Marjorie Ingall & Susan Mccarthy
Q _ Why do people find it so difficult to apologize?
Marjorie and Susan _ Our brains are wired to make it difficult. We’re designed to see ourselves as basically good, because that’s how we make our way in the world; we have to see ourselves as the hero of our own story; that’s what keeps us from curling into tiny, immobile balls of self-doubt. When we’re confronted with evidence that we did something hurtful—when we experience the cognitive dissonance of “I know I’m a good person, but I’ve done a bad thing”— our first response is to reframe the situation. If I did wrong, I was provoked! There were extenuating circumstances! It wasn’t that bad! We have to overcome our own instincts and inclinations if we’re going to say “I’m sorry” in the strongest, sincerest way. You can’t apologize well if you won’t take responsibility. That’s why we say apologizing well is brave and heroic; we’re overcoming our fundamental, self-preserving instincts when we do it.
What are some words that should never be in an apology?
There are many! Our book contains several Bad apology Bingo cards full of them! But in general, avoid words that avoid claiming ownership of an act of wrongdoing. In particular, steer clear of “sorry if,” “sorry but” and “sorry you.” (Sorry if anyone’s feelings were hurt. Sorry but I had good reasons for doing what I did. Sorry you don’t understand my sense of humor.) “Obviously” also tends to provoke people, because anything “obvious” doesn’t need to be pointed out…and you DO need to point out that you screwed up if you’re going to apologize well for it. There have been lots of apologies in the news lately. From Southwest Airlines’ CEO for the 15,000 canceled flights over the winter holidays: “Please also hear that I’m truly sorry,” along with 25,000 frequent flyer points; from Representative George Santos, who lied about his resume: “I’ve said I was sorry many times. I’ve behaved as if I’m sorry...i am sorry”; and from the Chinese foreign ministry, which “regrets the unintended entry” of a spy balloon into U.S. airspace. Are those good apologies? Southwest’s apology wasn’t that bad. Good apologies involve actions as well as words, and Southwest offered reparations, a very important
part of a good apology. The company apologized directly to customers, privately and publicly, and tried to take responsibility and make things right. Unfortunately, though, part of a good apology is making sure you won’t repeat the offense…and it sounds like Southwest’s business model—which involves using a point-to-point flight system that’s different from many other airlines’ hub-and-spoke systems—means the problem of cascading cancellations could recur.
As for George Santos…look, apologies aren’t a panacea. They can’t fix something irrevocably broken. And it certainly seems as though Santos has left such a vast trail of falsehoods, broken promises and shady activities, no apology could come off as sincere. Also, there’s a reason the word “already” is a Bad Apology Bingo word. When you tell someone that you’ve already apologized, you’re not being humble or vulnerable. The effect is, “Ugh, you’re STILL asking this of me?!” Plus, what does “I’ve behaved as if I’m sorry” actually mean? I’ve put on an abashed expression? No one is criticizing his acting; folks are criticizing his actions.
The Chinese foreign ministry’s use of “regret” is certainly…regrettable. Whether you’re a government, a company or a kid, “regret” isn’t synonymous with “apology.” Regret takes no ownership. Regret is about the speaker’s feelings; apology is about another person’s feelings. As of this writing, China hasn’t taken any responsibility, claiming that the balloon’s presence in American airspace was “unintended” and that it was a civilian craft being used for meteorology research—not a spy craft. China used the term “force majeure,” which literally means an accident without any associated liability. That’s no apology at all.
When shouldn’t you apologize?
Don’t apologize if you’re genuinely not sorry. You’ll apologize badly, and a bad apology is almost invariably worse than no apology. (But do get a reality check from a trusted friend about whether you should, in fact, be sorry.) Don’t apologize if you simply can’t do it without defensiveness or minimizing; again, you’ll do more harm than good. Don’t apologize if it would hurt the other person. If, for instance, they’ve made it abundantly clear they never want to hear from you again…sorry, you’ll just have to sit with the discomfort of losing that relationship. Don’t apologize if you can’t do it without insisting that the other person take a share of the blame. Again, good apologies are brave acts, because you don’t get to demand anything in return. Which also means you don’t get to ask for forgiveness—forgiveness is a gift to be granted, and it’s rude to ask for a gift. (You can, however, say, “I hope one day you’ll be able to forgive me.”) There may one day be a conversation in which you request that the other person apologize to you, but that day is not today. Don’t apologize if you’ve already said you were sorry numerous times (and you’ve confirmed with your trusted friend that you apologized well!), yet the other person still won’t stop demanding more apologies. You’ve done all you can do.