How (Not) to Apologize
Apologies are strange. Magic words elicited from the mouths of wrongdoers that are somehow supposed to right wrongs, resolve difficult feelings, heal actual wounds. If only that worked!
Apologizers—and, good for them—realize that an apology must be issued after the offense. That alone is worth a lot. But what’s really interesting is how apologies can often make things worse. How does this happen? Here are some of the key rhetorical mistakes apologizers make that often create more problems than they solve. No doubt you’ll recognize these from both public and private apologizers.
- 1. The apologizer says, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Ah yes, intentions show up like this witch who wasn’t invited to the princess party. And inevitably, they are good, because we all see ourselves as good people. Somehow—somehow!—our good intentions were lost in the offensive action, which means either the action was an unforeseeable accident (I tripped and fell into this 2 million dollar painting, I didn’t mean to punch a hole in it but I did) or the apologizer didn’t know his/her offensive act would be offensive (I told a racist joke I thought my listener would enjoy, but didn’t). The problem with revealing your intentions, as an apologizer, is that although they might be interesting to victims who want to know why the offense happened, now they don’t matter, it’s too late, the deed is done and it can’t be erased by backtracking through intent.
- 2. The apologizer brings up the various ways the apologizer is damaged.
“I was raised in a cult, I was abused, I am an addict, many injustices have been done to me.” Look, apologizer, many injustices have been done to all of us. Blaming your survivorship is offensive to survivors. Moreover, your injuries are not credits you can turn in for absolution. By and large, your injuries are simply not the topic at hand, nor are they touchpoints of empathy in your listeners. They come off as excuses, and detract painfully from your apology attempts.
- 3. The apologizer brings up all of the wonderful things he or she is responsible for.
“Yes but see? What about all of these good things I have done? Don’t they matter now?” Huh, I seem to have lost my cosmic scale upon which we can pile our life deeds and read our definitive karmic score. To be fair—yes, doing more good than bad is great, congratulations on not being a total asshole all the time. But rhetorically speaking, your good deeds are presented as a red herring. Also consider, apologizers, how this is heard in the mind of the listener—it says, I take responsibility for all of the good things I have done, let’s talk about those—but not so much for the bad things, they don’t matter nearly as much. The listener needs to know the apologizer sees the offense as mattering, being significant and worthy of attention, not dismissed.
- 4. The apologizer brings up the agony he/she feels.
“I’m so mortified, I’m so disgusted with myself, I’m terribly traumatized by what I have done, I just want to die.” I bet. And, you might really need some help with that. Your feelings, offender, are real and raw, but inserting them into your apology seems self-centered and manipulative. Tell someone else, someone you trust, about your feelings—not your victim, and especially not now.
- 5. The offender blames the offended for being offended.
There are so many ways to do this it’s really dazzling. There’s the passive non-apology apology (the famous “mistakes were made” avoidance of personal responsibility by not using I or me), there is the if-apology (“I’m sorry if I offended you,” which presents the option that the offense might not be real, might be all in the wounded’s mind), and there is the biggest baddie of them all: victim blaming, which is a whole other topic unto itself. It suffices to say here that a good apology ought to be limited to taking responsibility for one’s self, the end.
- 6. The apologizer considers him/herself absolved at the moment of apology.
“I said I was sorry! Isn’t that enough?” The apologizer must accept that sometimes the apology will not be accepted. The burden of the injury must be shifted to the offender and off of the victim. Sometimes the victim forgives, and the offense is forgotten. Sometimes not. There’s no way out of this. You, the offender, you live with what you have done. You can forgive yourself, but you can’t force someone else to. You now have work to do, healing work, which can take a lifetime to complete.
So avoiding these mistakes should leave you with this kind of an apology: one in which you are made vulnerable, without excuses or defensiveness, as an offering of humility to your listener. This is really quite a simple apology, simpler than the rhetorical gymnastics un-humble apologizers often resort to. All of it should lead up to the future, which now should be better after the apology. Here’s how. Notice not a single “you” is used here.
- 1. Say what you have done. Acknowledge it by name, using “I.”
“I’m sorry I told that racist joke.”
- 2. Acknowledge why it was wrong. Don’t defend it.
“The joke was ignorant and mean and I used poor judgment in telling it. I was wrong, and I take responsibility for telling this hurtful joke.”
- 3. Commit to change and commit to listening.
“I will not tell any more ‘jokes’ like that because I am committed to changing my racist thoughts, speech, and behavior. This is my apology, now please, talk to me and I will listen.”
Then you fold your hands on your lap and listen. You become open to input. You question yourself and your motivations and behaviors that got you into this trouble. Then the world gets a little better. This is the purpose of an apology. It is magic, if it’s done right. And then, you listen. Odds are, apologizer, you’ll need to work on your listening skills (since we all do), and I recommend starting here.