29 May 2009

Apologies wearily accepted

At the risk of exposing what an odd kid I was, I remember as a youngster making the discovery that if you say the same word over and over and over again, at some point it stops meaning anything and eventually becomes just a sound, divorced from the original (or any) semantic interpretation.

I'm reminded of that whenever I run into one of the numerous printed apologies here. See, you get apologized to a lot here, usually by faceless entities, whenever anything goes wrong (frequently this is in relation to rail events).

So for example, you might enter a train station and be confronted by a large printed (but occasionally hand-written) sign that reads something along the lines of "Yesterday at 16:23 hours the temperature reached 32° C (a little under 90° F-- TC), which is a full degree Celsius above the specified service temperature range of the steel in the rails, causing them to dissolve into slag which resulted in significant delays in the evening commuter service. We apologise for any inconvenience caused."

Or maybe upon your approach to a candy machine, thinking that you might score a snack, you're faced with a sign taped to the door that reads "The change-making function of this machine is faulty-- while the selected products are vended properly, instead of also yielding any change due, the machine simply responds with a heartless mechanical chuckle. We apologise for any inconvenience caused by the chuckle."

You run into the phrase "we apologise for any inconvenience caused" again and again, until you wind up experiencing it as nothing more than an empty string of words, meant to convey contrition, but really acting simply as boilerplate to placate the otherwise irritated masses.

Lisa's life once again provides one of the pinnacle examples for my observations in the "FedEx supplies incident". Being a reasonably active eBayer, Lisa has acquired a FedEx account and occasionally has FedEx shipping supplies sent to our home for her convenience. However, after one of our moves, FedEx apparently suffered a corporate stroke, which caused the world's largest shipping company to become incapable of shipping us shipping supplies. Every time she'd call back and explain that's she'd called umpteen times before and had been waiting X months for shipping supplies, the phone rep would promise to straighten everything out, and then would "apologise for any inconvenience caused", a phrase which grated increasingly on her ears.

Finally, rage levels at maximum, Lisa called FedEx back and demanded a supervisor, to who she told her story to for what she assured them to be "the final time." At the end, with voiced raised and finger stabbing an invisible British chest in the air somewhere in front of her, she demanded "Now, tell me you don't want my business, or tell me my supplies will be here next week, but don't you dare tell me you're sorry!

This is what it's come to, you see; the apology seems such a civil gesture, but all too frequently it simply becomes an empty one.


  1. That Lisa! She's a riot.

    I apologize for the inconvenience but I am just going to leave this small comment for today.