My original title was "When the passive voice is active." Amazing how often this article from the Christian Science Monitor is relevant.
Mistakes were made in owning up to mistakes
"I acknowledge that mistakes were made here." With those words Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales became the latest public figure to rely on the nonapology apology's best friend: the passive voice.
"Mistakes were made" is the consummate case in point. It has become a contemporary mantra. Why won't those pesky mistakes quit making themselves!
Writers are cautioned – sorry, let me begin again: editors caution writers to eschew the passive voice. It's needed sometimes, but too much of it is considered bad form. And in public life, it almost always has the effect of avoiding accountability. But in government hearings and statements these days it seems to be the norm.
This trend and the common use of the generic "They" – as in "They just can't seem to get along in Washington" – lead us to mask the reality that actual individual human beings have power and accountability in creating positive or negative outcomes. Anyone who works in a large organization has also observed the trend to attribute most problems to management.
When I hear such vague blame, I have started asking, "What specific person?" and "What specific action?"
When I confront my own teenagers with their mistakes, they sometimes protest, "You're trying to make me feel guilty." Darn right I am! Sometimes that is the right response to a bad choice. Blame is not always a game; it can be an appropriate reaction.
Passive voice has so cheapened the concept of a mea culpa that various officials in government hearings and press conferences actually seem to be proud of themselves when they acknowledge that "mistakes were made."
And the really brave ones admit that the buck stops at their desk. With a grave tone they state: "I take responsibility. I was ultimately the one in charge."
What they usually mean is this: "Some jerk under me messed up, and I'm being gracious by pretending that I think it was my fault. But of course you realize I am blameless."
Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear an official say, "I made a big mistake by appointing a friend (or a relative or someone who contributed to my campaign). I should have hired someone with the knowledge and skills to do the job." After fainting from shock, most people would admire that candor and maybe trust that the same mistakes would not be made again.
I try to fight this pattern of accountability phobia in my own work by quickly acknowledging errors and getting on with solutions. I'm consistently surprised at how forgiving people are; they are generally equally ready to move on to solutions.
As a psychologist, I am often asked to work with children who have difficulty accepting responsibility. I try to help them see that when we give away blame, we give away power. If we don't recognize that we messed up, then we don't realize that from that same source of power we can generate solutions.
In counseling, I assign children homework: Each week, they have to share a mistake they've made so we can figure out a better course next time. It's amazing how quickly they learn to say, "I made a mistake when I ...." Remarkably, I never hear the children say, "Mistakes were made."
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.