prisoner describing his torture in the hands of security officers; a white policeman apologizing to a distraught African woman for killing her son. I’d never seen anything like it.
The only U.S. equivalent I’m aware of is the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed to help that North Carolina city heal from the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, in which five African Americans protesters were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan during a political rally. As the Commission came to a close in 2006, the Reverend Peter Storey, a South African who participated in both reconciliation commissions, concluded, “So long as the darker events of our communal past lie buried and unacknowledged, they act like toxic waste, seeping continually to the surface to poison the present.”
This resonates to me on a personal level; I have found that apologizing, even for events that were only partially my fault, addresses that which was festering, both in me and in the other person. It also serves to acknowledge someone else’s pain. Most importantly, when I issue a South African Sorry, I undermine my own ego, which loves to keep appearances of perfection up. With him off the scene, I’m able to feel fallible, which is exactly where compassion and empathy live.