As long as we interact with humans, we will commit mistakes and offenses for which we need to apologize. It’s necessary to maintain civility and restore good relations.
How we apologize is strongly influenced by the weight and meaning we assign to it. It can range from the trivial to the significant.
It’s easy to say sorry for simple things like bumping into someone (“Oops, sorry.”) or for failing to hear someone’s question (“Sorry, what did you say?). We tend to be more polite to strangers and acquaintances, so it’s not a big deal to apologize for small actions that don’t really matter to us.
We also say sorry as customary expressions dictated by the occasion— “I’m sorry to bother you, but can you help me?”, “I’m sorry to hear that”, or “I’m sorry for your loss”.
Sometimes, an apology is given as part of customer service, like the cashier who tells you, “Sorry to keep you waiting.” We both know it’s not really her fault but she tries to smooth over our inconvenience and she hopes we appreciate her effort by not becoming annoyed.
Generally, the less emotionally invested we are with another person, the easier it is to apologize for the inconsequential. But as our relationships become more complicated and entwined, the apology morphs into a volatile tool instead of a simple statement of remorse.
An apology is a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure yet this simple definition is often violated by the common ways we say sorry to each other.
It probably starts from our early childhood when a parent demands that we apologize to a playmate for hitting him. We learn that we should say sorry upon demand so we can put the incident behind us. There is no acknowledgement of our fault and we normally feel no regret. Sorry is just a way to end the issue.
If we also endure a tiresome tirade of our shortcomings (“How could you do such a thing? I am so disappointed in you.”), we feel ashamed and so we apologize to stop the attack. We say sorry to appease our disapproving parent and hopefully regain their affection.
“If you shame someone in a lesser position of power, it can lead that person to conform, obey, and give the obligatory apology. But shame will not inspire reflection, self-observation, and personal growth. These are essentially self-loving tasks that do not flourish in an atmosphere of self-depreciation and self-blame.” (Harriet Lerner PhD, Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, 2017)
We cannot really demand an apology or guilt someone into it because it becomes meaningless and insincere.
Who’s sorry now?
Our past greatly influences how we view an apology. This affects how we apologize and how we want others to apologize to us. Inextricably tied to our past is the formation of our self-esteem, which determines if we will even apologize.
One survey found that people with a high self-esteem are more likely to apologize (Scientific American). One explanation is that a confident person has a healthy perception of himself so he knows that if he inadvertently hurt someone, he just made a mistake. Since everyone makes mistakes, this omission is just one aspect of his personality that he can fix, so he can easily apologize and move on.
In contrast, an insecure person is afraid that if he apologizes, his mistake will define him completely. (“If I say sorry for neglecting my wife, that means I am a bad husband.”) So he won’t apologize and he can dissociate himself from his misdeeds and maintain his perfect persona. The same is true for narcissists. They won’t apologize so they can maintain their vanity.
Honest, humble, and conscientious people apologize more. So do those who are prone to guilt and shame. But agreeable people don’t necessarily apologize easily. (Patrick Dunlop, Science Direct, 2015)
Females apologize often because they perceive themselves committing more offenses for which they need to apologize. While males are hardly apologetic because they have a higher threshold for what is offensive behavior. But both genders apologize in proportion to their perceived offenses. (NCBI or National Center for Biotechnology Institute)
High income strongly correlates with apologies. “The more you earn, the more you apologize and vice-versa. The more you apologize, the more you earn.” (perfectapology.com)
Married people are almost twice as likely to apologize than unmarried people (perfectapology.com). It is joked that this is due to the high cost of divorce or separation. But relationship experts note that when the wife has an unresolved hurt caused by the husband’s behavior, she withdraws her support for him. This can manifest in many ways that can disrupt the husband’s daily life and well-being. Many husbands know this feeling of abandonment and neglect.
Religion also plays a role in the likelihood of an apology. Catholics believe in the act of contrition. While others may be influenced by their custom and do not bother to apologize or view it as unnecessary.
Culture also dictates whether an apology is given. The Japanese apologize more often than Americans. (William Maddux, INSEAD, Cultural Differences in the Function and Meaning of Apologies)
But some people just don’t think that they are (ever) at fault, so they will never apologize, especially if they consider the apology an admission of guilt. There’s no use waiting for them to say sorry.
“Sorry!” (Not really)
It’s most frustrating when we receive an unsatisfactory apology, especially when we (always) feel rightfully aggrieved.
There are the justified apologies I call sorry but because they apologize but explain why they did the wrongful act. In effect, such an apology dilutes their accountability and even seems to transfer the blame to the offended party.
“Sorry I screamed at you but I only did that because you were annoying me.”
“Sorry, but you made me do it.”
An insidious kind is the non-apology where they say sorry for how we reacted to their behavior:
“I’m sorry you got upset when I interrupted you.”
“Sorry if you were offended by my joke.”
There’s also one with a dig:
“Sorry you didn’t like my comment about your dress. I didn’t know you were so sensitive about your clothes.”
The apology should be for their fault not our behavior or reaction.
Then there are the overly dramatic apologies where the tables are turned and we feel we have to placate the offender:
“I’m soooo sorry!!!! (sob) I’m the worst mother ever.”
[Half-hearted robotic reply through gritted teeth] “No you’re not. You’re a good mother.”
Or the demanding apology:
“I’m sorry, please forgive me, please? Please?! Do you forgive me now? Do you?!” (repeat 20 times a day until you give in)
“Keep in mind that offering an apology, followed too quickly by a request for forgiveness, can cut short the necessary emotional process of the hurt party. The hurt party, put on the spot, and feeling grateful or relieved to receive the apology, may too hastily “forgive” without allowing herself time to sit with her anger and pain.” (Lerner)
Say it like you mean it
A true apology does not blame, attack, overreact, nor demand.
There are many studies that claim to identify the elements of an effective apology but all we need to remember is that we hurt someone we love or care about and we want to repair the relationship and return it to its previous status.
But even if we give an imperfect apology or lack some of the elements, sincerity is key. As long as we communicate our remorse and willingness to rectify the consequence of our behavior.
An effective apology is akin to excellent customer service recovery:
Acknowledge your mistake or bad behavior
Repent and assure that it won’t happen again
Restore goodwill by making amends
Genuinely offer the apology, and don’t stop until they are—
ARRGH! indeed, because we have to pay the price for our misbehavior. This is not a one-shot deal, especially if the offense is grave or traumatic. It is not enough to simply say sorry for serious offenses, we have to do something to show that we care and value the other and we regret hurting them.
“The best apologies are short, and don’t go on to include explanations that run the risk of undoing them. An apology isn’t the only chance you ever get to address the underlying issue. The apology is the chance you get to establish the ground for future communication. This is an important and often overlooked distinction.” (Lerner)
I always say that our relationships are like our bank account balance, when we do positive things for our loved ones, we increase our account balance. But if we hurt them, we dissipate the good and withdraw so much that it can reach a negative balance. An apology merely restores us to zero balance. We still need to make up for it and keep replenishing the account so we can build it back to a healthy positive balance.
Saying sorry is just the beginning of the healing not the end of the hurt. We need to give the offended party time to grieve and help him work through the pain. This usually involves a lot of sympathetic listening, because expressing hurt and anger is therapeutic.
How do we react to an apology?
When we are the offended party, it’s hard not to lash out when someone is trying to apologize to us. We likely won’t get the perfect apology, but we play our part by being receptive to it and not adding to the conflict. It helps resolve things quickly if we meet halfway.
Considering how hard it is for some people to apologize, or even apologize properly, we should receive their earnest efforts readily.
Simple omissions can be met with appreciation and gratitude (Lerner)
“Sorry I’m late, I did not mean to keep you waiting.”
“Thank you, I appreciate your apology.” (response)
But we are not obliged to accept an apology if it is fake or insincere. (Lerner)
If I make a mistake, I want my apology to be quick and painless. I want the recipient of my apology to be:
Gracious – “Don’t worry about it!”
Forgiving – “Let’s put that behind us.”
Forgetful – “When did you do that? I don’t remember.”
For simple misunderstandings and mistakes, the relationship is more important than prolonging drama. When I catch myself (always) giving the apologizer a hard time, I try to remember that next time, I may be the one to say “Sorry!”.