An email was recently forwarded to me with the subject "Mistakes Were Made." It was the second time this year I had seen the three-word sentence. In addition to the email, which talked about a person's mistakes in handling a situation involving a group dynamic, author Jonathan Franzen used those words to title a section of his best-selling novel Freedom.
Freedom is about a liberal, middle-class American family that appears "normal" to their neighbors until they begin to unravel. The wife is a homemaker, the husband is a mild-mannered lawyer passionate about environmental issues, but the way they appear on the outside fails to represent the many layers of complexity underneath. Patty Berglund, the matriarch teetering on emotional instability, is a former star basketball player with a competitive mindset. She is perhaps confused about what love is and how to love her husband Walter due to a cold upbringing, and Walter and Patty proceed to have a tumultuous relationship throughout the book. The phrase "mistakes were made" is uttered by Patty's aloof mother, a politician who was always more focused on lobbying than on Patty's athletic talent. When Patty asks her mother why she never attended her daughter's basketball games, her mom acknowledges that "mistakes were made." It is obviously deliberate that Franzen matched up this phrase with this cool character rather than having her humbly assert "I made mistakes." Whether it reflects a personality defect or a generational style, Patty's mom clearly sets a tone and makes a statement using a sentence that eludes ownership and eliminates personal fault.
When I saw the email titled "Mistakes Were Made," it was too late to make changes as the email had already been sent, but I printed it up and red-lined it like a mad English professor during final exams. "OWNERSHIP," I wrote in big capital letters. "ACKNOWLEDGE WHO AND WHAT," I wrote. The email could not be amended, but I realized one thing about myself: I am definitely not a fan of talking in the abstract. While it is extremely difficult to admit when we make mistakes, honesty and humility are what make for a sincere apology or acknowledgement of how and why something went wrong.
On the other hand, if you personally were not the one to make the mistakes and you want to avoid placing blame, "mistakes were made" may be the best route so as not to throw another individual under the bus. But if you know that it was your mistake and you are admitting that mistakes were made, sincerity consists of humbling yourself, fessing up to the fact that you were wrong and when appropriate, asking for forgiveness.
By using a linguistic loophole to avoid implicating ourselves, we come across as shifty. William Safire defined the phrase as "[a] passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it." The popularity of this saying has increased in recent years and despite the expression's bad rep, it is still gaining momentum in sports, politics... well, especially in politics.
A political commentator once said, "The type of evasive and corrupted language for which [Ron Ziegler] was repeatedly pilloried for using as Nixon's press secretary is not only accepted, but heartily and shamelessly embraced as a norm of political and social conduct."
Perhaps we should be ashamed that this is how so many of us write and speak today -- in such general terms, with no "I" or "we" (who are to blame). On the other hand, one can easily chalk it up to simple semantics.
In my personal opinion, we often apologize when we succumb to the pressure of others (e.g., a boss who is encouraging us to do so, a family member who thinks we should have sent a wedding gift months before, a wife nagging her husband to apologize for offending dinner guests), and when we are asked for an apology on demand (like Patty's mom in Freedom when put on the spot by Patty), it is nearly impossible to deliver something sincere and truly from the heart.
Whether "mistakes were made" or "we made mistakes," further mistakes can be avoided if we talk when we're actually ready to do so, with a point and a purpose crystal clear in our minds.
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