Have you ever heard of an apology so bad that it actually made your discontent for someone worse? I have. There was a time when an ex-friend called me some not-so-family-friendly names because I refused to take his plate for him after he told me to “act like a lady.”’ He proceeded to throw a tantrum and stormed out of the building (before you ask, yes, this was in college). After confronting him, he said he was sorry that I was so “sensitive,” but never actually apologized for what he’d said and how he acted.
As a chronic overthinker and over-apologizer, I think about apologies a lot. As long as people make mistakes, apologies are necessary—so it feels like we are constantly in a cycle of doling out and receiving apologies. However, all of that is contingent on one factor—the person in the wrong wants forgiveness and is willing to take responsibility for their actions.
That’s what apologies are all about: acknowledging fault and expressing remorse. It’s fairly simple—or so you would think. But the reality is that the simple ingredients needed for an apology are sometimes tough to muster up, and as a result, people try and find shortcuts. But these shortcuts, when evaluated under a narrower lens, reveal just how damaging a poor apology can be.
In order to understand the problem with bad apologies, we should look at what good apologies can (or cannot) accomplish in the first place. In the book “Mea Culpa: Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation” by Nicholas Tavuchis, the author outlines a number of defining characteristics of apologies. First, he establishes a ceiling for apologies, saying that “an apology, no matter how sincere or effective, does not and cannot undo what has been done.” Apologies aren’t made to fix a situation. Regardless, they may be the difference between mending or destroying a relationship. Apologies are so important because of how much they require from the person giving them. Tavuchis mentions how apologies can be embarrassing or humiliating and are a form of suffering for the person apologizing. They require someone to verbally acknowledge their actions and express remorse, while sitting face-to-face with the person you’ve wronged can be stressful and humbling. Theoretically, when a person apologizes like this, it’s implied the person wouldn’t commit the act again because they won’t want to be in the wrong or hurt that person again. Apologies work because they speak to a person’s character and allow them to separate themselves from the action.
That is, however, all in theory. The reality is that, even though apologies are the fastest way to remedy a situation at times, most people aren’t willing to put in the real work associated with an apology. Apologies may be delivered with words, but their weight comes from the attached remorse and humility. Therefore, pathetic apologies are ones that are only said, not felt.
There are a couple of common errors that you can spot in an apology. The first can be spotted by examining what the offender is apologizing for. While discussing apologies in class, my classmate Caroline Kuntzman pointed out a poignant distinction; there is a difference between impact apologies and action apologies. Impact apologies are when someone apologizes for your feelings, instead of their actions. This is the, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” apology. The issue with impact apologies is that they deflect responsibility, placing fault on your feelings and emotions. Maybe if they’re feeling coerced into apologizing, they’ll excuse their actions, stating that you are sensitive or lack humor. No matter what it is, if, “I’m sorry,” is followed by the words “that you…,” listen closely and evaluate if they’re accepting culpability. Good apologies are action apologies, meaning that the person says, “I’m sorry,” for what they did, specifying their actions. That’s the only way you both know you’re on the same page about what they did.
Another distinction to look for with apologies is whether a justification or an explanation follows the apology. A justification should not follow an apology. An excuse diminishes their culpability and validates their hurtful behavior; no one is above fault, therefore, the person apologizing should be able to accept the fact that they were in the wrong. However, there is a fine line between justifying and explaining. Explanations are when a person provides insight into their thought process during or intentions behind the action. Humans make mistakes, and unless they were acting out of pure malice, understanding the reasoning might make it easier to amend your relationship with them. Understandably, the line between explanation and justification can be hard to distinguish. Although while someone is allowed to say and explain that they didn’t intend to hurt you, the intent doesn’t and shouldn’t undermine the impact it had on you; if they try to argue as much, it’s a justification and shouldn’t be accepted as a true apology.
Now that we’ve gone through all of these distinctions, let’s talk about why it matters. Well, there are two parts to this. The first part is—don’t give out half-baked apologies. I understand that while trying to rebuild a burned bridge, apologies are a one-step path to reconciliation, but it won’t work if you aren’t willing to make the sacrifices that come with it. “I’m sorry,” isn’t a magical phrase that makes it all better. It’s only as powerful as the remorse you put behind it. Giving insincere apologies may work superficially, but you may reach a point where someone sees through the lack of effort, and it may put you in a worse position than you were before.
Now, this leads me to the other half of my point—don’t accept half-baked apologies. It’s extremely easy to want to alleviate tension and accept the semblance of an apology that’s thrown your way, but I’m asking you to hold yourself to higher standards. If someone does you wrong, you deserve a proper apology. Apologies rely on remorse that motivates someone not to make the same mistake again. Apologies should result in a difference in behavior. If someone is disingenuous, and their apology doesn’t result in that change, they’re just using the act of apologizing to get you to dismiss their wrongs. Apologies without change are just manipulation.
Good apologies are incredibly worth it. And the more we are willing to commit to better apologies, the better off we all will be.