The Wall Street Journal has an article today about the latest tactic some doctors and hospitals are using to bring down the costs of lawsuits and insurance: Saying “I’m Sorry” and actually meaning it (here’s a link to the story outside of the site). It seems that if people think you’re genuinely sorry for screwing up, they’re less inclined to sue the pants off you — and also (or so the article would make it seem) even if they do sue, juries are less inclined to award massive damages. This tactic, of course, runs counter to the long-established “never apologize” doctrine which states that any admission of wrong-doing is an invitation to a big fat lawsuit.

The problem with the “never apologize” doctrine for me is what it assumes: that most people are venal moneygrubbers who rejoice in malpractice because it means they finally get to graduate from the doublewide. What doctors and hospitals in the story are finding out is something that’s obvious to anyone who lives in the real world: People care less about money than they care about respect and truth. Fact is, you don’t apologize to people you don’t respect — we’re talking a real apology here, not the pro forma “I’m sorry that some people felt distressed” sort of apology that makes the rounds (which is somewhat more insulting than no apology at all, since it implies that the person is sorry you’re an idiot for wanting an apology). When a doctor or hospital doesn’t apologize for legal reasons, the psychological message people get is: We don’t respect you (and there’s nothing you can do about it). I doubt there’s a better way to get most people to lawyer up than not to show them the respect they think they are due.

This is true in other ways as well. Over the last ten years I’ve been pulled over several times by cops for driving like a bat out of Hell; I’ve been ticketed exactly once. It’s certainly not because I’m a hot chesty little number in a tight t-shirt. I’m pretty sure it’s because, when they ask “Do you know why I stopped you?” I say “Probably because I was speeding. You got me. Write me up.” I think they’re simply so delighted I don’t try to pull the “my speedometer isn’t working” routine or otherwise lamely avoid responsibility, or treat them like a jerk because they did their job and caught me violating a law that they reward me with a stern warning and let me go about my business. Heck, even the guy who did write me up thanked me for being honest.

I’ll give you another example. About twice a year we need to have shingles replaced on our roof — we live in a windy place and a few of them go flying every time there’s a particularly big wind. We’ve used various contractors and the service ranges, as does the price. I was here when the most recent contractor drove up in his truck, and I was frankly delighted to see that he had one of those beards generally associated with the Amish.

The guy was a Mennonite, and the SOP for a Mennonite is: If we don’t do a job to your satisfaction, we’ll keep at it until we get it right. It’s part of their ethos and so deeply ingrained into it that Mennonite (and Amish) home contractors aren’t required to show proof of liability insurance by the state of Ohio. So I was reasonably assured right off that the fellow would do a good job and would also not try to rip me off (correct on both counts, as it happens). And I knew if something did go wrong, he wouldn’t try to duck responsibility. He’d say sorry and he would make the good faith effort (literal on his part) to make it right. That works for me — and I’m pretty sure I’ll have him work for me again too.

Are we on the precipice of a new age of American responsibility, where people routinely say “I’m sorry” and mean it? I doubt it. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, though. And I wouldn’t be sorry for that.

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