Written by: Benjamin E. Ruark

Oh, the layers of inconvenience, discontent, and creeping dispiritedness we’re to endure when dealing with service personnel in many professional and retail sales capacities. The copious misunderstandings; double and triple explanatory hurdles to fitfully clear; finally being distressed to a point of escalating yet another inferior-service tirade upwards to management to seek resolution.

Amid all the frenzied back-and-forth, there are unreturned calls, the musical-chairs adaptation of call-transfers, follow-up delays, patiently-awaited e-mail replies never materializing; the stress of dealing with inadequately trained, low-skilled front line service workers; who are frankly oftentimes found severely lacking in comprehension, verbal, and interpersonal skills. And let’s not forget those odious call-in algorithms that connect with every living soul except the right one; or they lead to a cul-de-sac of voice recordings and equally inaccessible, likely irrelevant, personnel.

It goes beyond the pale how these many consternating and, in actuality avoidable, gut wrenching commercial transactions actually persist to this day. As though that wasn’t excruciating enough, what really flares to ultraviolet intensity is their coup de grâce: their surefire disposition of being unapologetic. For that matter, this whole constant whittling-down of service standards has surpassed mediocre. Instead, reached some ridiculous outlying point where experiencing out-of-kilter service has become as civil, ordinary, and customary for Americans as Brits sitting down to afternoon tea, scones, sandwiches, and cake. Taken as a forgone conclusion, professionals make no reference to being in the wrong; whereas out of reflex a retail clerk might at least tender the hollowest “sorry ’bout that.”

Placid is as Flaccid Does

When service blunders occur in the professional realm, and we’ve made our complaint clearly known, the usual countenance put on display is a deadpan expression. One that’s tight-lipped and mute of mouth. Complaint delivered, the unapologetic offender’s eyes tend to drift sideways—although some will stare defiantly straight through you to the next customer. Regardless, the overall impression we’re left with is their total lack of any outward reaction. All affect and animation have shut down: maybe their way of pushing through a personally awkward moment. Or maybe they’re putting up a defensive shield against embarrassment, shame, and full acceptance of personal accountability. And/or perhaps they’re acting out some imagined or gambled form of professional demeanor, perceiving themselves to be stoically ‘taking a hit’ out of loyalty to their employer.

Another take on being unapologetic hints strongly at fear of retaliation. If a complaint reaches the right people, a harsh penalty of some kind likely trails in its wake.

Suppositions such as these led me to a July 2017 online article published in Scientific American and authored by Cindi May. The gist of it was this: whether an offender of some service blunder apologizes, or refuses to apologize, makes a considerable difference to us as victims. But it makes little difference for offenders as long as their admission or refusal to apologize aligns with their internal values. If they don’t want to yield a semblance of control over by admitting fault, if they feel weakened in status by having done so, then they’ll come away just as strong and feeling good about themselves as their polar opposite: the professional who admits fault and expresses genuine remorse over having committed it. Both the pro- and con-apology types have remained ‘true to themselves,’ as May explains.

May’s article roughly sums it up this way: what matters most is a need of maintaining control, power, and consistency of self-image when admission of an error or wrongdoing is imminent to service blunders of any kind.

But this understanding only serves to makes the hackles rise all the more for some folks; because each of us is more multidimensional than that. May’s investigation into how people deal with unflattering moments of error pointed her toward research directed at offender personality traits. But at least two other influential variables immediately come to mind: an ages old We-Them dichotomy distinctively present within most business cultures; and, secondly, individual capacity for empathy. Neither of these can be sidelined at whim in any sober look into why a cancerous deficiency in apology-for-blundering has metastasized throughout America’s bulk of professional and retail services.

Even more unsettling is a sense that something of greater profundity is afoot. That unapologetic responses are only a splinter carcinogen of something of much more core- or root- malignancy shaping our culture’s current trajectory.

The ‘We-Them’ dynamic teethes on employee loyalty to company. We-Them is largely a widespread societal tic that traditionally bears adverse consequences for any group in an inferior relationship with some other power-wielding We-group who inopportunely refers to their lesser peers as Them. The We faction, being inherently self-centered and in control, typically holds some attitudinal strain of superiority over the Them faction. Them aren’t necessarily true adversaries, but none-the-least get adversarial treatment to some degree and length. Company cultures are prime habitats for we-them mentality to flourish, and, like it or not, customers therefore get callously saddled with the ‘them’ label.

Mindful of underlying we-them pretext, in compliance with party line, professionals may be explicitly told—or they tacitly ‘get it’—that they’re not to admit guilt, including anything that might suggest admission of guilt. Be silent. Let the awkward moment pass.

Such loyalty can mean two things: either submit to blind, incontestable compliance, or to coerced compliance, where fear of employer retaliation unfalteringly overrides personal motives. Whichever’s in force, when loyalty to an organization takes precedence, the breadth of offender dissociation from what victims have gone—or are going—through, implies an acquired degree of accomplished ease in skirting past a person’s own private inclinations toward empathic understanding, introspection, and values matching up with self-image. Which aligns not at all with May’s reportage of consistency of self-image as a ruling factor. Since, in this instance it isn’t personal traits that are in command; rather, employees take their counsel from a blanket loyalty accrued through the usual medley of bonding experiences as employees assimilate into their work culture.

Equally disconcerting, and undeserving of a once-over, is the ‘anything that might suggest admission of guilt’ clause, either stated or inferred. For it’s within this nebulous Patch of Owning Up where offenders personally fail to commiserate with a twice-offended customer: first, for suffering the offender’s error as an inconvenience at minimum; and second, their being unapologetic as added insult. With a breath to spare, even a fleeting sense of this clause being in effect further stymies offenders from giving empathy a chance to burn from an initial flicker of feeling to full-out poignant understanding. Instead, and more in step with a widely-observed mediocre treatment of customers, what’s noted is their already emphasized unapologetic posture. One that unwittingly back-steps into the clutches of self-dehumanizing conduct, as we inch ever closer to the core or root malignancy in force here; which will be addressed, momentarily.

For their part, many organizational cultures culpable of such inept displays of business conduct may say and do things that convey a general understanding that apologies are basically trivial, inconsequential—“Hey, can’t undo what’s already done!”—and thusly gratuitous against the larger backdrop when their overall accomplishments clearly eclipse the day-to-day small stuff.

Unforeseen Clutches of Self-Dehumanizing Conduct

For a nation insolently unapologetic about its botched service responses, such as we are, makes this particular cultural blind-spot all the more propitious for looking deeper into what it is about us, as a nation, that is seemingly both profoundly underway and flourishing, uncontested. In delving deeper, beginning with the way unapologetic offenders also dehumanize themselves makes for a worthy springboard. Bit by inexorable bit, through the very same off-putting act of refusal to apologize, these demonstrations chip away, within the offenders themselves, the very same qualities which confer on all of us as eminently universal notions of human dignity and integrity.

As some readers have already inferred, the personality traits of power and control, along with organizational culture, combined, still come up embarrassingly short in completing an unapologetic ordeal’s total constellation of causes. What’s still clearly missing is the earlier referenced third inconstant, empathic understanding: if service professionals actually felt and knew how this particular strain of unresponsiveness impacts their victim in the visceral moment, then just maybe their tightly clung-to values of control and power would accede to admission of wrongdoing without reservation.

One would hope that any and all such ordeals registering substantially below Covid-19 Empathy Threshold still move us to feel for and act on behalf of one another. That’s why there’s such a thing as an emotional maturity quotient, or EQ. Why there’s such a thing as well-developed and practiced emotional regulation, honed to personal efficacy, as a countermeasure to suffering empathy-overload. So that we’re able to confront all manner of emotionally harsh and potent experiences and still come away virtually unscathed. A far better proposition—yes?—for personal and professional conduct than over-succumbing to instances of personal error. Error that comes equipped with its own baggage of denial to self and victim of any wrongdoing; further blunted by emotional detachment, and acquiescing to dissociative interactions as par for the unapologetic course.

That’s what happens when the empathy spigot runs dry: a deadpan reply, if nothing else, serves as a swift ego-buffer against getting too emotionally entwined. Especially in this of-late unhinged world of ours, densely laced with media-studded and countless too-real repugnant acts of violence and unspeakable denigration of humans; with ever new forms of crisis waiting, penultimate, in the wings, and usually keeping closely abreast: recycled human misery. And last in line, miscellaneous bad-news surprises worldwide making enough unscheduled TV appearances to keep us in existential despair of ever again fondly taking back our ‘old normal.

So, just how far off plumb is our nation’s collective humanity at exhibiting empathy toward its own body of peoples of varying ethnic origins, creeds, and colors? How many millions of business and personal scenarios play out daily, where someone suffers some adversity relentlessly, without bystander assistance; because another citizen isn’t moved to do right by that person, and/or by the presenting situation? Empathic understanding is the human equivalent of high octane gasoline: it fuels the emotions and emotional stamina to go the actionable distance of ‘doing right.’ However that gets translated by the person applying it; and regardless of his/her relationship to the affected individual. And whether they’re a friend, relative, complete stranger, or victimized customer. And of ‘doing right,’ itself, which may demand no more than providing active listening when that other person needs it most.

When we observe someone else being subjected to actions deemed inappropriate or hurtful, to really feel it ourselves we need to experience it ourselves, just then. Which is exactly what a very unique cluster of mirror neurons in our brain miraculously enables us to do. If they spoke to us, we’d hear them say, “Notice how that person’s experiencing the same misery or annoyance I’d feel if that were done to me.” The other person’s experience is thereby vicariously ‘felt’ and all that’s needed to complete a full empathic understanding is a filling in of the cognitive side: of mentally comprehending what another person has gone through, or is going through. With ample situational detail ‘sinking in’ to acquire a fairly accurate grasp of their take, their perspective. On the downside, the average individual’s only gifted with 10% – 20% of these uniquely superb neurons. According to one estimate, anyway.

Apprised of empathy’s significance, we’ve come full circle in the complex dynamic of unapologetic response sense-making. Which has greatest significance for professionals populating the many helping professions. But it’s also likely to be just as relevant for the legal, accounting, engineering, and IT professions.

Profound Implications

Pushing on, what may at first blush have appeared to be a standalone issue has led us to a bigger fish bearing a bigger question: what are we becoming if our being insolently unapologetic, serially non-contrite, and incontrovertibly self-dehumanizing were to become the national norm?

Thinking metaphorically for a moment, conduct such as what’s just been described represents our nation’s outer skin, the epidermis. Which, I’ve maintained, is fast approaching serial non-contriteness as customary, if not already there. The next layer of skin below that is our dermis, where our nation’s nerve endings for both feeling and expressing empathy are located. In moments of unapologetic response, we choke off those nerve endings—our capacity for empathy—even though its manifestation would be the most natural thing we could allow to surface.

Extending the thought: suppose our mirror neurons pick up on, and mirror back, the very depreciating, de facto dehumanization done to victims on the receiving end of our insolent non-apology. For every dehumanizing action there’s a reciprocal dehumanizing reaction. Whereby our uncontrite, unapologetic, dehumanizing unresponsiveness to another American triggers those mirror neurons to reflect that same indignity back on ourselves. Chipping away at the same endearing qualities that make us who we are; hence, thinning us down; rendering us a little less human with each indiscretion.

We need to refrain from depriving victims of the basic human quality of an apropos apologetic response. Which, I’m directly contending, makes us less human both in character and self-expression. And we need to stop making dissociative breaks from one another; and also from further opening the current deep fissure between who we believe we are and stand for, and how we outwardly behave: that is, if we’re vehemently claiming ourselves to be progressing as modern day mature adults.

Unknowingly, then, actions such as unapologetic blunders betray our suppression of the very qualities that critically define us. Putting each of us at risk of blindly cruising past a tipping point in life where our most substantial of emotions get reserved only for a few select family members, close friends, and private moments of self-gratification. But >not for Americans in general.

Now that we’ve arrived at the root of this paper’s premise, it should be obvious that America’s signature unapologetic response is just one in a complement of many of its ilk. Daily, millions of dehumanizing and self-dehumanizing flakes (of estimable character) unthinkingly get chipped away as a result of our face-to-face indiscretions. Or put another way, chipped away as just so much individual and national character (dead skin) detritus; flaying all of us further and further along until little of anything redeeming is left over, full stop.

A slow migration toward some subhuman mode of being is what my personal empathy for fellow Americans tells me is undergoing an unopposed transformation just now.