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October 11th, 2006

We apologize for any inconvenience / am I snarky?

by Barbara Wallraff

Liz Smith Yeats, of Troy, Mich., writes: “I read it again for the thousandth time: ‘We apologize for any inconvenience.’ Am I crazy, or is this tantamount to saying, ‘We don’t think we have caused inconvenience, but you seem to have a problem, so we’re tossing out this lame apology, which doesn't really express regret but might make you feel better if you don’t read it too closely’?”

Dear Liz: I agree with you that the sentence is annoying -- even if what’s being apologized for isn’t actually inconvenient. I dislike it because it’s formulaic -- unthinking and unfeeling.

And if you have been seriously inconvenienced, the word “any” adds insult to injury. Studying up on your sentence, I found a blogger who was almost driven around the bend when someone hijacked his e-mail account to send inappropriate messages; the e-mail service provider abruptly closed his account, so he couldn’t even see his old e-mails or the e-mail addresses he had saved; and although he sent proof that he wasn’t at fault, the service provider refused to reinstate his account, adding, “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused, and thank you for your cooperation.” The message came through crystal clear that either nobody at the company was paying attention to him or nobody cared.

“One size fits all” apologies are likely to sound this way. Companies often use them as a first line of defense, to avoid getting into long, time-wasting arguments with dissatisfied customers. For the companies’ own sake, though, they should offer further recourse, and do it in language that a concerned employee might use -- for instance: “We’re sorry if we’ve made you unhappy. If our actions seem unfair, please let us know. We’ll look into it as soon as we can and get back to you.”

But language isn’t the real problem -- just a reflection of it. Ultimately, what bothers you and me, I think, is how impersonal much of modern life is. Clever companies have begun to recognize that technology like e-mail and automated voice-mail systems doesn’t need to seem robotic to be efficient. The right language can make a big difference.

Charles I. Gridley, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “Will you stop being sarcastic and snotty to the people who write to you? That’s not acceptable word usage for a columnist! Grow up.”

Dear Charles: I apologize for any inconvenience. No -- actually, I am sorry if I’ve ever come across that way. My least favorite part of this job is telling readers that they’re only half right or even wrong. Unfortunately, if all I ever had to say was “You’re right, you’re right,” I wouldn’t remain a columnist for long.

Do other readers agree with Charles? Do I need to grow up and get nice? Or do you maybe feel I err in the opposite direction and am often too nice? This is your chance to let me know, by letter or on my Web site. If you remember a specific time when you thought I went too far one way or the other, please tell me about it.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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