Emily Post

Tyla Mason

‚ÄúMan, I was thinking about when I commented on the idea of “taking the rap throne‚Äù… that¬†statement hasn‚Äôt been sitting well with me‚Ķ That‚Äôs a dated mentality… I‚Äôm not on that‚Ķ every¬†rapper is somebody‚Äôs favorite‚Ķ Some rappers got the club‚Ķ Some got the radio‚Ķ some got the¬†conscience‚Ķsome got the streets‚Ķ Everybody has something they do the best‚Ķ wise man¬†should be humble enough to admit when he‚Äôs wrong and change his mind based on new¬†information‚ĶThere is so much positive energy right now‚Ķ Let‚Äôs stay on this Ultra Light Beam‚ĶIn rap we have been developing a brotherhood‚Ķ My number one enemy has been my ego‚Ķthere is only one throne and that‚Äôs God’s.‚Äù

– Kanye West


In running Prufrock I’ve had to make one really serious apology, and I’ve had one given to me. The second was when a great little magazine published a poem by one of Prufrock’s writers, and submitted by us, under my name. They hand-corrected each issue still in their possession and sent apologies to the writer, to me, and to all of their readers. It wasn’t as bad for me as it was for her, of course.

Then, in our last issue, we published a piece under the wrong name. The name we published, on the cover, was the writer’s brother’s and I realised this only as I was handing copies over to the writer’s colleague. It felt terrible. We let him know and he was justifiably angry but quickly pretty nice about it, considering, as was his brother. We apologised on Facebook and Twitter and the website.

It’s obviously important, for any sort of publisher, to know how to say sorry. Your job is, after all, saying a whole lot of other things, in public. The Mail & Guardian apologised in a big way recently, following its story claiming that Mmusi Maimane was receiving politics lessons from FW de Klerk. The M&G’s editor, Verashni Pillay, put the apology on the front cover and did a pretty stellar job, if still making sure that she made the paper look good (which, really, is her job too). The “we’re held to a higher standard” apology seems to be almost as common as the “I’m not angry just disappointed” response to wrongdoing. It’s the “What is your greatest fault?” interview response of saying sorry.

Tyla Mason

I once had to go on a conflict resolution retreat with colleagues for work (not Prufrock). At the retreat there was crying and literal blood. With our backs to each other, we had to explain a picture to a partner who couldn’t see it and they had to draw it, which was fun. The pieces of advice I remember were ‘don’t make it personal’, and to find out what each party’s real interests are, and hopefully then find a common interest. It was interesting. It was also so stressful for me, a person who hates any kind of conflict, that at some point, and I think the two are related, I was in terrible pain. One of the hotel’s staff members snuck me out to get Nurofen and a Steri Stumpie.

There wasn’t much focus on how to apologise, I suppose because when you’re employed, this is something you should probably know how to do. But in the conflict resolution retreat that is South African politics, the who and what and how of apologies are a big deal at the moment.

“Say sorry for e-tolls”

“Say sorry for benefitting from apartheid.”
“Like you mean it.”

“Say sorry for what you did, Gareth Cliff”
“Dali Mpofu is a Good Lawyer! #GarethCliff”

Tyla Mason

It’s worth remembering that nobody looks great rejecting a sincere apology. Who, for example, could turn down Emily Post replying to your message after way too long (from Post’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, 1922):


Even one who “loves the very sight of your handwriting,” could not possibly find any pleasure in a letter beginning:

“I have been meaning to write you for a long time but haven’t had a minute to spare.”


“I suppose you have been thinking me very neglectful, but you know how I hate to write letters.”


“I know I ought to have answered your letter sooner, but I haven’t had a thing to write about.”

The above sentences are written time and again by persons who are utterly unconscious that they are not expressing a friendly or loving thought. If one of your friends were to walk into the room, and you were to receive him stretched out and yawning in an easy chair, no one would have to point out the rudeness of such behavior; yet countless kindly intentioned people begin their letters mentally reclining and yawning in just such a way.


Suppose you merely change the wording of the above sentences, so that instead of slamming the door in your friend’s face, you hold it open:

“Do you think I have forgotten you entirely? You don’t know, dear Mary, how many letters I have written you in thought.”


“Time and time again I have wanted to write you but each moment that I saved for myself was always interrupted by—something.”

One of the frequent difficulties in beginning a letter is that your answer is so long delayed that you begin with an apology, which is always a lame duck. But these examples indicate a way in which even an opening apology may be attractive rather than repellent.

Apologise. Do not be repellent. But, when needed, here is a song for if you’re sorry not one bit.


Helen Sullivan is the co-founder and editor of Prufrock, a multilingual print quarterly of African fiction, nonfiction and poetry. To submit, subscribe, find stockists or get in touch, visit prufrock.co.za. Follow her monthly column on Casimir.


Illustrations by Tyla Mason


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