Saturday 6 February 2016

Favours, Apologies, and Thanks

No Python today. Today we talk about my other favourite language – English.

Some people write English beautifully, causing their readers to pause and focus on what they are reading, momentarily forgetting about life's distractions – and other people don't English so well. But nearly everyone is bad at using English for asking favours, saying sorry, and giving thanks. Which is odd really, because nearly every user of English will use the language for expressing all three of these ideas many, many times over their lifetime. 

I'm tired of reading empty apologies, of people pretending to offer a favour when they're actually asking for one, and of people getting oh-so-very close to saying thank you, but bailing at the last moment. And it's really not that hard to do any of these things – we're just all so used to seeing them done badly that we take these as the norm, and emulate them in our own attempts. Here are some pointers on how to ask people to do things, how to tell them that you messed up, and thank them for their actions. I'm going to assume written language here, but most of the points are transferable to spoken equivalents as well (with the caveat that when speaking you can't backspace a paragraph and reword it to make sure that it says what you want it to say).

Saying sorry

How not to start an apology – Adobe spends the whole first paragraph on excuses before even getting to what has happened and what they are doing about it.

Bad apologies are probably the worst and most-common offender on our list of three, so I'll start off with it in case you don't read to the end. 

The most important part of apologizing seems simple, and you might be surprised that so many people mess it up. The first thing I look out for in apologies is to see if the apologizer actually apologised. In a majority of apologies I see, the apology itself is missing, which makes the whole thing as unsatisfying as eating lamb with mint sauce but forgetting the lamb. There are many ways to communicate an almost apology. Three of the main offenders are:

  • Using the subjunctive (would like to), and using too many words
  • Using the word 'but'
  • Focusing on the explanation instead of the apology
...would just like to take this opportunity to apologise...

We've all seen this phrase in countless variations, and most of us probably don't think much of it. But there are a few reasons why this is a bad, bad apology, that will leave the recipients feeling like they just ate a large spoon of mint sauce without any lamb. 

The first is the phrase "would like to". I would like to procrastinate less, know more, and not make language mistakes in blog posts about language. That doesn't mean that any of those things are going to happen. And it's the same for the apology – "I would like to say sorry" might sound like you've apologised, but actually you haven't. The reader feels like you're just about to, and then forgets that you haven't. The reader might even believe that you've apologised, but they'll feel unsatisfied even without really knowing why.

The word "just" thrown in there adds to the problem. You're suggesting that the apology isn't really a big deal for you. You'll find this nasty word "just" thrown in to the mix in all sorts of similar phrases with similar results – if you find it in your own writing, just delete it. 

"Take this opportunity" is playing for time – you're still uncomfortable, even though "would like to" gets you out of a real apology, the idea of the apology still makes the writer uncomfortable, and this useless filler simply puts off the word "apologise" for a little bit longer.

...sorry, but there wasn't much more I could do... 
...sorry, but I was feeling pretty down that day...
...sorry, but you did kind of deserve it...

The famous but. "I'm not racist, but". Nothing that someone says before the word but really counts. You can look out for this innocent looking word "but" in many areas of communication, and perhaps especially in apologies. The three examples above are hardly subtle – in the wild you'll find many apologies that try a little harder to veil the following excuse, but they'll still follow the same pattern. In the worst cases, the apology is nothing more than a tool to drive home the fact that the speaker really really is not sorry. In the subtler cases, even the speaker may even believe that an apology has been given, but ... actually it hasn't.

...I can explain. What happened was...
Most explanations for why the thing-to-be-sorry-for happened are merely excuses. Sometimes, however, an explanation is desirable (excuses never are). If the person you're apologising too needs an explanation in order to understand what happened and to prevent any negative consequences from spreading, adding an explanation to an apology can be acceptable. 

But read over your apology-plus-explanation and ask what the explanation is actually doing. Is it drawing focus away from the apology? Is it detracting from the legitimacy of the apology in the same way an excuse would?  What is the focus of the explanation? To explain the situation, or to explain why you mishandled it? 

The three above points can be, and after are, combined into a single nauseating non-apology that is unhelpful to all parties. But we've looked at enough ways of how you shouldn't apologise. Let's take a look at how you should.

Apologising and responsibility
The first step to apologising is working out what you were responsible for, and what you went wrong because of your actions. A real apology will always include the idea of "I should have done x, and instead I did y. I'm sorry." and sometimes will include "because of z" and/or "I realise why y and x are different and in future I will always do x" and/or "I have now done w to attempt to make amends for doing y and not doing x". If you already have a draft apology of this form, consider deleting the "because of z" – it'll almost always make your apology more genuine. You might think that "because I am a shitty human being" or "because I am an idiot" will give the reader some kind of compensation for your wrongs, but actually it won't. Using yourself as an excuse is still an excused-apology, and it will likely come across as inauthentic. 

Apologising should be a really unpleasant experience for the apologiser. No-one wants to feel guilt, shame, and inadequacy. If you feel great while writing an apology, it's probably not genuine. Next time you write an apology, start with the words "I am sorry that I...". Fill in the blank with the shortest possible amount of text that makes it clear what you are apologising for, and hit the full stop key. You'll probably almost subconsciously hit backspace, replace it with a comma, and add some excuse. Don't. Don't add the excuse.

And again, the most important thing is to make sure that your apology communication does at some point include a literal apology. Here's Kickstarter's apology – even though this paragraph is towards the end of the post, what comes before is brief and to the point. They start off with a short, bolded, literal apology, and say that they're not feeling great about it either (a great way to gain genuine sympathy from your reader if you don't whine too much). They end off with an brief explanation about what they have already done to mitigate their mistake, and what they will do in the immediate and longer-term future. They don't even come close to suggesting that the subsequent actions make the mistake OK, or claim any factors that direct the fault away from them. I'll give them 10/10 for this apology.

Saying thank you
This section will be short, because nearly everything from the apology section above is applicable to thanks as well – and because thank yous should be short, and I believe in teaching by example. "I would just like to take this opportunity to say how grateful I am to [so and so] for being here tonight". Again the "just". Again the "would like to". Again the too many words. 

"Thank you [so and so] for being here tonight. I appreciate it" is much more genuine, and is not going to bore anyone. Adding "really really incredibly oh-so-very grateful" is not going to impress anyone, and is not going to make your gratitude seem greater. Drop the adjectives, drop the adverbs, drop the repetition.*

Saying thank you is difficult because a majority of expressions of gratitude aren't genuine. Acknowledgements, speeches, fund-raisers, and other charity announcements have used nearly every possible combination of words that they can to say empty thank yous. To make yours genuine:
  • Keep it short. Your sentences should be short, and there shouldn't be many of them. When saying thank-you, less really is more.
  • Make it personal. Would you be able to copy your exact message and pass it on to someone else you want to thank? If yes, it'll probably not sound genuine. Talk about specifics; make a reference to something that will only be understood by the person you're thanking. Get creative.
  • Focus on the person you're thanking. Again this might sound obvious, but some have a tendency to start out with good intentions, and then slip into talking about themselves rather than the person that they're thanking. If you're doing this, you've probably gone against both the first two points already. Stop now, sign off. Say goodbye. 

Asking a Favour
Most decent people find it slightly uncomfortable to ask others for benefits while offering nothing in return. But sometimes its necessary. The most common mistake is for the asker to try to hide the discomfort by masking the favour as actually being a benefit to the askee, or to try pass it off as fairly insignificant and Not A Big Deal (tm) for either party. 

When asking someone for a favour, the first step is to think about it for a moment. Make sure that you know you're asking for a favour. Is the other party gaining anything from this transaction? If your initial response to this is "no", then don't think about it too much - don't look for a contrived benefit for the other party. Are you offering something in return? Is the thing you're offering a token, or is it actually something valuable enough that the other party would consider the transaction a fair exchange rather than a favour? This doesn't mean that you need to offer something of equal value, or that asking favours is bad. This step is only to make sure that you – the asker – know what you're asking for.

Here's an example – while there is nothing really bad about this email, there's some room for improvement. The asker is clearly asking for a favour – 30 minutes of the askee's time towards academic research. And yet some phrases creep in that show the asker is not really comfortable with the idea of requesting favours. "This is your chance" would normally indicate something highly desirable, and "you will receive nice sweets" indicates that the favour is actually a trade. 

No reader of this is going to be weak-minded enough to actually be influenced by these attempts to frame the favour as not-really-a-favour. And the author isn't actually trying to con readers into believing that it's anything other than a favour. The highlighted phrases merely indicate the author's discomfort with favour asking – and will probably have a negative impact on responses.

Here is an improvement to the favour request:

For my Master's thesis, I am looking for native English speakers or fluent non-native speakers of English. Participants would be evaluating text-to-speech (TTS) synthesis systems (participation takes a maximum of 30 minutes). Unfortunately there is no funding available to compensate participants for their time, but you will receive nice sweets as a token of my appreciation. If you are willing to help me out, please get in touch at: _____ I would be really grateful!

Making it obvious that you are asking for a favour is likely to attract more positive responses. Most people enjoy granting favours – after doing something for someone else, knowing that you've helped them out and got nothing in return can be a positive experience and leave you with a spring in your step for the next several hours. In the rewritten request we:
  • Make it obvious that we're asking for a favour,
  • Explicitly state that we will be grateful,
  • Show that we are aware that we are asking for something of value and would like to compensate accordingly, but are unable to due to circumstances.
These three points will not only give us more participants, but the participants are also less likely to be grumpy if the experiment ends up taking longer, or if the sweets turn out not to be to their taste. It's no longer a "deal", in which longer hours or reduced payment mean that the participant loses out. And the gratitude will make the participants happy.

Now go out into the complicated social world and be genuine about what you ask for, what you are grateful for, and what you are sorry for.

Disclaimer: This post is intended for educational purposes, and the author takes no responsibility for people who use the information contained herein to make inauthentic communication seem genuine.

* unless it's as elegant as the repeated 'drop' in this sentence