The high number of cases has led some people to question the effectiveness of the flu vaccine, and whether it’s worth getting if it doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu.
The flu vaccine is designed to cover the strains of the flu anticipated to circulate during the season. But even with the most sophisticated scientific processes, determining the right strains to include in the vaccine isn’t 100% foolproof.
Sometimes the virus undergoes major genetic changes or “mutations” in a relatively short space of time. Reports of a “mutant strain” this year means there’s concern some people might catch a strain the vaccine hasn’t protected against.
It’s too soon to tell the full extent of the effects of this mutation on how well the vaccine has worked. But the 2019 vaccine is showing early signs of being a good match for the common strains of the flu circulating this season.
What’s in a name?
Influenza or “flu” isn’t just one virus; different strains circulate each season.
Flu viruses that cause seasonal epidemics in humans fit under one of two major groups: influenza A or B.
Influenza A is further broken down into strains or subtypes based on surface proteins called hemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N).
We’re currently concerned about two subtypes which cause outbreaks in humans: A/H1N1pdm09 and A/H3N2.
Influenza B viruses are similarly categorised into strains based on two distinct lineages: B/Yamagata and B/Victoria.
Understanding the circulating strains is important because it gives us clues as to which age groups will likely be worst affected. Influenza A/H3, for example, has historically been associated with higher rates of disease in people aged 65 and over.
But the circulating strains are also important because they inform how the vaccine will be developed. A good match between the vaccine strains and what is circulating will mean the vaccine offers the best possible protection.
So how do we decide which flu strains are covered by the vaccine?
Every year, a new vaccine is produced to cover the strains that are predicted to be circulating in the northern and southern hemispheres. The World Health Organisation (WHO) uses a range of measures to determine which strains should be included in the vaccine.
Many of us who were vaccinated this year would have received a quadrivalent vaccine. This means it covered four strains in total: two strains of influenza A, and two strains of influenza B.
People aged 65 and over are offered a “high-dose” trivalent vaccine, which covers both A strains, and one B strain.
The Australian Influenza Vaccine Committee (AIVC) reviews the results and makes recommendations for the Australian vaccine, which in 2019 covered the following strains:
an A/Michigan/45/2015 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus
an A/Switzerland/8060/2017 (H3N2)-like virus
a B/Colorado/06/2017-like virus (Victoria lineage) – not included in the trivalent vaccine recommendation
a B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus (Yamagata lineage).
Do we always get it right?
The basic premise of forecasting is that it’s a “best guess”. It’s a highly educated guess, based on analysis and evaluation, but it’s not a guarantee.
The effectiveness of a vaccine depends on a number of factors, only some of which are within our control. While the choice for the vaccine is made on the best evidence available at the time, the viruses circulating in the population undergo changes as they replicate, known as antigenic “drift” and “shift”.
If the changes are only small, we can still get good cross-protection.
Less frequently, a big genetic “shift” happens. If this occurs after vaccine development has started and the strains have been chosen, we are dealing with a so-called “mutant flu” and the vaccine will likely not be a good match.
So is this year’s vaccine is working?
Data available for this year are showing the majority of influenza cases in Australia have been influenza A – with some states reporting more H3N2 than H1N1, and others reporting a more even mix of both.
The WHO Collaborating Centre in Victoria is also reporting that the majority of specimens of all four strains they’ve tested this year appear to be similar to the vaccine strains.
While early indications are that the vaccine has been a good match in the 2019 season, the WHO Collaborating Centre has also recently confirmed there has been a mutation in the A/H3N2 strain this season.
It’s not clear yet if this mutation will have a significant impact on vaccine effectiveness, but it may at least partially explain the high case numbers we’ve seen so far.
Large vaccine effectiveness studies done at the end of the flu season will help assess the impact of this mutation. In the meantime, a mismatch on only one strain means the vaccine will still provide reasonable protection against other circulating strains.
It’s still worth being vaccinated
In the same way wearing a seat belt is no guarantee we won’t be injured in a car accident, a flu vaccine is no guarantee we won’t develop influenza this season.
A person’s underlying susceptibility, due to factors such as their age and health, will also influence how well a vaccine works.
While flu epidemics remain complex, advice to prevent flu transmission remains simple. Regularly washing our hands, covering our mouth when we cough or sneeze, and staying home when we’re unwell are things we can all do to help stop the spread.
the estimated stress on joints, including the discs between the vertebral bones of the spine (too much physical loading stress could be a problem as it may cause pain in the joints and ligaments or muscles around them)
whether the joints are in the middle of their range of movement or near the extreme (awkward, near end-of-range postures may put more stress on tissues around joints)
Given these criteria, research suggests there are three main options for how you can sit well at a desk. Each option has different pros and cons, and is suitable for different tasks.
Option 1: upright sitting
This is probably the posture you think of as “good” posture. The defining feature of this option is that the trunk is upright.
A key component of upright sitting is that the feet can comfortably rest on a surface, whether the floor or a footstool. This position also makes it easy to adjust posture within the chair (fidget) and change posture to get out of the chair.
It’s also important the arms hang down from the shoulders vertically with elbows by the trunk, unless the forearms are supported on the work surface. Holding unsupported arms forward requires the muscles connecting the shoulder and neck to work harder. This often results in muscle fatigue and discomfort.
The head should be looking straight ahead or a little downwards. Looking upwards would increase tension in the neck and likely lead to discomfort.
This posture is useful for common office tasks such as working on a desktop computer.
Option 2: forward sitting
The defining feature of this posture is that the trunk is angled forward, and the arms are rested on the work surface. Allowing the thigh to point down at an angle may make it easier to maintain an inward curve in your lower back, which is suggested to reduce low back stress.
For a time special chairs were developed to enable the thigh to be angled downwards, and usually had a feature to block the knees, stopping the person sliding off the angled seat base.
By perching on the front of an ordinary chair and resting your elbows on the work surface, you can use this posture to provide variety in sitting. This posture is useful for tasks such as drawing or handwriting on a flat work surface, either with paper or a touch screen device.
Option 3: reclined sitting
The defining feature of the third option is the trunk is angled backward, supported by the chair’s backrest. Back muscle activity is lowest in this posture, as some of the upper body weight is taken by the chair.
This position may reduce the risk of fatigue in the back muscles and resultant discomfort. But sitting like this for hours each day may result in the back muscles being more vulnerable to fatigue in the future.
This posture is useful for meetings and phone conversations. But it doesn’t work well for handwriting or using a computer as the arms need to be held forwards for these things, requiring neck and shoulder muscle activity likely to result in discomfort.
consider how much time you spend sitting each day, and if it’s more that around seven hours, look for ways to reduce the total amount of time you spend sitting. For example, if you’re an office worker you can stand instead of sit for some tasks (but don’t stand for too long either)
break up long periods of sitting with movement. Aim never to sit for longer than 30-60 minutes without allowing your body to experience alternative posture and movement, such as a short walk
vary your sitting posture using the three options outlined above so your body has changes in the stresses placed on it
remember there is no one good posture, but any posture held for a long period of time becomes a bad posture. Our bodies are meant to move regularly.
When most of us get the flu, we spend three or four days on the couch feeling miserable, then we bounce back pretty quickly. But others have more severe symptoms and need to be hospitalised because they’re at risk of life-threatening complications. Some people even die from the flu.
The size and impact of influenza seasons varies from year to year. In 2017, Australia had its worst flu season for 20 years, with at least 1,255 lives lost. The 2018 season was relatively mild, but it doesn’t seem to have ever ended – cases have been reported throughout summer and into autumn 2019.
Protection often will have begun to wane four or five months later, so getting vaccinated in mid to late May, or even early June, will give you better protection at the height of the flu season. But there are number of factors to consider before deciding when to get your flu shot.
Remind me, why get a flu shot each year?
Influenza viruses change each year and the vaccine is updated to keep up with these changes. This year, for example, the vaccine protects against two different strains than the 2018 vaccine.
Our body’s immune response to the vaccine also wanes over time. So even if you were vaccinated last winter, you may no longer be fully protected 18 months later, depending on your age and your response to the last vaccination.
When does the flu vax become available?
Influenza vaccines are usually available in early April, or even in March; though you’ll generally have to pay full price for early access, even if you’re eligible for a free flu vaccine later.
In mid-April, stock starts arriving at GP clinics and pharmacies for the government’s immunisation program, which offers free flu vaccines for those most at risk of complications from influenza. This includes:
all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged six months and over
pregnant women (during any stage of pregnancy)
all people aged 65 years and over
people aged six months and over with medical conditions which increase the risk of complications following influenza infections.
In addition, most states in Australia offer free vaccination to all other children from six months of age to five years of age.
For those not eligible for the free vaccine, influenza vaccines are available through pharmacies and GPs for between A$10 and A$25 (plus the cost of a consultation if your GP doesn’t bulk bill), or via workplace programs.
Is it good to get in early?
Getting a vaccine immediately after it becomes available will ensure you don’t miss out if there’s a vaccine shortage. And it will protect against the “summer flus” we’ve been seeing over the last few months, which are circulating earlier than normal.
But there is a potential downside. Protection against influenza peaks one to two months after you have your vaccine, and then declines. This rate of decline varies from person to person, by age, and by influenza strain.
The flu season usually reaches its peak in August or sometimes even September. So if you’re vaccinated in early April, four to five months will have passed by the time you reach the peak virus months, and you will have lower levels of protection.
There are few good quality studies across all ages to measure this rate of decline accurately, although a study from 2015 showed that the measurable antibody responses to the influenza vaccine components reduced slowly.
Another study from 2014 showed the vaccine was less effective in people vaccinated three or more months earlier, adding to the evidence that protection wanes over time.
When is too late for the flu shot?
If you delay your decision to be vaccinated until July or August, when the flu season is well underway, your chance of becoming infected will significantly increase.
Mid to late May or early in June is the sweet spot between trying to maximise your protective levels of antibodies generated by vaccination and getting vaccinated before there are significant levels of influenza virus circulating.
Remember, it takes seven to ten days from the time of your flu shot for the vaccine to begin to be fully effective.
Getting vaccinated in late May or early June should provide good levels of protection during the peak of the influenza season and may even last through to November, by which time the influenza season has usually finished.
Vaccinate kids a month earlier
Vaccination timing is a little different for children. Those aged six months to nine years who haven’t been vaccinated against influenza before need two doses of vaccine, four weeks apart. So they will need to start their vaccination program a month earlier than adults and the elderly.
Nancy Pelosi is back. Back throwing her weight around. Back in charge.
As the newly-elected Speaker of the US House of Representatives – arguably the most powerful position after the president – the top-ranking Democrat is suddenly the closest thing America has to an incumbent “opposition leader”.
Not before time. Last week, after Pelosi forced President Donald Trump into a humiliating retreat from his partial government shutdown, a former administration official texted Axios reporter Jonathan Swan with the words: “Trump looks pathetic… he just ceded his presidency to Nancy Pelosi”.
For astonished Australians, the mercurial Trump’s adolescent theatrics merely underscore the value of our Westminster parliamentary tradition.
This is the “oppositional” system in which an alternative prime minister, with a fully-formed shadow ministry, is not only appointed in plain view, but also goes about releasing detailed alternative policy. All while holding the government to account.
However, comparisons to the US are not always so kind. Pelosi’s late-career revival at the age of 78 highlights a cultural point of difference somewhat less flattering to Australia.
It’s a difference that hints at a corrosive ageism in Australian public life that is so normal it goes unremarked — a tendency to over-value the new and reward hyper-ambitious individuals while squandering the wisdom amassed through years in service.
It is a mentality that:
short-changes the electorate by failing to extract full value from its investment in seasoned representatives
elevates MPs before they are ready and discards them when they are
works disproportionately against women, by making the early to mid-career years — during which women typically require time away for childbirth — the crucial ones.
Is it merely coincidence that the two most successful women in recent Australian leadership on each side, Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop, did not weather such career absences? Or that some of the bigger names on the rung immediately below them did not either — think Penny Wong, Michaelia Cash, and going back further, Amanda Vanstone?
This unspoken antipathy to experience is not new. Nearly 20 years ago, John Howard purchased an internal truce by flagging his voluntary retirement as early as 63. Sure, it was designed to hold off the rising Peter Costello, but the deal flew because it rang true. Of course the PM would hand over in his mid-60s. Who would credibly seek high office beyond that?
I have said before that if the party wants me to lead it to another election, which will be at the end of next year, I am happy to do so. After that obviously one has to recognise, I’ll then be in my 63rd or 64th year, and you start to ask yourself and that’s fair enough. And nothing is forever.
How odd this seems in light of Pelosi’s game-changing return. Still active in the Liberal Party, Howard is only fractionally older than the American.
How about Paul Keating?
Labor’s Paul Keating, the man Howard succeeded in 1996, is younger than both of them. At 75, this former PM is still a force in business and public policy discussions, despite being officially retired from politics for nearly 23 years.
Yet when Trump lines up for his second term late next year, he’ll be just a year shy of what Keating is now.
His Democratic opponent could conceivably be older.
Among the bigger names frequently mentioned are Hillary Rodham Clinton, who would be 73 at election time – an entry age all but unimaginable in Australian politics.
Another is the former vice president, Joe Biden, who will be 78 in November 2020.
Or the Democrats could turn to the man Clinton bested in the last primaries, Bernie Sanders, knocking on the door of 80 come his inauguration.
Even the new kid on the Democratic left, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, will be 71 by polling day.
Then there’s the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn
It’s not just in the US that age presents no automatic barrier to high office.
British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is mysteriously popular with the party’s younger membership despite his flaccid opposition to Brexit. Odds on to be the next British PM, Corbyn is already 69 and will be seeking to commence his prime ministership (if the beleaguered May government runs to full term), the same month he turns 73.
Again, these numbers simply don’t scan in the Australian context – a country where premiers, prime ministers, and their mandarins are routinely hurried into a post-public twilight between 50 and 60. And where High Court Justices have to retire at 70, regardless of their legal mastery.
Of course, the causes and circumstances of individual retirements are unique. But taken together, we see the outlines of a particularly Australian perspective on age and authority.
How about pollies who ‘retire’ early?
These outlines get even sharper if we consider the early departure of some of the leading lights in Australia in recent times – names that had been pencilled in as future leaders.
It is a long list, but among them is the former attorney-general Nicola Roxon, who upped stumps on a stellar career at just 46.
Craig Emerson is another leading Labor light who still looks young having pulled the pin on a senior ministerial career at 59.
Former Labor minister Kate Ellis (41) will depart at the election, and just days ago it was the turn of Human Services Minister, Michael Keenan (46) to announce the same intention.
And of course, there’s Gillard who rose to the very top but was gone at 52.
Only last week there were calls for the return of Peter Costello with some dubbing the country’s longest serving treasurer, “the best prime minister we never had”.
Costello left Canberra shortly after the 2007 loss to Kevin Rudd’s Labor, and is still just 61.
Yet in Australia at least, that’s old. Indeed, the Liberal former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett used the recent resignation of Kelly O’Dwyer (at just 41) to call on MPs of Costello’s vintage to make way for new talent.
Among those he identified were Kevin Andrews and Julie Bishop. The two Liberals have little in common besides being fitter than most younger MPs due to daily cycling and running.
But at 63 and 62 respectively, they would be young leaders in some countries.
Pelosi is not infallible but she is vastly experienced, and it has already paid big dividends. As a counterpoint to a vainglorious and dangerously naive president, her election serves an obvious national interest.
At 78, she is just getting started (again). Make that 79 in March.
It underlines just how variable the Australian climate can be.
While attention is focused on responding to the current situation, it is important to also think long-term. In our rush to help, we need to make sure well-meaning responses don’t do more harm than good.
The drought policy debate
The recent drought has stimulated much empathy for farmers from the media, governments and the public. Federal and state governments have committed hundreds of millions of dollars in farmer support. Private citizens and companies have also given generously to the cause.
A central concern is that drought support could undermine farmer preparedness for future droughts and longer-term adaptation to climate change.
Another concern is that simplistic “farmer as a victim” narrative presented by parts of the media overstate the number of farmers suffering hardship and understates the truth that most prepare for and manage drought without assistance.
Sensationalist media coverage can also damage Australia’s reputation as a reliable food producer. Images of barren landscapes, stressed livestock and desperate farmers send the wrong signals to customers and trading partners.
An acute policy dilemma
The tension in drought policy is real.
To remain internationally competitive Australian farmers need to increase their productivity.
Agricultural productivity depends on two main factors. First, innovation – adopting new technologies and management practices. Second, structural adjustment – shifting resources towards the most productive sectors and most efficient farmers.
Supporting drought-affected farms has the potential to slow both these processes, weakening productivity growth.
This gives rise to an acute dilemma: should we support farmers in distress, or support the industry to be the best it can be?
Research by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences shows climate change has negatively affected the productivity of cropping farms, particularly in southern Australia.
Second, most farm businesses are also farm households.
While many other risky industries are made up of large corporate businesses (generally with diversified assets and ownership), agriculture is dominated by family farms.
Third, financial markets both in Australia and internationally struggle to provide viable risk management products for farmers – particularly drought insurance.
This means farming is an unusually risky business. Farmers must therefore be more conservative about financing and operating their businesses, which constrains investment, innovation and ultimately productivity.
It provides a fortnightly payment, usually set at the rate of the Newstart unemployment allowance. There is also a financial assessment of the farm business and funding to help develop skills or get professional advice.
Those welfare programs provide an important safety net for farm households. Because they provide targeted support to households, rather than businesses, they result in fewer economic distortions than alternative approaches.
Past reviews have consistently recommended against subsidising farm business inputs or supporting output prices. This includes providing subsidies for livestock feed.
While these measures might provide short term relief, if they become routine they risk weakening the incentives to manage farms properly, by for instance destocking sheep and cattle ahead of likely droughts.
Such insurance, if done well, could provide farmers with better protection from climate risk, while also supporting adaptation and productivity growth – effectively sidestepping our current drought policy dilemma.
Australia is ranked in the top third of countries in almost all indices measuring the best countries to retire, according to our analysis of nine separate ageing and retirement indices.
The problem is, experts contriving such indices can’t agree about which ingredients should be included and which are most important.
The flaw of averages
While composite ageing indices provide us with what appear as simple comparisons, the underlying methodologies are complex, prone to judgement, and can be tweaked to obtain certain results.
Using indicators that aggregate outcomes for the older population within a country also ignores differences between people within this population. Sub-indices by gender and more granular age-groups do exist, but one improvement could include an inequality adjustment based on outcomes by socioeconomic status or income.
What about just asking people about their life? Studies that compare differences in people’s own evaluations of life across countries show these are substantially explained by social and economic differences across countries. And when comparing individuals in high-income countries such as Australia and Britain, good physical and mental health appear most correlated with life satisfaction, while in middle-income countries like Indonesia, income is more important.
But that doesn’t differentiate by age. When the OECD asked older people across rich countries what mattered to them, they said that “health” and “environment” were most important while “civic engagement”, “community” and “income” domains were less so. By contrast, younger groups attributed less weight to “environment” and more to “income”.
Such indices usually involve scoring a country in several categories and combining these into a composite score and ranking. Done well, these can reveal how life in one location is better than another and in which categories it is lagging.
So what do existing indices suggest is important for older people’s well-being? And which countries come out on top?
Ingredients for a good old age
The ingredients used in an overall index differ, ranging from the employment rates of older people in each country, to their political participation, income, levels of exercise, and life expectancy.
These indicators and weights are often chosen subjectively by experts constructing each index. Some comparisons focus on current standards of living and comprise social, environmental, health, and economic indicators. These are probably more immediately relevant to people.
By contrast, indices that aim to measure the likely future for older people mostly comprise financial indicators and those that relate to retirement income system design, demography, and economic conditions. These are probably of greater concern for those thinking ahead about the impacts of population ageing.
Where to retire?
Despite the flaws with such comparisons, few people can help themselves. So how does your country rank?
European countries – particularly Nordic ones – are consistently highly ranked across ageing indices (see figure below). Such results reflect their high health outcomes, high incomes, generous social welfare, and comparatively well-designed retirement income systems. These are also countries that top the subjective happiness rankings.
Lower and middle-income countries receive lower rankings from the current well-being indices in which they feature. India and China, where there is low public provision for retirement, occupy high rankings among indices that emphasise fiscal sustainability over the quality of life of older people.
Australia is ranked in the top third of countries in almost all indices. It ranks particularly highly in the Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index, largely due to the design of its retirement income system.
For what it’s worth, one could take an index of these indices to summarise. Such an index, call it the CEPAR meta-index of ageing, indeed shows Nordic countries taking the top three places, followed by Australia and the US, with the UK coming somewhere in the middle of 25 countries – apparently well ahead of places like France and Italy. Something to ponder when contemplating the good life in old age.
Self-help book and works of popular psychology often instruct us in the art of apologising. Their advice is reflected, in turn, in much online discussion.
Most commonly, we’re advised to give elaborate, self-abasing apologies: apologies that go well beyond acknowledging misjudgement or admitting to wrongdoing. Withvariations, we are told to elaborate in detail just what we did wrong, describe why it was unacceptable, offer nothing in the way of justification or excuse (though sometimes we’re told we can give an explanation without justifying ourselves), and provide explicit assurances that we will never repeat the behaviour. In summary, we’re told to condemn, criticise and abase ourselves, and to ask humbly for forgiveness.
This might be needed for some betrayals of love or friendship. But for most situations it is very bad advice.
In its most serious mode, the social practice of apologising relates to actions that are later regretted, leading to deep feelings of guilt or shame. With the passage of time, or when we’re brought to focus on what we’ve said or done, we sometimes feel terrible about our own conduct.
To save space, I’ll set aside serious failures resulting from, for example, incompetence (much as these might be interesting in their own right). Let’s consider cases of serious wrongdoing. Here, one person has deliberately harmed or deceived another (or others) in a significant way. In the worst cases, the victim might be someone who legitimately expected the wrongdoer’s goodwill, special concern or even love.
In a situation like this, the victim has every reason to feel profoundly betrayed. Since the wrongdoing was deliberate and significant, it revealed something important and unsavoury about the wrongdoer’s character – what she was psychologically capable of – and especially about her attitude to her victim. In acting as she did, she showed an attitude of disrespect or even malice.
If she aims at reconciliation and seeks forgiveness, the wrongdoer will need to demonstrate that she has undergone something of a psychological transformation. She will need to express heartfelt remorse, show a clear understanding of how she betrayed the victim, and offer especially strong and convincing assurances. She will enter the territory of condemning her own moral character – as it was expressed in the past – and claiming to have changed.
Even the most complete and self-abasing apology might not be enough to regain the victim’s trust and good opinion. The wrongdoer has, after all, revealed by her actions that she was psychologically capable of acting with disrespect or worse. Furthermore, claims to have transformed in moral character are inherently difficult to believe. The victim might understandably be unwilling to restore the relationship to anything like what it previously was.
But most cases are nothing like this. Worthwhile thoughts about apologising in cases of serious wrongdoing can be very bad advice for the range of milder situations that we encounter almost every day.
In most situations, any sense of guilt or shame is greatly attenuated, even to the point where it might – quite properly – not be felt at all. Thus, words like “sorry” are uttered more as matter of politeness and social convention than to express heartfelt remorse.
Think of the following sequence of events (which happened to me a few days ago). I’d alighted from an intercity train, late at night, and was walking along a moderately crowded platform when I stopped – fairly suddenly, no doubt – to check out a vending machine. The middle-aged man walking immediately behind brushed my arm as he stepped past, and we automatically turned to each other to say, “Sorry!” We spontaneously nodded and smiled at each other, raising our hands, palms outward, as if to indicate peaceful intent and absence of weapons … and he then walked on while I concluded that I didn’t really want the junk food on offer in the machine. And that was all.
The entire exchange took only a few seconds, and neither of us had to go through any process of abasement or self-criticism. How, exactly, is this different from cases that seem far more serious?
It is different along many dimensions, and what follows is not intended to be complete. First, no one was hurt (even psychologically). At most, both of us were momentarily startled.
Second, it would be beside the point to castigate either of us in any serious way. Perhaps we could both have been a bit more conscious of what was going on around us, but at most we showed the sort of lapse in attention and concentration that happens to human beings all the time. I had not been aware of his presence behind me; he did not expect me to stop. But people frequently bump into each other in crowds, and no one is seriously blamed: it’s a normal part of life. It would, of course, be quite different if somebody recklessly sprinted through a crowd, shoving aside people who were in his way.
Third, the two people concerned had no previous relationship except, I suppose, as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. There was no relationship of special regard and trust to try to restore. In that sense, we were not exactly seeking reconciliation, although a certain smoothing of the situation was called for. I doubt, however, that this point makes much difference. Even if the man who brushed past me had turned out to be an old friend, no elaborate apology would have been needed.
Small everyday incidents such as this can be surprisingly pleasant encounters. As long as both people act in the expected way – immediately signalling goodwill and peaceful intent – these incidents make us feel better about ourselves and tend to strengthen societal bonds. For a brief moment, each person provides the other with reassurance that whatever happened was not a prelude to any malicious or violent – or otherwise unfriendly or anti-social – course of action. Importantly, each conveys that the other deserves consideration and respect.
Notice how, during these quick exchanges, we often smile or laugh; we express some mutual amusement at the little tangles of social life. In part, we laugh at our own fallibility, and we forgive ourselves and each other for it. We acknowledge that our fallibility is part of being human, and that it does not, in itself, merit condemnation.
And yet, we do say “Oh, sorry!” or use similar words. In context, this is not an admission of serious wrongdoing or guilty thoughts. We are not seeking anything as grand as forgiveness. By using such words, however, we offer clarity and reassurance. We express something like the following: “I made a miscalculation (or had a lapse in concentration, or whatever might be the case); please understand that I bear you no ill will or disrespect; you have nothing to fear from me.”
Often, this is what we really want to know from each other, and this message also has the advantage that it is usually a believable one. By contrast, an assurance by a serious wrongdoer that she will never do such a thing again might strain credulity.
Words of apology are, then, often given without accepting any blameworthiness. Since we are human – not infallible or omniscient beings – we make mistakes, get distracted, have lapses in concentration, and so on. Sometimes, indeed, we take actions that prove not to be optimal, even though they were not contraindicated on the information available to us at the time.
If you’re at all like me, you might very often find yourself apologising for things that you don’t feel especially ashamed of or guilty about. You might also receive such apologies from others.
For example, a salesperson might apologise to you if you have to wait for an unusually long time to be served, even if the delay was caused by something obviously beyond her control. The apology does not indicate an admission of wrongdoing, and it is certainly not an assurance that nothing like this will happen again (it might well!). But it offers respect and reassurance to someone who has been inconvenienced, even unavoidably.
I frequently find myself apologising to someone I’m talking to if I’ve miscommunicated what I was trying to say and thus caused confusion (or perhaps even hurt feelings). Alternatively, I might apologise if I realise that I’ve been interpreting my interlocutor wrongly: I’ve grabbed the wrong end of the verbal pineapple and thereby caused confusion. In either case, however, the miscommunication is not a reason to feel any serious guilt or shame.
For example, if I misinterpret somebody’s words the reason might be genuine ambiguity in what he said. Conversely, if someone misunderstands my words, perhaps he was being uncharitable. Alternatively, it might have been genuinely difficult to formulate the idea I was trying to get across – and in the circumstances perhaps I couldn’t have been expected to do any better.
It might nonetheless be reasonable – and it is somewhat conventional – to waive our possible defences once we realise that we’re at cross purposes in a conversation. It isn’t difficult, and it can become almost instinctive, to say things like “Sorry – I’ll rephrase that” or “Oops, sorry – I see what you mean now.”
The truth of it is, we can almost always express ourselves a bit more clearly and listen a bit more astutely. In acknowledging this on any particular occasion, we are not admitting to serious wrongdoing or a nasty attitude. Our mild words of apology can and should reflect this.
Through minor apologies, we reassure the people we’re dealing with that we view them as worthy of respect. We signal that we don’t hold grudges or assign blame over small things that have gone wrong, and that the people we encounter don’t need to worry about how we regard them or what we might do next. All this helps us get along socially, as human beings must.
A flexible practice
The more we think about the practice of apologising, the more we become aware of how varied, complex and flexible it is.
On some occasions, perhaps you should have taken more care, yet you were not outright malicious or even reckless. Perhaps you were tired or stressed or poorly prepared for a task. In these cases, something more than a brief conventional apology might be in order. All the same, mere failure to take adequate care does not indicate anything especially unsavoury about your moral character. It happens from time to time to almost anyone.
If your carelessness has caused significant harm, you might feel urgent concern for those affected and you might owe them some kind of redress. But depending on the circumstances, it might be overkill if an officious interloper demanded that you humble and condemn yourself. If you did any such thing, it would feel and appear insincere.
Irrespective of any advice from pop psychologists, it often makes sense to accompany an apology with an explanation or excuse. Indeed, explanations or excuses can be better than apologies. Allow me to elaborate.
It is often said that “intent is not magic”, and that phrase does have some point when clear-cut harm has been inflicted on somebody identifiable. In more cases than not, however, it is precisely the wrong way to think about human interaction. Often, what hurts us most about someone else’s conduct is the attitude that it seems to reveal. It might seem to show that the person views us with malice or disrespect. If she is someone we care for, that can be emotionally devastating. We might wonder whether our relationship with her was based all along on an illusion.
But much of the sting is removed if she gives an explanation or excuse that shows she does not, after all, harbour malice or disrespect. She might, in fact, utter conventional words of apology, but the important thing is that she reassure us in some convincing way about how she feels. The point of good explanations is that they really do explain; the point of good excuses is that they really do excuse.
In some cases, we can even apologise for actions that were not our own. For example, you might apologise (as you try to shuffle him out of a party) for the boorish and embarrassing conduct of a friend who has had too much to drink. Similarly, a media organisation might apologise for a defamatory or outrageous remark made by a guest.
Likewise, the leader of a country might apologise formally for something done by her country, even if it happened a long time ago before she was born. This is a fairly well understood public act with a potential to reconcile and heal. It makes intuitive sense because it relies on the idea that political entities have an ongoing existence beyond the lifetimes and participation of their individual citizens.
However, not just any relationship can make an apology coherent. There has to be the right sort of connection between the person giving the apology and somebody else’s behaviour. For example, you can’t sensibly apologise for your friend’s boorish actions on some past occasion when you were not even present.
In some situations, we don’t have a clear idea who may have been inconvenienced or offended by our conduct. Contrary to much advice on the Internet, it makes perfectly good sense in these circumstances to offer contingent apologies such as “We apologise for any inconvenience” or “I am sorry if I upset anyone.”
On some particular occasion, you might think that any upset from your conduct was not reasonable. You might even doubt whether anyone was genuinely upset, as opposed to grandstanding to make a point. Nonetheless, you might also feel concern about any upset that actually was experienced, even unreasonably. If so, a mild and contingent apology might be perfectly in order. It is a socially intuitive way to convey that you are not motivated by malice or disrespect. And again, it signals that whatever you did or said was not the precursor to a more troubling course of conduct.
This leads me to the sensitive topic of weaponised demands for apologies, often followed by equally weaponised complaints about “notpologies”.
Weaponised demands and complaints
As we’ve seen, it’s coherent to apologise even when you are guilty of nothing more than ordinary human fallibility – or sometimes even when your conduct was justifiable. An example of the latter is when you have inconvenienced somebody in order to deal with a crisis.
In other cases, you – or I – might be guilty of something more than ever-present human fallibility. Even then, we might have shown no more than a low degree of negligence that is easily excused. In these cases, we might feel concern if we’ve caused anyone serious harm. Usually, however, feelings of deep guilt or shame will not be fitting. (Very often, in fact, it’s debatable whether we really were careless or merely unlucky: the line can be very blurred, and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.)
In all, the practice of apologising is subtle and complex, and we should enjoy a considerable range of discretion in when and how far we engage in it.
When others demand that we apologise against our own initial judgement, it can be a form of abuse or a political weapon. At the level of personal relationships, demands for apologies can be abusive: a method of punishment and control. At the level of political, social, and cultural debate, the purpose is to humiliate and discredit somebody who is viewed as an opponent or a wrongdoer.
If we force a public apology from someone we cast as a villain, we gain a victory over them and we warn others not to behave similarly. This might have some social value if restricted to people who’ve engaged in genuinely outrageous conduct. However, through public shaming and threats to careers, humiliating apologies can be forced from people who have done little – or arguably nothing – wrong.
As we’ve seen, elaborate self-criticism and self-abasement might be appropriate sometimes. They might be called for when apologising in private to a loved one who has been betrayed in some way. But when somebody is forced through this process in public – perhaps because of her honestly stated opinion on a matter of legitimate controversy, or perhaps for the phrasing of an unrehearsed remark – it is a cruel, unnecessary, indecent spectacle.
To be clear, somebody who is pressured to apologise might, indeed, feel concern at having offended others. She might willingly offer some clarification and some mild words of apology. The latter might, for example, be along the lines of, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” In the circumstances, this response provides clarification of intent, reassurance, and an expression of goodwill. Once a shaming campaign begins, however, it won’t get anyone off the public relations hook.
Whatever mob is pressuring and shaming her will inevitably condemn her (quite reasonable) response as a mere “notpology” and apply further pressure. In this parlance, appropriately limited and contingent apologies are referred to as “notpologies” by zealots who hope to humiliate and discredit their real or imagined enemies.
When demands and complaints are made in this weaponised manner, we have a powerful reason to resist them. Each time someone gives in to a mob of zealots, and offers public self-criticism and a humiliating public apology, it encourages the mob to find new victims. Don’t give such mobs positive feedback.
Your best guide?
My subheading to this article, “Your Best Guide on the Internet”, is lighthearted but on point. As I’ve emphasised, the practice of apologising is complex. We often have to make subtle, discriminating decisions about when and how to engage in it. By contrast, most advice on the Internet is misleading in suggesting that there is a single formula that we need to learn.
Fortunately, our intuitions are usually well honed by experience during our formative years, and most of us make reasonable judgements more often than not, even on the spur of the moment. We might not always be aware of it consciously, but we sense in our everyday practices that apologies can take many forms to suit a myriad of circumstances.
None of this is intended to suggest that I always get it right in my own life! Perhaps no one does; in any event, I am not holding myself out as a role model. I have sometimes made mistakes in this area, even quite serious ones, usually out of anger or pride or self-righteousness. If I have any advice to give beyond the most obvious, it’s to try to avoid those feelings – especially in combination. It’s wise to put them aside, if we can, and in cases of doubt it’s often best to give some sort of apology even if it goes against our grain.
The ability to apologise freely, without embarrassment, should be easier if we recognise how often our mistakes come from ordinary human limitations for which we should feel no particular guilt or shame. Combined with this, most apologies do not relate to serious wrongdoing, disrespectful attitudes to others, or defects of character.
Everyday apologies usually have rather conventional and pragmatic functions: to express regret (but not necessarily culpability) for inconvenience, confusion or hurt; to assure others that we respect them and recognise their interests, and that our intentions are not hostile; and to indicate that others have nothing to fear from us going forward.
In a sense, none of this is new. I’m telling readers what they already know, but the opposite of what they are too often told. I’ve set out in an explicit way some of the complexity that we are all aware of if we’re not confused by pop psychology or a dubious ideology.
Once again: it is often worth apologising (albeit mildly) even when we’ve done nothing wrong; apologies are often quite legitimately accompanied by explanations or excuses; most apologies do not have to be lengthy or especially self-critical or self-abasing. In some situations, much-maligned “notpologies” might be all that is needed.
This complexity should be familiar, once we think about it clearly and for ourselves.
For each of us, as individuals, the social practice of apologising gives many options to match with the ever-changing situations we encounter in our lives. We can think of them as tools in our social kit. Exactly how we use them is up to us.
The Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, has resigned. Will he now challenge the Prime Minister and try and get his old job back? One thing is for sure, despite the rhetoric coming from Julia Gillard and her supporters, Kevin Rudd is not to blame for the woes of the ALP government. Sure, they can use Kevin Rudd as a scapegoat as they are attempting to do, but everyone knows that the Gillard led government is something of a joke and they have no chance of winning the next election.
To win the next election there needs to be change and that has to start with the leadership. Simon Crean is not the answer – which appears to be something that has been suggested in recent days. That would be a very poor choice. As much as some members of the government would hate it, I do believe as many do, that Kevin Rudd is the best chance the ALP has of winning the next election, whenever that may be. That is my own opinion of course, but to do so (win I mean), he would have to a much better job than he did last time and actually govern.
One of the best decisions I have made, if not the best, was to resign from my job after 20 years of work there. I moved on and now work in a lesser paid job – however, my health has improved across the board as a result and I am far happier now than I was back then. I no longer work the excessive hours and have more time to do my own thing. What’s not to like.