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[Mirror Post]: How to Apologize - The artist formerly known as makesmewannadie
Now Miss Eleanora Anthrophasia Smith-Jones
[Mirror Post]: How to Apologize
This post has been percolating in my head for yonks, but several tales of botched and ineffective apologies lately have led me to finish it up.

Social behavior is not intuitive - we all know that it's learned, so what surprises me is how rarely it is consciously taught. Unlike many people, I had the benefit in my youth of several honest-to-god courses and workshops in life skills and communication, instead of just trying to intuit this stuff from context. Sure, it felt a little cheesy at the time, but the skills I learned that way have been invaluable to me.

One of the ones I have needed most as an adult is how to apologize effectively. Easy, right? You say, "I'm sorry." You mean it. What else is there? Well, that's an apology, true. A good one for, say, bumping into someone with your shopping cart and making them drop something, or forgetting someone's name in a social situation. But what I'm talking about is how to apologize effectively about more complex things, so that the other person really hears your regret and you can both do your best to move on.
  1. Take responsibility. If you're apologizing and you don't mean it, everyone can tell. Effective apologizing is not a "trick" you can use to spin your actions and win forgiveness without remorse. You have to mean it.
    • Know what, exactly, your transgression is. Not what you feel most sorry about, but what hurt the other person or people involved the most. "I'm sorry I forgot to call and say I'd be late" is a much less effective apology than "I'm sorry I wasn't respectful of your time."
    • Don't make excuses. If you did it, own it. "I read your personal correspondence, and I never should have done that." Even if there are real mitigating reasons or circumstances, now is probably not the time to bring them up, or if you have to, you should then return to what you did and reiterate your responsibility. "...but I still should have checked with you to see if it was all right."
    • Focus on the things you can control. Apologies should never, ever take the form of "I'm sorry you aren't happy with me" or "I'm sorry you're mad about this." Those statements are implicit denials of responsibility. You can only apologize for yourself and for what you have done or failed to do.
  2. Acknowledge the consequences of your actions. Even if you don't think your actions "should" provoke the reactions they do, this is an important step.
    • Emotional consequences. "I know you get frustrated with me." "I didn't mean to make you worry." "I can tell you're really angry at me right now."
    • Other consequences. "This means that the budget is going to come up short by several thousand dollars this quarter." "I know you needed this data to write your report, and that this puts you in a crunch." "I know that pissed her off and she took it out on you." "I know you were waiting."
  3. Make it better. Clearly, this is easier for some transgressions than others. Some things you can, in fact, fix after the fact, and then the apology serves only to address the fact that they happened in the first place. Some things you can never, ever fix. What is important is that you do your best to try. A focus on preventing your mistake from happening in future is frequently helpful, in addition to other fix-it efforts.
    • Start with what you've done or can do. "I've paid the late fee and set up automatic withdrawals." "I can call her and tell her I misunderstood and re-schedule." "I re-did the spreadsheet so that the error won't happen again, and drew up a plan for making up the lost revenue." "I've thought of several options that would go part-way toward fixing the situation, and here they are."
    • Ask what (else) you can do. "What can I do to help regain your trust?" "Can you think of something I can do to make sure this doesn't happen again?" "What would make you feel better about this whole situation?" "Was there a better way I could have said that?" (NB: The phrase, "What do you want me to do [about it] [now]?" is not a good one to use here.)
Those are the three most basic steps. Once you've got those, you can improvise a bit more, and negotiate, explain, or dialogue in addition to your apology, using the same basic structure.
  • "I know you feel terrible when I do this, and I don't want to make you feel terrible. But this is really important to me. How can we compromise?"
  • "I'm sorry I've made such a mess of this. I can see that it's making you miserable, but when I made my choices I wasn't aware of some really important facts. Now that I know, I can make better choices; let's work on our communication to make sure it doesn't happen again."
  • "I'm sorry I did that. I didn't know it would make you so angry, and I apologize. But I'm not sure I understand why you are so angry. Can we talk about this a little more so I can keep from doing that inadvertently in future?"
As long as you're still taking responsibility, acknowledging the consequences of your actions, and trying to make it better, you should still be able to craft an effective apology.

Of course, there are people who are harder to talk to than others; even the best apology doesn't reach some people, and never will. There are things people can't forgive (which doesn't mean you shouldn't apologize for them, just that it might be a dead end anyway). There are times when you will have to apologize when you don't mean it, in which case I suggest sticking with the good old, "I'm really sorry," and leaving it at that. There's no magic fixit for mistakes, and until they invent one, we're all just going to have to bumble through as best we can. This is the best way I know how.

ETA: There are some great points being made in the comments - I particularly like wychwood's note about how to apologize when you are not sorry here. I also did more in-depth analysis of the flaws in four or five major public apologies here, but decided not to make a separate blog post out of it. Lastly, Wikipedia has a whole entry on apologies that don't "focus on what you can control" - it calls them "non-apology apologies." Hee.


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northernveil From: northernveil Date: October 10th, 2006 06:10 am (UTC) (Link)
Good post - thank you!
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 06:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
You're welcome!
nighean_isis From: nighean_isis Date: October 10th, 2006 06:35 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm going to be adding this to memories and printing it out for further study. I screw up sometimes and I feel so...*lacking* in just saying "I'm sorry". A proper apology is something I need to learn.

Thanks for teaching.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 06:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
I will never stop being grateful that somebody taught me...glad I could pass it on!
fluffyllama From: fluffyllama Date: October 10th, 2006 12:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, it took me a good 30 years to learn most of that the hard way. There are certainly plenty of people who need to read this.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 06:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
I kind of wanted to write a bunch of stuff about what NOT to do, too, for those people. But I stuck with the positive...mostly. :)
qe2 From: qe2 Date: October 10th, 2006 12:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Extremely well said, not that that's surprising in the least. I wish I could get the sistergirl to read it, though even your trenchant presentation of the basics might not get through to someone whose belief that other people's reactions are entirely their own responsibility is as deeply entrenched as the SG's.

I get the "I'm sorry this is bugging you, but" sort of "apology" from her most frequently, and it tends to piss me off. Unfortunately, it also upsets me, as do most of these confrontational conversations, so I wind up crying and she winds up winning.

...okay, I'm drifting off into self-absorption again, and not even in my own LJ. Oy. Thanks for writing this, darlin'; it's given good shape to some of my less choate feelings.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 06:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's amazing how bad most people are at apologies, and what a difference it makes when you do it right. Sadly, I think a lot of the poor apologizing out there is born of self-absorption and lack of regret rather than ignorance. For that, there's no cure.
wychwood From: wychwood Date: October 10th, 2006 01:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
There are times when you will have to apologize when you don't mean it, in which case I suggest sticking with the good old, "I'm really sorry," and leaving it at that.

Or reframing it so you can apologise for something you are sorry for *g*. As in "(I'm not sorry for telling you to fuck off and die, but) I shouldn't have said something like that in the office, and I'm sorry for losing my temper on the job, it was entirely inappropriate."
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 06:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, that's SUCH a good point! It makes me want to edit the post to put it in...maybe in a little while. So smart.
aukestrel From: aukestrel Date: October 10th, 2006 01:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
The worst part is when someone says, "I'm sorry if I upset you." Wow, talk about p/a not-taking-responsibility! You DID upset me. Say, "I'm sorry THAT I upset you."

I ran into this at work last week when I was late and didn't call. Of course I apologised and explained, and when my boss came in later, I was putting everyone's cell phones into my cell phone and had filled out a vacation request for the time. I'm inarticulate about apologising - all I could really manage was "I am SO sorry, it won't happen again" - but I really tried to fix it and to prevent it from happening again. :/
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 07:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wikipedia has a whole section on this sort of apology!
the_shoshanna From: the_shoshanna Date: October 10th, 2006 01:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
So true, and very well put.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 08:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
helsmeta From: helsmeta Date: October 10th, 2006 01:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Apologies should never, ever take the form of "I'm sorry you aren't happy with me" or "I'm sorry you're mad about this." Those statements are implicit denials of responsibility.

Amen to that. And to the commenter who said that "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings" sucks as an apology, 'cause yeah, that one is even worse! Those are excellent ways to apologize without actually meaning a damn thing by it.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 08:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
I wrote up a whole post about this, but you get it as a comment instead, because this is a fannish journal and I don't want to do another huge social skills post.

I thought I'd look at some particularly ineffective apologies and analyze why they don't work, as a follow-up to my previous post.

America's (lack of) apologies for slavery: Derrick Jackson does an excellent analysis of both Clinton and Bush Jr's non-apologies for slavery here. These statements are not addressing the real transgression, though they are nudging up against it by mentioning that slavery was wrong and that its effects are not over. The apology needs to start with admitting that slavery was wrong, because it is certainly a "first cause" of the harm, but it then needs to acknowledge the specific hurts and injustices that continue today, and which affect the people listening to the apology. (Know the transgression; acknowledge the consequences). Both presidents needed to own what the government is doing or not doing to work against current problems of racism and poverty in the present. (Focus on what you can control). And of course, the apology is utterly empty without a discussion of what might be done. Reparations are a political minefield, but at the very least a real apology should include the willingness to open real, substantive discussions on what might be done, and the political commitment to find some concrete measures that might move toward healing. (Make it better). I can't find the full text of either speech, but the news reports are fairly clear that there has not yet been a true apology from an American President for slavery and its legacy of racial division and oppression.

Harlan Ellison's apology to the science fiction community: For those of you not aware of the brouhaha around this, author Harlan Ellison groped a respected female author onstage at the Hugo Awards. His apology is here. This apology hits most of the essential points, but is done in a tone that is hard to receive as respectful (and therefore serious) at all. He begins by saying, essentially, "Would you believe that since I am so busy and have no idea who you people are, I had no idea I'd upset anyone?" This implies that the problem is that people are upset, and that he did not recognize that he had done anything wrong until he was informed by others of the "brouhaha." This quasi-disclaimer, and the language in which it is couched, take away from the sincerity of his later attempt to take responsibility. (Don't make excuses). He attempts to make it better ("I've called Connie," "What now, folks?") but is unable to resist more justifications by insisting that he's been this bad all along and nobody ever complained before - again, implying that the problem is that other people are upset, rather than that he behaved poorly (and apparently has a pattern of doing so repeatedly). Words like "intendedly-childlike," and "puckishly," attempt none-too-subtly to spin or downplay his offense, acting as rhetorical excuses. In contrast, Mel Gibson's apology for his remarks about Jews is a model apology; serious and with clear focus on personal responsibility and reparation/atonement.
ceares From: ceares Date: October 10th, 2006 02:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Apologies should never, ever take the form of "I'm sorry you aren't happy with me" or "I'm sorry you're mad about this." Those statements are implicit denials of responsibility. Oh yeah, I love how that makes it the problem/issue, of the person getting the apology, not the person giving it.

Very interesting post. I always have a tendency to analyze public apologies for sincerity, and this is a nice criteria.

OTOH, this also works for learning how to fakely apologize when you're put in a position where you have to. Always nice, especially if the other person realizes what you have done, but can't do anything about it.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 08:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
Fake apologies tends to show, though - I did an analysis upthread of several failed public apologies, and the big thing about not meaning it is usually that people are unable to resist making excuses, or are unable to bring themselves to offer to make it better in any way (after all, if you weren't wrong, how can you offer to make it better?). I recently had to apologize for something where I strongly felt I was not in the wrong, and the best I managed was essentially "I'm really sorry, you were right" and I had to have someone who knew the situation BETA it to make sure it came off sincere!
isiscolo From: isiscolo Date: October 10th, 2006 02:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is a very cool post.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 08:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks! The comments are interesting reading, too - people have some great things to say. A friend of mine wrote in on my RL blog to say that her mother always told her not to apologize until someone told her there was a problem - an excellent rule of thumb for professional and other more formalized environments. I'm learning a lot!
laurashapiro From: laurashapiro Date: October 10th, 2006 03:16 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you.

This is really, really helpful.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 08:57 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you.

I'm learning a lot in the comments, too, so it's helping me as well!
msilverstar From: msilverstar Date: October 10th, 2006 03:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Excellent post. Definitely worth clarifying, because some people are oblivious and need to be told step-by-step.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 08:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
As I said upthread, it's sort of sad, but I think that lack of personal responsibility and selfishness is the problem more often than just not knowing how to apologize...but knowing how is certainly important, and can backwards clue people in, sometimes.
storydivagirl From: storydivagirl Date: October 10th, 2006 03:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is one of those things that I don't really think about, but really it is something more people should be aware of. Thanks for the helpful hints - they may come in handy in the future.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 09:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have occasion to need this skill FAR more often than I would like, woe. May you never need it - unlikely, but, you know, *wishes*
watergal From: watergal Date: October 10th, 2006 05:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Great post! Thank you for taking the time to do it. Apologizing os one of the times meticulous communication is most important, and so often we I rush through it just to get it over with.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 09:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
I am a huge believer in the healing powers of a good apology, Dr. Watergal! And, um, if you fuck up as often and as spectacularly as I do, then it comes in handy. *facepalm*
zvi_likes_tv From: zvi_likes_tv Date: October 10th, 2006 06:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's an excellent, excellent post. Thanks.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 09:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
You're welcome!
matildabj From: matildabj Date: October 10th, 2006 07:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
Nice one. It drives me a bit nuts when people make their apology conditional. "I'm sorry if I hurt you when I did that." Aargh.
norah From: norah Date: October 10th, 2006 09:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
There's a whole wikipedia entry on the lameness of that!
klia From: klia Date: October 10th, 2006 11:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh noes.

norah From: norah Date: October 11th, 2006 12:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh noes?
zebra363 From: zebra363 Date: October 11th, 2006 09:37 am (UTC) (Link)
Great post. It's so easy to add the "but", when it dilutes or negates your apology.

There are things people can't forgive (which doesn't mean you shouldn't apologize for them, just that it might be a dead end anyway).

Now I just need the post on how to avoid doing those things!
norah From: norah Date: October 11th, 2006 10:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, GOD, if you find it please tell me.
sumbitch From: sumbitch Date: October 11th, 2006 05:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Excellent. *bookmarks for reminder*

A lot of the advice wouldn't need saying if people who apologized were actually doing so because they cared about the hurt they'd inflicted. That involves a certain ego wear-and-tear that some people simply cannot stomach. Almost a decade into a fantastic relationship I still find that I sometimes have to force myself to put down my defenses so I can apologize properly.

Having said that, I think there's great wisdom in "fake it till you make it"; if people learn the form of a proper apology, maybe with time they/we will develop the attendant sentiment, of caring about another's harm more than about one's own protection.
norah From: norah Date: October 11th, 2006 10:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sadly true - and it's not always clear who needs to apologize, either - a lot of the time, especially in relationships, it's BOTH people. And that makes it really hard, especially when one person knows how and the other doesn't or won't. "Fake it 'til you make it" is my family's motto. After all, if it walks like sincerity, and it quacks like sincerity, who's to say it's not a duck?
distant_beaches From: distant_beaches Date: October 11th, 2006 08:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
You might want to add a codcil about making sure that your apologies are backed up with actual actions.

I'm in the middle of being absolutly furious and hurt at a friend who after I asked to talk about a problem didn't speak to me for a month, because she was afraid to admit how badly she behaved.
Then she sent me a letter telling me about such. But there is no further action on her part. There was no actions trying to make things better, just mutual avoidance. I almost want to send her this post as a pointed message. It is clear that her apology is just self-absolution with no actual desire to help the situation. Ugh.
norah From: norah Date: October 11th, 2006 10:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it probably goes without saying, and under the general rubric of "you have to mean it." I didn't post this for people who don't actually want to make things right - I posted it for people who genuinely do and might need a little help understanding how. The others, I'm afraid, are a lost cause.
adjectivegirl From: adjectivegirl Date: October 15th, 2006 01:23 am (UTC) (Link)
God, I love you. This is great not only for me but right now I wish I could tattoo this post right on the forehead (backwards...) of someone close to me. I realize that it's not her fault, she's quite literally socially retarded, but GAR, it still behooves people to LEARN, even by rote.

And "I was drunk" is not an acceptable excuse, and I feel this excuse percolating in the wings here.
ellie_nor From: ellie_nor Date: January 4th, 2007 09:58 am (UTC) (Link)

here from <lj user=snakey>

robotropolis From: robotropolis Date: February 9th, 2007 10:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
audrawilliams pointed me toward this post and I really like it. Would it be okay if I excerpted from it and linked to it in my LJ?
norah From: norah Date: February 9th, 2007 11:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sure, no problem - thanks for asking!
From: ex_absolutef238 Date: March 12th, 2007 07:35 am (UTC) (Link)
norah From: norah Date: March 14th, 2007 06:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
used_songs From: used_songs Date: August 2nd, 2007 10:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I came here via zvi_likes_tv. Would you mind if I printed this out and used it in my classroom? I would include a link to the post. This is really a thoughful breakdown of what an apology is and why apologies are important.
norah From: norah Date: August 4th, 2007 04:10 pm (UTC) (Link)

You can use the text, but please, no links and no credit! I don't know if you poked around the rest of this journal, but it is focused on NC-17 fanfiction, and wouldn't be appropriate material for a classroom handout to link to, I don't think!

Just c&p it, and use with my blessing - someone taught me to apologize, years ago, and the idea that I can pay that forward in any small way fills my wee heart with gladness.

Out of curiosity, I've been following that conversation somewhat, but didn't see the link - could you tell me where?

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