The Joy of Sorry

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

Signposts pointing to a more truthful way of life pop up in the Rockies where I least expect them. For instance: in an email from Netflix last week.

"We're sorry," the subject line said.

Wowza, did that upgrade my inner life in a flash!

A computer snafu had delayed the DVDs I'd ordered, the email said. The company was - they said it again - sorry.

The apology was needless. That made it doubly wonderful to me. I've grown accustomed to corporate doublespeak. Netflix's single speak was inspiring. Even more so when I compared it to the other corporate folk I'd encountered that day.

The folks at my Health Savings Account told me I'd need a paper form to do an electronic funds transfer. The electronic transfer, the customer rep told me, could not be done electronically.

Over at the bank, I was offered a "free" checking account that required me to charge things on my check card five times a month. The charging-of-stuff would be free for me, my banker said. But the retailer would be charged a premium, which would show up in the cost of things I'd pay for from my "free" account.

Does anyone mean what they say anymore? Apparently, Netflix did. And so did my friend, Victoria Moran.

Victoria's book, Creating a Charmed Life, has a great section on how to practice truth in speech. As a child, Victoria learned that before speaking, one should ask oneself, "Is what I'm about to say, 'necessary, kind and true?'"

If not, Victoria kindly suggests, consider silence.

I considered these rules in the context of the day's corporate come-on's. What if American companies followed Victoria's golden rules? I wondered.

I imagined a truthful solicitation coming from a credit card company that read: "The 0% interest credit card we're offering you looks like a great deal. But in fact, it's a paid invitation to 20 percent-plus debt. That's like paying one fifth more for stuff you couldn't afford in the first place - don't do it!"

And this kind sign posted in a fast-food place: "We call our snacks healthy, but we mean that poetically. Healthy foods are things like fruits and veggies. But hey, that stuff costs money. So we coat a lot of stuff in bread crumbs; we fry; and we ladle on lots of dressing. If you can afford to eat somewhere else, honestly? You should."

Then I imagined the formerly-Kumbaya folks at Dove taking their latest commercial off the air. The spot used to claim that 8 out of 10 women had damaged hair. These days, it has a subtitle that explains: Those women we told you about? They only think their hair's damaged. (Perhaps they could use a mental shampoo?)

On American Idol, Simon Cowell put a new twist on, "Sorry." The words that followed his apology were scorching. But they were true -- and arguably, necessary, in the context of Idol's ratings.

Back at home, I decided to try out an, "I'm Sorry" in real life.

During the holidays, my housemate, Bachelor #3, and I exchanged harsh words over the kitchen tablecloth. He'd baked sugar cookies on it and the sugary bits were stuck to it. I asked him to put the cloth in the laundry. He told me the cloth was already dirty. So there!

Were our words true? Yes, to our minds.
Were they kind? No way.
Were they necessary? Yes and no. That's the weird thing about fighting.

I was ready to put my mouth where my money was. I was. I swear. After all, I talk for a living. Two words. Four syllables. How hard could a little "I'm sorry" be?


When my housemate came home from work that night, I got as far as, "So -." Then I thought: "Why apologize for something that happened four months ago? Something forgotten!" Which is to say: I was chicken.

But that's the nice thing about a sign. It points the way to positive change. And it doesn't expire.

Until now, the only person who knew I'd failed my "Sorry" test was me. It was like a spiritual tree in the forest. It hadn't fallen, but it wasn't standing tall either.

Since then, I've been looking for a starter "Sorry" -- something smaller than a fight with Bachelor #3 and bigger than tapping carts with a stranger at the grocery.

It's one thing to receive a sign, I guess. It's another thing to follow it.

Netflix has millions of customers. They've had millions of chances to practice their, "Sorry." Perhaps it will get easier for me with practice, like the double-leg side lift in Pilates?

'Til then, I have my DVDs and my hopes, and Victoria's "necessary, true and kind."

I may not be sorry, yet. But I'm willing to practice.