Go Ahead, Say You're Sorry
Apologies can restore relationships--but there's a right way and a wrong way to do them.
By Aaron Lazare published January 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
A genuine apology offered and accepted is one of the most profound interactions of civilized people. It has the power to restore damaged relationships, be they on a small scale, between two people, such as intimates, or on a grand scale, between groups of people, even nations. If done correctly, an apology can heal humiliation and generate forgiveness.
Yet, even though it's such a powerful social skill, we give precious little thought to teaching our children how to apologize. Most of us never learned very well ourselves.
Despite its importance, apologizing is antithetical to the ever-pervasive values of winning, success, and perfection. The successful apology requires empathy and the security and strength to admit fault, failure, and weakness. But we are so busy winning that we can't concede our own mistakes.
The botched apology--the apology intended but not delivered, or delivered but not accepted--has serious social consequences. Failed apologies can strain relationships beyond repair or, worse, create life-long grudges and bitter vengeance.
As a psychiatrist who has studied shame and humiliation for eight years, I became interested in apology for its healing nature. I am perpetually amazed by how many of my friends and patients--regardless of ethnicity or social class--have long-standing grudges that have cut a destructive swath through their own lives and the lives of family and friends. So many of their grudges could have been avoided altogether or been reconciled with a genuine apology.
In my search to learn more about apologies, I have found surprisingly little in the professional literature. The scant research I've unearthed is mostly in linguistics and sociology, but little or nothing touches on the expectations or need for apologies, their meaning to the offender and offended, and the implications of their failure.
Religious writings, however, in both Christian and Jewish traditions, are a rich source of wisdom on the subject, under such headings as absolution, atonement, forgiveness, penance, and repentance. The Talmud, in fact, declares that God created repentance before he created the universe. He wisely knew humans would make a lot of mistakes and have a lot of apologizing to do along the way.
No doubt the most compelling and common reason to apologize is over a personal offense. Whether we've ignored, belittled, betrayed, or publicly humiliated someone, the common denominator of any personal offense is that we've diminished or injured a person's self-concept. The self-concept is our story about ourselves. It's our thoughts and feelings about who we are, how we would like to be, and how we would like to be perceived by others.
If you think of yourself first and foremost as a competent, highly valued professional and are asked tomorrow by your boss to move into a cramped windowless office, you would likely be personally offended. You might be insulted and feel hurt or humiliated. No matter whether the interpersonal wound is delivered in a professional, family, or social setting, its depth is determined by the meaning the event carries to the offended party, the relationship between offender and offended, and the vulnerability of the offended to take things personally.
No-shows at family funerals, disputes over wills, betrayals of trust--whether in love or friendship--are situations ripe for wounds to the self-concept. Events of that magnitude put our self-worth on the line, more so for the thin-skinned. Other events people experience as personal offenses include being ignored, treated unfairly, embarrassed by someone else's behavior, publicly humiliated, and having one's cherished beliefs denigrated.
So the personal offense has been made, the blow to the self-concept landed, and an apology is demanded or expected. Why bother? I count four basic motives for apologizing:
o The first is to salvage or restore the relationship. Whether you've hurt someone you love, enjoy, or just plain need as your ally in an office situation, an apology may well rekindle the troubled relationship.
o You may have purely empathic reasons for apologizing. You regret that you have caused someone to suffer and you apologize to diminish or end their pain.
The last two motives are not so lofty:
o Some people apologize simply to escape punishment, such as the criminal who apologizes to his victim in exchange for a lesser plea.
o Others apologize simply to relieve themselves of a guilty conscience. They feel so ashamed of what they did that, even though it may not have bothered you that much, they apologize profusely. A long letter explaining why the offender was a half hour late to dinner would be such an occasion. And in so doing, they are trying to maintain some self-respect, because they are nurturing an image of themselves in which the offense, lack of promptness, violates some basic self-concept.
Whatever the motive, what makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended. By apologizing, you take the shame of your offense and redirect it to yourself. You admit to hurting or diminishing someone and, in effect, say that you are really the one who is diminished--I'm the one who was wrong, mistaken, insensitive, or stupid. In acknowledging your shame you give the offended the power to forgive. The exchange is at the heart of the healing process.
ANATOMY OF AN APOLOGY
But in practice, it's not as easy as it sounds. There's a right way and a wrong way to apologize. There are several integral elements of any apology and unless they are accounted for, an apology is likely to fail.
First, you have to acknowledge that a moral norm or an understanding of a relationship was violated, and you have to accept responsibility for it. You must name the offense--no glossing over in generalities like, "I'm sorry for what I have done." To be a success, the apology has to be specific--"I betrayed you by talking behind your back" or "I missed your daughter's wedding."
You also have to show you understand the nature of your wrongdoing and the impact it had on the person--"I know I hurt you and I am so very sorry."
This is one of the most unifying elements of the apology. By acknowledging that a moral norm was violated, both parties affirm a similar set of values. The apology reestablishes a common moral ground.
The second ingredient to a successful apology is an explanation for why you committed the offense in the first place. An effective explanation makes the point that what you did isn't representative of who you are. You may offer that you were tired, sick, drunk, distracted, or in love--and that it will not happen again. Such an explanation protects your self-concept.
A recent incident widely reported in the news provides an excellent, if painful, illustration of the role of an apology in protecting the offender's self-concept. An American sailor apologized at his court-martial for brutally beating to death a homosexual shipmate: "I can't apologize enough for my actions. I am not trying to make any excuses for what happened that night. It was horrible, but I am not a horrible person."
Another vital part of the explanation is to communicate that your behavior wasn't intended as a personal affront. This lets the offended person know that he should feel safe with you now and in the future.
A good apology also has to make you suffer. You have to express genuine, soul-searching regret for your apology to be taken as sincere. Unless you communicate guilt, anxiety, and shame, people are going to question the depth of your remorse. The anxiety and sadness demonstrate that the potential loss of the relationship matters to you. Guilt tells the offended person that you're distressed over hurting him. And shame communicates your disappointment with yourself over the incident.
YOU OWE ME AN APOLOGY
Then there's the matter of settling debt. The apology is a reparation of emotional, physical, or financial debt. The admission of guilt, explanation, and regret are meant, in part, to repair the damage you did to the person's self-concept. A well-executed apology may even the score, but sometimes words are just not enough. An open offer of, "Please let me know if there is anything I can do?" might be necessary. Some sort of financial compensation, such as replacing an object you broke, or reimbursing a friend for a show you couldn't make it to, could be vital to restoring the relationship. Or, in long-term close relationships, an unsolicited gift or favor may completely supplant the verbal apology--every other dimension of the apology may be implicit.
Reparations are largely symbolic. They are a way of saying, "I know who you are, what you value, and am thoughtful about your needs. I owe you." But they don't always have to be genuine to be meaningful. Say your boss wrongfully accused you in front of the whole office. A fair reparation would require an apology--in front of the whole office. His questionable sincerity might be of secondary importance.
Ultimately, the success of an apology rests on the dynamics between the two parties, not on a pat recipe. The apology is an interactive negotiation process in which a deal has to be struck that is emotionally satisfactory to both involved parties.
Nor is the need for an apology confined to intimates. Used strategically, it has great social value within the public domain. The apology is, after all, a social contract of sorts. It secures a common moral ground, whether between two people or within a nation. Present in all societies, the apology is a statement that the harmony of the group is more important than the victory of the individual. Take a look at what will certainly go down in history as one of the world's greatest apologies, F.W. de Klerk's apology to all South Africans for his party's imposition of apartheid.
On April 29, 1993, during a press conference, de Klerk acknowledged that apartheid led to forced removals of people from their homes, restrictions on their freedom and jobs, and attacks on their dignity.
He explained that the former leaders of the party were not vicious people and, at the time, it seemed that the policy of separate nations was better than the colonial policies. "It was not our intention to deprive people of their rights and to cause misery, but eventually apartheid led to just that. Insofar as that occurred, we deeply regret it."
"Deep regret," de Klerk continued, "goes further than just saying you are sorry. Deep regret says that if I could turn the clock back, and if I could do anything about it, I would have liked to have avoided it."
In going on to describe a new National Party logo, he said: "It is a statement that we have broken with that which was wrong in the past and are not afraid to say we are deeply sorry that our past policies were wrong." He promised that the National Party had scrapped apartheid and opened its doors to all South Africans.
De Klerk expressed all the same ingredients and sentiments essential in interpersonal apologies. He enumerated his offenses and explained why they were made. He assured himself and others that the party members are not vicious people. Then he expressed deep regret and offered symbolic reparations in the form of his public apology itself and the new party logo.
In fact, as the world becomes a global village, apologies are growing increasingly important on both national and international levels. Communications, the media, and travel have drawn the world ever closer together. Ultimately we all share the same air, oceans, and world economy. We are all upwind, downstream, over the mountains, or through the woods from one another. We can't help but be concerned with Russia's failing economy, Eastern Block toxic waste, Middle Eastern conflicts, and the rain forest, whether it be for reasons of peace, fuel, or just plain oxygen.
In this international community, apologies will be vital to peaceful resolution of conflicts. Within the last several years alone Nelson Mandela apologized for atrocities committed by the African National Congress in fighting against apartheid; Exxon for the Valdez spill; Pope John Paul II "for abuses committed by Christian colonizers against Indian peoples"; former Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa for Japanese aggression during World War II; and Russian President Boris Yeltsin apologized for the massacre of 15,000 Polish army officers by Soviet forces during World War II. And that's only the start of it.
But apologies are useful only if done right. There are in the public arena ample examples of what not to do--stunning portraits of failed apologies. They typically take the form of what I call "the pseudoapology"--the offender fails to admit or take responsibility for what he has done. Recent history furnishes two classics of the genre.
Reel back to August 8, 1974--President Richard Nixon's resignation speech. "I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of events that have led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be in the best interest of the nation." Unlike de Klerk, Nixon never acknowledges or specifies his actual offense, nor does he describe its impact. By glossing over his wrongdoing he never takes responsibility for it.
Consider, too, the words of Senator Bob Packwood, who was accused of sexually harassing at least a dozen women during his tenure in Congress. His 1994 apology outfails even Nixon's: "I'm apologizing for the conduct that it was alleged that I did." No acceptance of responsibility or accounting for his alleged offense to be found. An alleged apology, not even named.
The most common cause of failure in an apology--or an apology altogether avoided--is the offender's pride. It's a fear of shame. To apologize, you have to acknowledge that you made a mistake. You have to admit that you failed to live up to values like sensitivity, thoughtfulness, faithfulness, fairness, and honesty. This is an admission that our own self-concept, our story about ourself, is flawed. To honestly admit what you did and show regret may stir a profound experience of shame, a public exposure of weakness. Such an admission is especially difficult to bear when there was some degree of intention behind the wrongdoing.
Egocentricity also factors into failed or avoided apologies. The egocentric is unable to appreciate the suffering of another person; his regret is that he is no longer liked by the person he offended, not that he inflicted harm. That sort of apology takes the form of "I am sorry that you are upset with me" rather than "I am sorry I hurt you." This offender simply says he is bereft--not guilty, ashamed, or empathic.
Another reason for failure is that the apology may trivialize the damage incurred by the wrongdoing--in which case the apology itself seems offensive. A Japanese-American who was interned during World War II was offended by the U.S. government's reparation of $20,000. He said that the government stole four years of his childhood and now has set the price at $5,000 per year.
Timing can also doom an apology. For a minor offense such as interrupting someone during a presentation or accidentally spilling a drink all over a friend's suit, if you don't apologize right away, the offense becomes personal and grows in magnitude. For a serious offense, such as a betrayal of trust or public humiliation, an immediate apology misses the mark. It demeans the event. Hours, days, weeks, or even months may go by before both parties can integrate the meaning of the event and its impact on the relationship. The care and thought that goes into such apologies dignifies the exchange.
For offenses whose impact is calamitous to individuals, groups, or nations, the apology may be delayed by decades and offered by another generation. Case in point: The apologies now being offered and accepted for apartheid and for events that happened in WWII, such as the Japanese Imperial Army's apology for kidnapping Asian women and forcing them into a network of brothels.
Far and away the biggest stumbling block to apologizing is our belief that apologizing is a sign of weakness and an admission of guilt. We have the misguided notion we are better off ignoring or denying our offenses and hope that no one notices.
In fact the apology is a show of strength. It is an act of honesty because we admit we did wrong; an act of generosity, because it restores the self-concept of those we offended. It offers hope for a renewed relationship and, who knows, possibly even a strengthened one. The apology is an act of commitment because it consigns us to working at the relationship and at our self-development. Finally, the apology is an act of courage because it subjects us to the emotional distress of shame and the risk of humiliation, rejection, and retaliation at the hands of the person we offended.
All dimensions of the apology require strength of character, including the conviction that, while we expose vulnerable parts of ourselves, we are still good people.