In Chapter 16 of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Kidnapped, our hero David Balfour asks the skipper of a ferryboat if he knows where to find the fugitive Alan Breck, and tries to give him a shilling. The skipper, Neil Roy, pulls away. “I am very much affronted,” he says. “This is not the way that one shentleman should behave to another at all.”
Balfour realizes he’s bungled, and “without wasting time upon apologies,” instead shows Neil a silver button that Breck had cut off his coat and given to Balfour as a token of trust.
Neil says he’ll help. “But if ye will pardon me to speak plainly… there is a thing that ye would never do, and that is to offer your dirty money to a Hieland shentleman.”
Balfour makes amends. “It was not very easy to apologise; for I could scarce tell him (what was the truth) that I had never dreamed he would set up to be a gentleman until he told me so.”
Just so. Balfour is seventeen and has had a rough fifteen chapters, being orphaned, barely escaping murder, and of course being kidnapped. Still, he ought to know enough to treat strangers with respect, especially when asking for their help.
Apparently he cobbled some apology together, which brings us to the question of how you apologize when being truthful will reveal nasty assumptions on your part.
There are a number of explanations that are likely to entail even more apology. “Sorry, I never thought anyone with a Southern accent could do such good research.” “Sorry, I didn’t think a woman would know how to do that.” “I only accused you of plagiarism because I thought you were too stupid to write that yourself.” “I’m afraid your clothing caused me to think you were a prostitute, and I just wanted to know what you charge. Out of curiosity.” “Wow, guess I was wrong about you being an affirmative action hire.” “As a heavy metal musician, I figured you were a racist like myself, and would appreciate the white power salute.” All are a kind of poisoned apology.
So do you tell the truth, add a new insult to the pile, and then try to dig yourself out of the whole pile? Do you try to avoid further insult with fancy footwork, not to say lies?
There’s the “you’d be amazed if you knew how many moronic Southerners/ditzy broads/ignorant brats/creatively-dressed hos/unqualified drones/like-minded metalheads I run into all the time, and it’s a surprise to run into an exception – I will certainly check my assumptions from now on” approach. The implication is that your assumptions are right except in this one case. That’s not going to work.
How about an appeal to bad upbringing? “My parents told me that only a prostitute wears fish-net tights. Huh, you know, they’re from a small Mennonite community. I should have known better than to take their word for it.” It can work if you’re willing to slander your parents.
What did Balfour say? Maybe, “Forgive me, sir, I’ve only recently left my hometown of Essendean, and hardly know how to behave like a gentleman. I’m ashamed of myself, as my parents would be if they were alive. Thank you for speaking so plainly to me. I will take the lesson to heart.”
He definitely needs to practice his techniques, because from reading the sequel it seems clear to me that he and Catriona MacGregor Drummond will be giving each other constant cause for apologies.