How to Be Wrong — Part 3 of 4

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An apology is a social act, an interpersonal transaction. It’s an attempt – in that space between us – to repair something that we’ve broken by some prior act.

It can be as simple as a quick “Oops, sorry,” offered to the stranger you bump into in a store, or as complex as an elaborate healing ritual carried out to repair a serious breach between husband and wife.

In its fullest form (it seems to me), an apology can be teased out into seven separate parts:

1. You admit it.
2. You explain it.
3. You accept full responsibility.
4. You say you’re sorry.
5. You fix what you broke.
6. You promise never to do it again.
7. You remember and learn from it.

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1. You admit it.

I broke your window. I missed the meeting. I didn’t get to the store on time.

2. You explain it. That is, you show that you understand just how the other party suffered a loss, and why it’s your fault.

I never should have been playing ball that near your picture window, and I know it’s got to be fixed right away. I know the meeting was important, and how much you hate to repeat yourself to those of us who didn’t make it there. Honey, I know how much you were counting on me to get there while that sale was going on, and I know that carpet we liked is going to cost a lot more now.

3. You accept responsibility.

This is absolutely my fault. There’s nobody else to blame but me; I should have started earlier. There’s no excuse for it.

4. You say you’re sorry.

I’m really sorry about it. I hate it that I wasn’t there on time. I deeply regret that I let you down.

5. You fix what you broke (OR offer in return something of roughly equal value).

I’ll get my dad to take the money out of my savings, and we’ll get that fixed today if we can. Tell you what, I’ll do the set-up for the next meeting and make sure everybody gets there. How about if we go around tomorrow afternoon to other carpet stores and see if they have something we like, then we’ll have dinner at that place you like?

6. You promise never to do it again.

I won’t ever play ball on this side of the house again. That’s the last meeting I’ll ever miss. I promise I’ll go extra early the next time there’s a sale like this – I won’t let you down again.

7. You remember it, learn from it.

Man, I’ve got to remember never to even take a ball onto that side of her house. I can’t be missing another one of these meetings; I’ve got to juggle things around on Thursdays so I’m early from now on. I can’t keep doing this to her; from now on, I’m going to put these things first.

Not every one of these things has to be explicitly expressed. In the shorthand of close relationships, several of these things often come across as understood, so much so that an entire apology might be as simple as a sincere expression and a shrug.

But if an apology is missing any one of these things, at least in the sincere intent of the apologizer, it’s something less than a full apology, and probably achieves less than the healing we’d like to think occurs.

In failing to achieve the expected healing, you can actually end up worse off. Whatever anger lingers from the original transgression can be increased by the lack of intent or action to fix things. In addition, considering just your own interior well-being, if too many of these things get by you, it will begin to separate you from the people around you. Not only will people trust you less, you’ll become less able to feel any depth to your relationships. (Or so it seems to me.)

In any situation that demands an apology, there are about four different approaches you can take, and they vary in what they cost you, both in the short and long term.

First, you can offer an apology in all its parts, in a sincere attempt to heal the breach.

In terms of effort, this one is expensive. You have to pay back what you took, fix what you broke, possibly exert yourself even beyond the actual cost of the transgression. But the benefit may be worth it if it stands a chance of fixing the situation.

Second, you can simply fail to apologize. Walk away from the situation as if you don’t see it. Or maybe you really don’t.

In terms of effort, this one is cheap, but also doesn’t fix the situation and may be pricey in the long term. On the other hand, a non-reaction may either allow the thing to go away on its own, or leave the door open to a later apology if it doesn’t.

Third, you can actively refuse to apologize, in ways ranging from “It’s not my fault” to “Forget it – I’m not apologizing.”

This one is cheap in the short term, but probably inflames the situation. In fact, if you throw a little sarcasm into it – “Well, EXCUSE ME. I’m SORRY you’re SO SENSITIVE that you can’t take a joke.” – you can make it into a deliberate distancing device.

(I bear in mind that the incident under scrutiny might really NOT be your fault. In that case, your reaction depends on whether the thing is public or private. If it’s a private personal issue, it might still sometimes be in your long-term interest to apologize. But if it’s a public or legal issue, to me it seems better that you should vigorously defend yourself — even if, as in some cases, it makes things worse on the surface.)

Finally, you can offer a “not-pology” – something that looks sort of like an apology, but performs none of the vital functions.

This one is also cheap. It doesn’t do anything to directly fix the damage, but it MAY achieve a certain amount of breach-sealing simply because it confuses the audience enough that they may think you apologized.

The not-pology can be used by anyone, but it seems tailor-made for politicians and public figures who want to appear to be apologizing, but who can’t be bothered to accept any blame for the thing, or to undertake the onerous follow-up of doing something to fix it. It acknowledges there’s a problem, but carefully shifts the blame for the thing off the person speaking:

I’m sorry you got angry at what I said. I’m sorry people misunderstood me. I’m sorry the gay community was offended. I really regret that this was blown out of proportion.

… all of which make it seem the speaker did nothing wrong, and that the onus for the breach is all on an oversensitive audience.

In real terms, the not-pology is almost the polar opposite of apology. And yet it still seems somehow able to divert any expectation of further action.

Unlike the political model in, say, Japan, where an official might actually resign after a public shaming, we in the U.S. are so used to being screwed over by politicians that a political not-pology really does end most controversies. Maybe you don’t exactly forgive the official in question, but you move on because there are other, more important issues to deal with.

There’s an especially effective variation of the not-pology that comes across in religious terms. This one is also used by scandal-plagued elected officials, but it seems more the domain of religious figures convicted of crimes:

“I’ve done a lot of soul searching, I’ve prayed and talked to God about it, and I’m confident He has forgiven me.”

This one works not at all on people who don’t buy into that person’s particular god, but it actually does seem to have some effect in the religious community.

After all, if you’ve been taught you have no right to judge people, that offenses are to be weighed and punished only by your god, you might back off and refuse to render a negative judgment. Further, if you’ve been brought to believe there are powerful people who have a direct line to your god, unlike little unimportant you, you might buy into the assertion that this big important person actually HAS spoken to your mutual god, and that he actually has achieved forgiveness. In which case, you dare not openly disagree because you’d be placing yourself in the position of second-guessing God himself.

I’d be prone to think, because of this last part, that what really happens is that these situations end in simple non-accusing silence. Nobody dares to hold the transgressor guilty because that would be doubting God’s word. On the other hand, it seems weirdly true that some people appear completely convinced that this person has been forgiven. And therefore they completely forgive him.

In actual cases in the news over the past few decades (Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart), some people will see the offender in even more sympathetic terms after the breach: We’re all only human. And hey, if God Himself forgave the man after he stole millions from church collection plates, built himself a huge mansion and a Corvette collection while members of his congregation were suffering, and even participated in elaborate bondage scenarios with a whip-weilding dominatrix, he MUST be in a supreme state of grace with God.

[ CONTINUED:  Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4  ]

  • inflection

    I like what this post has to say, and want to add to it with something I’ve thought about, namely that there is, I think, a kind of occasion when “I’m sorry that you were offended” or a similar phrasing — which would be a not-pology if it were intended that way — is meaningful and useful. It’s unfortunate that the phrasing has been coopted by the not-pology, and I’m not sure how it can be clarified.

    I may do something which, even upon reflection, I feel was morally okay. I can recognize that you were offended, and I can value your feelings enough to not want to make you feel bad. But then how do you phrase it in such a way as to make this clearly not a not-pology?

    “Yes, I shot this turkey myself. My Dad and I have done it every year since I was a boy. We were going to eat a turkey anyway. …oh. I see, you object to hunting. And you’ve been eating it… I’m really sorry. I didn’t think you’d object. I tell you what, I won’t anymore. I don’t think it was wrong, and I’d like to convince you that it’s okay, but until I can get your agreement, I love you and I’ll put away the bird gun. Maybe you’ll convince me instead.”

    • geocatherder

      This was a tricky one for me as my mother got older. She wasn’t losing cognitive function per se, but she got very sensitive about certain subjects — and often I didn’t know about it until I said something she found offensive. I recall making some casual remark in her kitchen, and turned around just in time to block a slap she was aiming at my face. I recall several other times when we were in the living room, talking, and suddenly she got upset at something I said. “Mama, I didn’t MEAN it the way you took it” was not acceptable. Sorting this stuff out took lots of conversation. I was unwilling to admit I was wrong, and she was, too. Usually, in the end, I ended up apologizing just to patch things over.

  • rapiddominance

    This was definitely a meaningful and relevant read. Especially the part about incomplete apologies.

    I’ve been doing a lot of self examination over the past couple of years and surveying many of my life’s damaged friendships, family relationships, etc. that were the result not of irrepairable damage but unwillingness to do the repair work. Its not always me doing the damage, but I certainly have done a lot of it. Distance from others, inability to achieve relationship depth–sounds like the real life coincidences I’m aware of. The inability to admit wrong (or fully admit and accept blame) is a great way to become an island unto oneself.

    I could be wrong on this, but my guess is that a lot of the lifeless marriages and parterships we see might result from such. And just because 2 people might verbally agree to put the “thing” behind them doesn’t mean its been dealt with properly, either.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and complete post. I think I’m better for having read it, at least. Take care.


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