Apologies That Matter

Q: How do you make an Englishman apologise?
A: Stand on his foot.

Being British, I say “sorry” a lot as a reflexive action whenever I need to get by, or if I feel like I have impeded someone else in their urgent mission to get to the spoon drawer, but those “sorries” are just basic social lubrication – those are not apologies.

A real apology can be hard and it can be painful, but if it’s worth doing then it should be done properly:

  • acknowledge the pain you’ve caused.
  • accept that it’s your fault. Whatever your intent, your actions caused harm. Explaining that intent may be useful, but it does not excuse or justify the harm.
  • say how you will change your behaviour. An important step often omitted, but significant: if the victim knows that you are trying to change they may be more willing to continue talking to you.

There are also a few things that your apology should not contain:

  • blaming the victim.
  • any further expectation on the victim. Understand that you can only offer the apology: the recipient is not required to accept it, nor do you have the right to require or even request forgiveness.

Coming to a place where you can make a real apology may take time. I don’t know anyone who enjoys having their errors pointed out to them. My reflex reaction to such information can be anger, so if I can I will take time to organise my thoughts and sort through my feelings.

Hank Green covers many of these points in this video, but something he doesn’t mention is walking back an apology – just don’t. Qualifying an apology after the fact undermines it.

Finally, sometimes an apology isn’t enough. If the damage is too great, the person you hurt may not be able to accept your apology. Alternatively, if the apology costs you more than you can give or if you cannot make a good faith effort to change your behaviour towards that person, then the right thing to do might be to withdraw.

Anyway, I hope you do not have to make too many apologies, but when you do make them count for something.

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