An incident at work today has me thinking about apologies.
Today was the year end exam for one of our high school grades. As the technical staff played the CD for the listening portion of the test, it was obvious that there was something horribly wrong with the CD. Words disappeared, portions suddenly lost volume, and questions started in the middle. After the first minute, test proctors were sending reports to the office that there were problems and other people were on the phone with the main office explaining the situation. Because I was responsible for writing the test, editing the listening and burning the CDs, everyone was looking at me. I apparently had an impressive look of panic and guilt and now have passed at least three birthdays and am officially 50. (That said, my heart is apparently a lot stronger than I thought it was as no heart-attack ensued.)
I had checked the CD at home and found no problems but no one else had checked it before I turned it in, which made me even more guilty. In the end, we went to each testing room and reread the questionable portions and I said lots of apologies to every test proctor. I also tried to remember if I had a clean suit as I would need it for the lengthy apologies I would eventually have to do.
We sent someone to fetch the extra copy and, mysteriously, he never returned. It turned out that a couple late students were using the extra CD to take the test. When they finished, they said there were no problems. I then struggled to remember if I’d actually checked the copy and had accidentally marked the one I’d checked as the copy.
After testing both CDs, it turned out that there was nothing wrong with either. Instead, there was something wrong with the CD player that had been used. (The school I work at is about to move into a new building, and rather than a spiffy sound system, they’ve been using CD players for high school listening tests.)
Now in the West, the matter would pretty much be done and we’d probably get sloppy drunk and have a sledgehammer party where we destroyed the old CD player. (And that’s just during school hours.) However, this is Japan, and I kept apologizing, as did teachers who had nothing to do with making the CD.
In my case, even though I wasn’t at fault, and hadn’t even chosen that CD player, I was responsible because it was my CD and I’m in charge of that grade and all their tests this year.
Understand, though, I wasn’t apologizing for causing the problem, I was apologizing for the trouble. The difference is subtle, but important.
Half of the problems some foreign teachers encounter in Japan can be solved with an apology. The most popular are “apologizing for the trouble” and “apologizing for the misunderstanding”. (For politicians it’s “apologizing for the misunderstanding” or “I’m sorry that you misunderstood”.)
However, being from the West, where we have a strong sense of personal justice and where our words can be held against us in a court of law, apologizing for something we didn’t do is difficult. In Japan, though, it’s often necessary.
Many years ago, the submarine the USS Greenville was joyriding for a bunch of civilians and sank the Ehime Maru, a high school fishing trainer from Japan. Nine people, including four high school students were killed. Japan freaked out, especially as no one could understand why the submarine’s CO, Commander Scott Waddle, didn’t immediately take responsibility and apologize. The apologies from President Bush and Ambassador Foley weren’t enough.
Finally, a high ranking Admiral came to Japan and apologized directly to the families and the situation calmed down, at least in Japan. Eventually Commander Waddle came to Japan and apologized.
I’ve heard of many, much smaller incidents, especially those caused by miscommunication being resolved by apologies. It’s almost a way of saying “I appreciate that this is a stressful time and I’m sorry I played a part in making it that way.” I’ve also seen people lose their jobs because they refused to apologize, even for the trouble. They would go on and on about how right the were and how wrong they weren’t, but it didn’t help. (Hell, I’ve been that person, albeit in another country.) However, when in Japan, if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, apologize, just in case, even if you know you’re not wrong.
As for me, I need to think of some suitable sweets to take to the office tomorrow as one last apology. (I also need to start marking those tests I got today…)