Viva La Lingua Franca: On the Art of the Apology

My father is a fan of an Italian-dubbed, German soap opera called Tempesta D’Amore, saga television at its very best. Set in a five-star hotel with characters who cheat, lie, and connive like cousins at a Trump family-reunion picnic, it would occasionally pull me into the vortex of daytime viewing, spending the entire episode trying to figure out the Byzantine plotlines of complicated relationships.

“I don’t get who these people are.”

“They brother and sister-in-law,” my father would explain, “but his wife, her sister, was die. Now she’s love him and she’s pretends she sick so he’s no leave.”

“But why is she ‘remembering blood’? I don’t get what they’re arguing about.”

“They was kill and bury somesbody together.”

“I can’t believe you called this a ‘family’ show.”

In the end, my effort to improve my Italian through the technique of TV watching was a waste. After all, it is highly unlikely that I will ever need to know how to say, “The man you call father is not your real dad.”

The Germans are paragon folk to my Teutophile father, hard-working and level-headed: “You can see from the shows how they talks with each other, they no so much boom-boom, yelling each other, upsets but no making sense. If someones makes mistake, they ask for the sorry, they make apologize.”

Sure, Sturm der Liebe as a standard for etiquette is a bit of a stretch, but I did think my dad was right. There is an Art to the Apology, and how one approaches the task matters—it is fundamental to our progress as people on this planet. Canadians are considered mass producers of the term—though truth be told, if saying “sorry” instead of “excuse me” is what earned us this reputation as über-polite, is it really deserved?

Acts of atonement are headline-worthy in Canada. Remember Elbowgate? Trudeau offered three apologies for losing his patience. My favourite story along these lines is the fellow who sought out a classmate sixty-five years after punching him on a playground by placing an ad in the Canadian Jewish News. The Toronto Star documented the meeting of Thomas Caldwell and Howard Rosen and every time I read it, I get that tight-squeeze feeling in my ribcage that my heart is expanding and rubbing up against the bones.

In sharp contrast, I get a shrinking feeling of disappointment when I think back to the first ESL class I ever taught. Of course, mistakes were expected but my botched attempt at apologizing remains with me. How does one translate an apology? Is “I’m sorry” understood the same way in every language?

Years ago, when I was travelling through Pushkar, India, I kept thanking the young man at the internet café who helped me figure out what was happening as I blogged my adventure. After a week of this “thank you” and “sorry” stuff, he told me to knock it off. Thank-you- sorry was the realm of the British, he said, a strange politeness that he insisted created an awkward and unpleasant distance—as if I thought I was better than him.

I sputtered, “I’m sorry—what?”

Reflecting on his response, I understood what he meant; his attitude was my Italian family’s way of thinking as well. If I express thanks when my aunts offer me anything, they both answer “For what?” with an edge of hostility in their voices—as if to say I’m insulting them.

Sorry is similarly dismissed with a shrug, “You’re human, you’ll make mistakes.”

Then there’s a differing opinion on the apology offered by one of my uncles: Sorry was the sucker born every minute and you were better off keeping your head down and never admitting anything. This comes from an old belief that silence was better than confessing culpability, probable cause, or any other words that could get tricky.

My father disagrees. “Is important to know how asking forgive,” he says. “Maybe the person will be say ‘No way, go away,” but you shoulds be ask.”

This brings me back to my first ever ESL class. The moment I feel worst about is one I couldn’t have predicted or prepared for. Two weeks into the job, on the Friday after a long week of teaching, meeting new people, memorizing names, speaking too fast for literacy level learners, and bringing in every manner of self-created handouts or adjusted materials, a student put up his hand and said, “Teacher, ex-squeeze me, but—”

I heard nothing else. It started as a giggle and then, the more I tried to contain it, my reaction turned into a full blown, holding-my-stomach laugh. I apologized immediately, in between breaths. After I corrected his pronunciation, I attempted to explain why the mispronounced word was funny. I acted out why he should never say ex-squeeze me and how it could be mistaken as insincere or false. I was so exhausted that every attempt to clarify made me break out in fits of laughter. He laughed as well but his face was bright pink. There were only a few other students in the class, many had left at the break. We all practiced the pronunciation and I apologized for laughing.

He nodded, and never came back to class. Each day that he wasn’t there, I silently cursed myself as I took attendance. Finally, after a week of berating myself, I called him, reaching him on his cell with the number I had in the class list. It took a few minutes for him to figure out who I was, not because he’d forgotten me but all the confusion of being literacy level is amplified over the phone. I told him school was closed for a holiday on the following Monday. He understood, and said he’d found work. In the pause before hanging up I wondered why I hadn’t looked up how to say “I’m sorry” in Turkish.

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Contact Summer 2016
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