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Apologies not accepted

It's Christmas, time of peace, goodwill, and all that jazz. So my contribution: please stop apologizing. Yes, this means you. All of you.

You, whose company policies are badly drafted and annoying but are not your fault. Instead of apologizing in a maddeningly neutral tone of voice, I'd rather you said yes, the policy is insane, yes, it drives everyone crazy, but no, there's nothing I can do about it because I'm not allowed to depart from this script here on this computer that says to tell you I apologize.

You, who are staffing the airplane that's late. We know it's late. We know it's late because we've been in the plane circling Philadelphia waiting to land for the last 20 minutes, and now we've just flown away and landed at Atlantic City. No one wants to go to Atlantic City on a flight from London to Philadelphia, not even the most intrepid gamblers. But you should not be apologizing. The people who should be apologizing are the beanheads at US Airways' Phoenix headquarters, who have gambled with their passengers' time and patience, and have decided that saving money by not carrying enough fuel across the ocean to hold if necessary is a more important goal. In 2008, I got caught this way twice on the London-Philadelphia route. The first time, we diverted to Boston and were four hours late. The second time, Atlantic City - that saved us a half hour. The staff shouldn't be apologizing. You should be saying, "We're getting screwed, too."

You, in the anti-fraud department at the credit card company. The problem is the algorithms behind the way the computer is programmed. I know - and you know - that it's not your fault that the system keeps kicking out my card every time I try to make a transaction. Of course, it's not my fault either, which is why it would be nice if once in a while your company wrote to me and indicated that it understood that its computers are badly programmed and that the intransigence of its anti-fraud detection is costing it customer goodwill. After all, what good is an emergency credit card if you can't use it in an emergency because putting through a transaction from a foreign country without warning will cause your card to be suspended?

It shouldn't be your job to apologize; you'd be giving better customer service by sympathizing, passing on the complaint, and helping customers figure out how to get the company to improve a bad situation. Telling us to call first before putting through a charge probably is just adding fuel to the ire fire. Being unable to give any indication of what might constitute a high-risk transaction versus one the system would accept doesn't help either. Security by obscurity is bad enough; it's worse when it's so obscure to a system's users that they can't begin to tell when they're taking a risk and when they're not. Pushing me on to the sales department to confirm my replacement card so they can try to sell me card protection insurance is a further insult.

If you're going to apologize for something, what you should be apologizing for is acting all surprised and hurt when you call me up and demand my security information and I say, "You've got to be kidding me. How do I know who you are?" Given the troubles with phishing scams, I'd have thought you'd be pleased any customer has the nous to refuse to disclose such information. What the credit card companies need to do is put together a two-way handshaking authentication scheme so that we take turns disclosing bits of information we know about each other. But don't apologize! Change something! Fix something! Or if you can't, just be really, really efficient about getting the business of the call done as quickly as possible.

A friend of mine once commented that he didn't like apologies because "People only apologize because they want you to like them."

It makes sense. Look who's not apologizing: Bernie Madoff, a victim of the credit crunch. Yes, because you see, the downturn is exposing malfeasance that remained hidden in more prosperous times because you could keep getting new money to hide the absence of the old. Madoff's $50 billion steal would have eventually been exposed anyway, but I bet he wishes he could have timed things so he vanished to a country with no extradition first.

And look who else is not apologizing? Yes, Dubya, this means you. In the eight years he's been in office, the Bush administration has supported torture, pursued an unpopular and dangerous war, squandered much of the world's goodwill towards our country, rolled back freedom of information, vastly expanded surveillance at the expense of civil liberties, and played the policy laundering game with the EU at our expense. He won't apologize for any of it, of course; instead he'll probably spend the next ten years building a presidential library designed to prove he did everything right.

See? The guys who do the damage don't care if we like them. The people who are apologizing? All the wrong people.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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