The need for apology arises when someone violates a social rule and offends another. If the offender recognizes the violation and wants to earn forgiveness, an apology is offered. If it is accepted, the offender is forgiven and relations are restored. That is the ideal.
Because everyone violates some social rule regularly, apologies should be everywhere. They range from, “Sorry I stepped in front of you,” to heads of states apologizing for their nation’s past treatment of native peoples (Justin Trudeau did this for Canada just recently). The important thing to accomplish in an apology is sincerely to acknowledge the violation and its consequences and to commit to violating no more, thus reassuring others than you can be trusted.
In good apologies, the offender takes responsibility for a very specific offense without offering excuses: “Yes, I know exactly what I did wrong.” In failed apologies, the offense is described vaguely or minimized. The phrase, “if I did anything to offend you,” suggests that the offender doesn’t know exactly what the offense was (and may not care to find out) and so cannot be trusted to do better next time. In good apologies, the offender takes full responsibility: “It was my fault.” In failed apologies, the offense is blamed on external factors: being drunk, joking around, and mistakenly believing the behavior was acceptable. These excuses leave open the question of whether the offense will occur again. “Mistakes were made,” fails in both regards: “Something happened, but I’m not sure what it was, and I’m not responsible anyway.”
In good apologies, the offender explicitly recognizes the effects on the offender. “I know this has hurt you deeply and that you may never be able to trust me again.” In bad apologies, the effects of the offense are not acknowledged to the satisfaction of the offended person(s). “I’m sorry if I overspent my account,” rather than, “I’m sorry that I put our business on the verge of bankruptcy,” or, “I’m sorry that I fell asleep at the wheel,” versus, “I’m sorry that I almost killed us.” The offender must apologize, not only for his or her intentions or actions at the time of the offense but also for the unintended consequences on others. A good apology also expresses sincere remorse because if offenders really feel the damage experienced by others, we assume they are less likely to re-offend.
Finally, a good apology offers to make amends and offers reassurance that it won’t happen again. “I will pay back all the extra money that I spent,” or, “I will make dinner every night for a month to make up for the time it took you to fix our car.” The good apology helps to equalize the suffering by making the offender suffer, which is generally preferable to the other route to equalizing suffering — seeking revenge. Revenge may trigger ongoing feuds when neither side can be reassured that the suffering is balanced. The damage may also continue, and stopping the damage can be an important motivation for offended parties. In fact, people who have sued for medical malpractice often say that one of their primary motives was to make sure that kind of error didn’t happen again to other patients.
Apologies can be negotiable, not in terms of whether they are accepted because that is up to the offended party, but rather in terms of the nature and circumstances of the offense. Apologies can be negotiated downward or upward. “I’m sorry I did X.” Response: “That’s okay. I didn’t even notice,” or, “It didn’t bother me.” It could also be: “I think you owe me an apology for Y.” Response: “I don’t think I do. Let’s talk.” More likely, the offender does not appreciate the degree of damage caused by the offense, which usually must be negotiated before forgiveness can be granted. “I’m sorry that I called your idea ‘stupid.’” Response: “No, you don’t understand. You humiliated me in front of everyone, including my boss and coworkers, and totally undermined my credibility.”
To err is human, and apologies are valuable communication tools to manage feelings, relationships and social expectations. Apologies that are flippant, insincere or misguided can do more harm than good. Those that are humble, heartfelt and on target can lead to healing and reconciliation. To say, “I never apologize,” also says, “I never do wrong,” “I am never responsible,” or, “I don’t care about what others expect of me.” To apologize says, “I am a fallible human,” and, “I vow to live by accepted social standards,” and, “I take responsibility for my mistakes.” Willingness to apologize should be a sign — not of weakness — but of emotional strength and trustworthiness.
To learn more, check out a little gem of a book from the library. On Apology by Aaron Lazare describes many examples of apologies, both good and bad, and analyzes why they worked or failed.
Sally Planalp and George Cheney are residents of Moab and part-time professors of communication at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.