Does the apology make it better, or worse?

While traveling last week, I checked into my hotel, headed to my assigned room, swiped my key and opened the door to find the room was still occupied by the previous guest, who was still clad in her pajamas. In my state of shock and embarrassment, I managed to blurt out something to the effect of, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” before retreating in haste.

Once back at the front desk, the clerk gave me an explanation to the effect of the computer system inexplicably showing that she had checked out. After giving me my new key, he sent me on my way with a half-hearted, “Sorry about that.”

It struck me that my apology to the guest I’d just walked in on was a lot more sincere and emotive than the one I’d just gotten from the clerk. And I’m guessing he didn’t think to call and apologize to the woman I’d walked in on, either (he really should have because she deserved to hear it).

I’m not one of those cantankerous patrons who needs a staff to trip over themselves to make me happy. But really, this mistake wasn’t just inconvenient and a little embarrassing for me. It was probably pretty unnerving for the shocked guest, too. And a sincere apology could have turned the entire thing around for both of us.

Mistakes happen, for students, for parents, for colleges, for high schools, etc. Not even the most conscientious of us is going to get it right every time.

But a good apology, one that’s sincere and that both acknowledges and owns the mistake, is enough to make up for all but the most egregious errors. Experience has taught me that most people are predisposed to forgive, but a good apology is the invitation to do so. Even the guest I barged in on was pretty gracious about it (she just laughed and said, “That’s OK” as I was retreating out the door).

Whatever the setting, don’t say you’re sorry just to say it. And don’t give the literal or figurative version of, “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.” Do it like you mean it.

When the mistake has already been made, the opportunity for a good apology is still available.