It’s Still the Hardest Word

A teacher we know regaled us recently with the story of one of her elementary students telling stories.1 It seems that she saw said student looking onto a fellow student’s test and then copying the answers. The teacher called her to her desk; she was going to just give the student a quick “Don’t do that again” and send her on her way.

Why were you looking onto your neighbor’s paper? Oh, I wasn’t doing that. Really, how did you get these answers on your paper without showing any of the work? My cousin showed me how to do that. That’s awesome, cousins are great, aren’t they? Why don’t you go ahead and do it on the next two problems? Ummmmm…

And so it went for a few more minutes. What started as no big deal quickly escalated into several lies and a much bigger issue. As the teacher said, “I don’t care nearly as much that you copied as I do that you lied about copying and then told more lies to cover up the fact you lied about copying.”

I experienced a little déjà vu during this story, because I was that kid. Not the one copying off of other people’s papers, the one making up stuff fast and furious when caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing.2 One summer when I was five or six, I was playing outside, and I was occasionally using the water hose to fill some containers I had. Mother was about to go lie down for a bit, and when she went in she told me not to play with the water until she got up from her nap, because the noise of the water hose would wake her up.

Now I may have only been six, but I was a man of the world, and clearly a water hose on the outside of the house couldn’t make noise on the inside of the house. I mean, seriously, did she think I was born yesterday? After waiting several minutes, I filled the empty Prell3 shampoo container I had with water. And would you believe it, a couple of minutes later out came a very irate mother.

Why did you turn the water on? I didn’t turn the water on. I know you turned the water on, I heard it. I didn’t turn the water on. (I was still holding the Prell container filled with water.) How did that get water in it? It was already there. And so it continued.

No one likes to get caught out. There are a lot of ways we try to divert attention — sometimes by just lying about it, sometimes by ignoring it and pretending it didn’t happen, sometimes by attacking the messenger. When five or ten year olds do it, it’s (usually) correctable. When twenty-five and forty and fifty-five year olds do it, that’s another thing entirely. And, as can be seen on any given day on TV or Twitter or Instagram or the interwebs, we have a lot of those who apparently didn’t learn their lesson in elementary school.

In the business world recently, we’ve had AccuWeather, one of the ubiquitous weather sites around.4 AccuWeather has an iPhone app (doesn’t everyone by this point?). A security researcher caught the app sending in location information even after the user had turned it off. After a couple of days and the report hitting every Apple news site in the country (and there are more of those than there are weather sites), AccuWeather issued a tone-deaf press release that accused everyone but themselves of causing the problem and didn’t contain a single word approaching an apology.

A couple of weeks ago, Equifax, one of the three credit reporting agencies in the country, revealed they had a two-month long breach of their web site where SS#s and other sensitive information on over half of the adults in the US was stolen. Their response was to quickly put up a web site so they could sign you up for one of their “protection” products, free for a year but paid after that. Buried in the fine print was that signing up for the product meant you couldn’t be party to a lawsuit against Equifax about the issue. (Don’t believe the PR hack who said it didn’t apply. His words are meaningless because they’re not binding. When all of the lawsuits hit the courts, the words on the web site might be ruled meaningless as well, but they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.)

I’ve seen better responses from five-year olds.

Of course, businesses don’t handle this well because businesses are made up of people and people don’t handle this well. As already mentioned, no one likes to get caught out. The story here isn’t that AccuWeather and Equifax need to do better at this. The story is that I need to do better at this, and you need to do better at this. We need to follow the steps I heard in a marriage conference many years ago:

  1. I am sorry.
  2. I was wrong.
  3. Please forgive me.
  4. I love you.

We may or may not need step #4 in every situation (although it’s probably needed more often than we think), but the first three are essential. They’re simple, they’re clear, and they’re effective when they’re meant.

But we need to do more — together we need to raise the expectations for those around us to do better at this as well. People need to hear from us when they don’t. Businesses need to hear from us when they don’t. Politicians need to hear from us when they don’t. Our best friends need to hear from us when they don’t. And, most importantly, we should expect the same when we don’t.

Let’s be better apologizers instead of better apologists. And leave that water off, will ya?

  1. Nobody panic (but carry a towel!) — no names were shared.
  2. Which was, of course, very seldom.
  3. Don’t ask me why I remember this. Why do I know the lyrics to Gilligan’s Island and Beverly Hillbillies when it’s been forty years since I’ve seen an episode of either? The brain keeps what the brain wants to keep.
  4. What do people find so fascinating about the weather?

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