The Power of Words; A very real Case Study on the word Sorry

In case anybody has ever been in any doubt, there has been another striking example of the power of words. In this case it was one word in particular, uttered by Tasmanian Liberal Senator, Eric Abetz and that word was negro.

Just to give some context to the Senator’s comments, here is how it all unfolded. In a radio interview with 2UE host Justin Smith on Thursday afternoon, during a discussion on whether a baker’s refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple was the same as discriminating on the basis of race.

“Those sorts of analogies are quite offensive and that sort of analogy was completely debunked by Justice Clarence Thomas, the negro American on the Supreme Court of the United States dealing with this issue … who dissented on the issue of marriage as well,” Mr Abetz said.

Since the comment occurred there has been an eruption on both social media and traditional media arguing whether or not the comment was or wasn’t offensive in any way. The thing which I find concerning, however, isn’t whether or not it is political correctness gone mad, or even to question the Senator’s intention (because to be honest only he knows that). It’s the fact that just as much as the argument began with one word, it can also abate with one. That word is a very powerful one, and that word is “sorry”.

In both engagement and communications the word sorry is one that is greatly under utilised. In some cases, advice to companies and individuals who are involved in such issues centres on the apportioning of blame, with sorry being seen as an admission of guilt and a confirmation of a negative intention. However here is my one piece of advice, are you ready? Sorry doesn’t mean you meant to do something wrong, sorry doesn’t mean you are guilty, sorry just means sorry. Sorry that somebody was offended, sorry that somebody’s feelings were hurt, sorry that they were upset. That’s it. Period. And it costs you nothing; in fact it may even help you.

The Nottingham School of Economics in Great Britain studied the effect of an apology on disgruntled customers after they were let down. They found that more than twice the number of unhappy customers were willing to forgive a company that issues an apology over one who offers them a monetary compensation.

So, sorry can be more than a negative, it can be a positive for customer satisfaction and retention. More than being just the decent thing to do, it also makes commercial sense. Surely by now we have moved beyond the point of sorry being the hardest word to say. Let’s wait and see.

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