Stinging arguments and lame apologies

7 December 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 4 December 2017 issue)

Dear Kam,
I had a bad argument with a friend. It was the same old argument, the same old problems and we both ended up being the losers. What should I do the next time it happens?
Perpetual loser

We have probably all been in the situation where we are stung by the same people and in the same way, again and again. We know what’s going to happen but we fall for it anyway.

There is the old fable of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion asks the frog to carry him across a river but the frog refuses because he is afraid that the scorpion will do its usual stinging thing. The scorpion insists it would never do that because they would both drown. The frog accepts the logic and agrees to carry the scorpion across. But half way across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog cannot understand why the scorpion would be so stupid and kill them both. The scorpion says, “It’s in my nature”.

I always think of the scorpion and the frog whenever I watch hapless defenders trying to cope with the brilliant Dutch footballer Arjen Robben. I see myself as the unfortunate defender frantically running backwards while desperately trying to calculate what to do even though I already know Robben’s nature.

He is a prolific goalscorer but he always seems to score in the same way: 134 goals with his left foot and only 11 with his right. He shoots with his left foot but plays on the right wing. I know that Robben scores all his goals from the exact spot on the pitch to favour his left foot. He will run down the right wing but suddenly change direction, make a 90° turn to his left and then unleash a precise shot into the top corner of the goal. He always does the same thing and I know the exact spot that he wants.

What can I do to thwart him? I could just place a chair in his favourite spot and read a book. That would stop him. But there is a tiny chance that he will not do what I expect. Maybe he will do what all other wingers do: carry on running down the wing and put in a cross for somebody else to score. So I have to cover that unlikely possibility as well. I could try and tackle him but he’s fast and it is in his nature to do dramatic dives as if he has been shot by a sniper and then he always wins a free kick or even a penalty.

What do I do? I have to track his run down the wing and when he makes a sudden turn to his left, I will lose my balance and fall over while he goes across the pitch and scores from his favourite spot. While he is celebrating I will still be sprawled on the ground, yet another victim of Robben’s nature. What could I have done differently?

I’m an optimistic realist, which might be a contradiction in terms. I expect the worst but hope for the best. I believe there is a potential solution to every problem even if the solution is to walk away and pretend the problem never happened.

In my mind I have replayed the Arjen Robben conundrum over and over in the search for a perfect solution. Marking him with two players is the obvious answer, but then you’ll leave a gap somewhere else on the pitch that will be exploited by another equally brilliant player. Just kick him, but you might not succeed in actually breaking his leg and you’ll get sent off. Attack down his wing and force him to defend, but he is ready to pounce if you make a mistake. Or try some other clever defensive tactic that is as yet beyond my knowledge. Clearly, there is a solution because Robben has not scored in every single game. I just need to keep studying until I understand what it is.

Arjen Robben’s nature might be annoying but he scores goals and is therefore a winner. The truly dangerous scorpion is somebody whose nature is self-defeating and threatens to drag you down as well. What do you do? I don’t know. Walk away, I guess. Just bear in mind that if it keeps happening with everybody you meet, then perhaps it is you who is the scorpion.

Dear Kam
I need to apologise to my friend. We had an argument. I know I was right but I need to write an apology that makes it sound like I’m sorry even though I’m not. What do I say?
Out of words

When is an apology not an apology? A minister recently said that Universiti Teknologi Mara students had been allowed to enrol even though they were “slow learners”. He later said, “I apologise if I have hurt anyone who felt hurt by what I have said”. To be honest, I do not know if he said this in English or Malay, but it does not sound like much of an apology. Surely the basic rule for a heartfelt apology is that if it includes the word ‘if’, then it’s not really an apology. Saying “I’m sorry if you were offended” suggests that it’s the fault of the person you are addressing for being easily offended. You can make your non-apology even more annoying if you add, “Which was never my intention”.

Reprinted with the kind permission of