The Astros Lost It in the Sun: The Non-Apology Apology
A brief look at the art of apologizing.
Posted Feb 15, 2020
By now, most baseball-loving citizens know about the Houston Astros car crash “apology” for alleged cheating. It was, by most objective standards, a non-apology apology. In this column, we’re going to bring it down from the 20,000-foot national level, look at why apologies are important in our relationships, and what constitutes a “true” apology.
In the last blog column, I talked about the importance of trust in repairing and maintaining relationships. Qualities central to a trusting relationship are self-responsibility, reliability, and sincerity. When, as with a shaming event, a connection is interrupted in a relationship, apologies are a central way in which repair becomes possible.
One aspect of self-responsibility means admitting we were at fault for inflicting harm to a relationship. Clearly, no one is perfect, and we all create harm in our relationships at times (intentionally or unintentionally). When we can make that declaration of responsibility (“I am sorry”), and the other person can accept the apology (“Thank you—apology accepted”), what was broken has been addressed, the chapter concluded, and space opened to continue the relationship.
Of course, it’s not always this clean. We may have to return to a discussion of the hurt later, but the relationship can continue, making further discussion possible. We are understood to be reliably available and interested in upholding our part in the repair.
Dwight Shrute (reading from a written statement): “I state my regret.”
Jim Halpert: “You couldn’t have memorized that?”
Dwight: “I could not because I did not feel it.”
Some people hedge from apologizing, most likely because it triggers their shame, their sense of defectiveness, of being “wrong,” or of taking “a one down.” They bob and weave to do anything but say the three most healing words in a relationship… “I am sorry.”
Intuitively, if not intellectually, we can all sense when an apology is sincere. And when it’s not.
Sorry, not sorry apologies look like this:
“I’m sorry you’re so sensitive.”
“I was kidding! Can’t you take a joke?”
“I apologize to anyone I may have offended.”
“If I owe you an apology, you have it.”
“I’m sorry you were upset by what I said.”
“I’m sorry you took it the wrong way.”
“I’m sorry if I offended you.”
“Can’t we just put this in the past?”
“I can’t control how you choose to interpret what I said.”
The flip side of the coin are people who apologize for everything, even when it’s not their fault. Instead of off-loading their shame like the people above, people who apologize for everything also hope to assuage their feelings of defectiveness, of being “wrong” or “one down,” but by being deferential. Healthy repair is nearly impossible because responsibility for the relationship is so out of balance; the over-apologizer disproportionately owns it all.
The dilemma with both approaches is the apology isn’t doing the job of addressing the real breach. Therefore, it’s not yet truly healing, and the path forward is on shaky ground.
With both apology styles, finding some self-compassion can be helpful.
To Err Is Human
There are times when all of us are wrong. Flat out. My old tennis coach used to say: “I can’t guarantee how your match will turn out, but I can guarantee you’ll make mistakes.” He was trying to normalize the wince of shame that comes with messing up. Because it’s a guarantee in life that we will mess up, make mistakes, act impulsively, or in a self-serving way.
Knowing this is not an invitation to be gratuitously hurtful. Or to give up. It is an invitation to some self-forgiveness, which can help us tolerate our imperfections and the shame triggers that come with life. It helps us move past our ubiquitous imperfections. It also allows some understanding that others have imperfections for which they, too, must take responsibility.
Taking responsibility for our behavior is actually the total opposite of being defective, wrong, or one down. Taking responsibility is compassionate, healing, and respectful. It does not diminish us. It strengthens our connections.
When hurts happen, get curious, and ask yourself the following questions:
Who or what has been damaged?
What needs to be made right?
What responsibility belongs to me, and what belongs to the other person?
Do I need to apologize, and for what? (Name your behavior.)
Do I need to ask for an apology, and for what? (Name the behavior.)
What would I like to see change in my behavior? What will I agree to work on?
What would I like to ask for from the other person? (Whether they can agree or not.)
Perhaps, above all else, taking responsibility for our transgressions conveys respect for the other person and respect for the relationship. Apologies do not always make everything alright, but the act is an acknowledgment of “wrongdoing” and signals an intention to set things right.
Compounding the outraged perception of the Houston Astros cheating was the perception of them abdicating any responsibility for it. Until something changes, the perceived absence of a true apology is where the Astros lost it in the sun.