How to Apologize

How to Apologize July 9, 2014

I admit that a lot of research in academic journals does not really help the common person. Some of it is political posturing and some of it deals with theoretical or exotic topics that simply will not impact most of us. But every now and then there is a paper that really can help everyone in society. In this case everyone in society is everyone who ever has had to apologize. According to my theological beliefs that is everyone but Jesus. That paper was authored by Karen Cerulo and Janet Ruane. The name of the article is “Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Cultural, Cognitive, and Social Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive.” It is in the Social Psychology Quarterly 77 (2).

Cerulo and Ruane do something quite clever. They look at public apologies and use public opinion polls to assess which ones are accepted and which ones are not. Based on the level of acceptance the apologies generate allows them to determine potential factors that make an apology more, or less, likely to be accepted. To be sure, there are weaknesses in this paper, and it should not be seen as the final word on this subject. Rarely in the social sciences is any paper in a position to be seen as the final word of a subject. However, I do not want to dwell on the possible shortcomings of the paper; I will leave that to future researchers, and instead look at the insight we can gain through this work. There are lessons to be learned from apologies of the famous that can be applied to the apologies of us common folks.

Before I get to the heart of what is insightful about this work, I want to look at the implications of one of the findings of the authors that some may overlook. Generally speaking, those who make the apology are more powerful than those being apologized to. This may be due to the nature of the type of apology that the authors have studied. They are studying public apologies and those in the public are more likely to be powerful than other individuals. Having power is one of the reasons why a person would have a public presence. Nevertheless, the call for an apology may be something that the powerful have to be more mindful of doing than the relatively powerless. Indeed, those without power are likely to be consistently aware of their need to express regret for their errors since they are more likely to be in a position to be punished by those they offended. The powerful are likely to forget the need to apologize and thus the lessons offered in this article may apply more to the powerful than the powerless. I suspect that it is the powerful that are less open to being sufficiently contrite when they are in the wrong. So this finding suggests that when we gain power, we need to work at being mindful of situations where we may need to apologize since we can be tempted to use our power to ignore the need to apologize.

By the way, when sociologists talk about the powerful, they usually are talking about whites, males, the rich etc. There is good reason to talk about individuals with these traits as it concerns being powerful. But it is useful to remember that power is contextualized. In a predominately black high school, the white sophomore is not likely to feel a great deal of racial privilege. Although Christianity is the majority religion in the United States, as I pointed out in my last blog entry, on certain college campuses they are the ones who lack power relative to other individuals. Thus, as we consider whether we are the powerful or the powerless, we have to be aware of the context of our situation. Failure to have this awareness may fool us into thinking that we have little or no power in a given situation where in reality we have a good deal of power. This misinterpretation of the situation sometimes can lead us to not recognizing our need to apologize since we see ourselves as victims rather than perpetrators.

Okay. So if we find ourselves with the need to apologize what does this research suggest? The authors identify different types of apologies. There are apologies where the offender focuses on his or herself. It may be something like “I was caught in a bad situation and did wrong” or “My actions really do not reflect who I am.” There are apologies that focus on the victim. It can be something like “What happened to that man was wrong. I cannot imagine what I put him through.” It should come as no surprise that apologies that focus on the victim are much better than those that focus on the offender. Apologies that focus on the offender have the stronger possibility of denial and evasion. An apology that attempts to minimize the guilt of the offender is not an apology likely to be well received.

But it is not enough for the offender to focus the apology on the victim instead of on his/herself. The authors point out the importance of what they term “message sequencing.” What this means is that when we say something, we signal to those listening to us what to expect next. When we deliver what they expect, then there is a higher chance that they will accept it. So if we start talking about how badly we treated the victim but end our apology statement with some measure of justification for our actions then we likely have an apology that will not be well received. What the authors point out is that apologies that start with a focus on the victim and then either move to remorse or corrective action are the apologies that are most likely to be accepted. An example of remorse is a statement such as “I deeply regret what I did to Mrs. Smith.” Corrective action is when the offender announces what changes he or she is going to make so that the offence does not happen again. Thus a man apologizing for losing his temper to his wife may end with assurances that he is going to get professional anger management counseling. If you are in a situation where you need to apologize, the key is to start with a statement about how the victim was badly treated and to end the apology with remorse unless there is some corrective action you can take to make sure that your offence does not happen again. The authors do not necessarily find that corrective action is better than remorse, but it seems to me more reassuring to know the offender has a specific plan to change rather than only offering a statement of remorse. But then again, that is just me.

Reading the article helped me to further reflect on the effectiveness of an apology. There are situations where people are asking for an apology and the alleged offender does not feel that one is needed. I think this is what results in the “If anyone was offended by my actions then…”. Those apologies almost never work and this research suggests why. They are apologies that minimize the offence. The offender is trying to lessen the grief he or she is receiving for the action but since people do not accept the apology, there is little relief. In fact, and once again these are my thoughts and not from the article, a non-apology apology can sometimes make things worse.

This brings me to a somewhat controversial assertion. This is especially controversial considering that I approach moral decisions from a Christian perspective and a major part of that perspective is the recognition of our own human depravity. But my conclusion is that we should only apologize when we are convinced we have done something wrong. We should be very open about the possibility that we are in the wrong. It becomes so easy for us to find rationalizations for our actions. But if we have done a great deal of soul-searching and honestly feel that we have not done wrong then we should be honest. There may be a misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up. It may be that someone is attempting to manipulate a situation to put a person on the defensive. You and the other person may operate from a different set of moral standards, and you simply cannot accept what they say is your offense. There may be blame that should go to others instead of the person seen as the offender. But if a person has tried to see if he or she was in the wrong and comes to the conclusion that he or she is not in the wrong, then honesty demands no apology.

Do not get me wrong. I believe in apologies. And I want to emphasis that it is important to make an honest assessment of what we have potentially done wrong before refusing to apologize. Often what we originally thought was innocent turns out to not be so benign. I have offered apologies in the past and I will offer them in the future. Thanks to the work in this article, I will ideally do a better job of offering them in the future. But I also value honesty. If we are going to have good interpersonal relationships then we must be honest. At times it may seem easy to offer a weak apology so that this box can be checked and a person can try to avoid an unpleasant accusation. In the past, I have done just that. But this research suggests that people can see through an insincere apology. The tougher route may be to work though the misunderstandings to see if what a potential perpetrator did was indeed wrong and if not then how these misunderstandings can be avoided in the future.

Well, the next time I have to apologize I now have a framework to use for that apology. Apologize by focusing on the wrong done to the victim and then move to corrective action if possible and/or remorse if that is not possible. If we do this when we have offended others, then we have a chance to have our apology accepted and continue the relationship developed with those individuals.

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