Why Apologies Matter

Dear Belladonna Rogers,

Recently, someone who didn’t realize we’d once been close, introduced me to a former friend. Years ago, my former friend did something no friend should ever do, which is why we became ex-friends. When we were introduced, my ex-friend extended her hand but I withheld mine, which I’ve never done in my life.

To my surprise, a few days later I received a heartfelt letter of apology from my ex-friend expressing remorse for her dreadful behavior, which she outlined in the same detail that I too remembered, from many years ago. I responded immediately, forgiving her, and saying how rare it is to receive such an apology.

Why are apologies so rare? Do people believe that by not owning up to their errors and the harm they’ve caused that no one will be the wiser?

Puzzled in Peoria

Dear Puzzled,

Many see an apology as a sign of weakness, believing that only the weak apologize. Since ancient times, the vulnerable have depended on the strong. Slaves bowed and apologized to owners; serfs apologized to feudal lords; courtiers apologized to royalty; employees apologized to employers. The reverse was considered unthinkable.

This tradition is unfortunately still with us: for the powerless, apologies are mandatory; for the powerful, they’re unnecessary.

This shouldn’t exist in modern life but it does, partly because many behave as if they’re “Masters of the Universe,” in Tom Wolfe’s apt phrase from his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities

When one friend hurts another, a caring friend apologizes at once. The Master or Mistress of the Universe doesn’t: it’s the difference between being empathic and being arrogant.

Some people have more trouble apologizing than others.  As the gifted psychoanalyst Dr. Nancy McWilliams has written, narcissists have particular difficulty expressing remorse because to them it implies fallibility and personal error, admissions that are psychologically intolerable to such people.

Apologies can be difficult for everyone. An apology includes a clear statement of one’s error or offense, such as being disrespectful, underhanded, mean-spirited, deceitful, disloyal, unfair, hurtful, condescending, inconsiderate, insulting, heartless, cruel, abusive, as well as negligent, careless, feckless, and reckless.

Is it pleasant to acknowledge that you’ve been any of these?  No. It takes self-awareness, backbone, and a strong desire to do right by another human being.

Apologies matter if you value a relationship.

If you imagine that by procrastinating or refusing to apologize you’ll evade responsibility forever and make the damage you produced vanish into thin air, you’re fooling only yourself. Your friends or family members may no longer mention the injury you caused, but that doesn’t mean a painful, unhealed wound doesn’t remain. It’s never too late to apologize, even decades after you inflicted harm. But, as Benjamin Franklin said, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”

If you don’t know what you’ve done to hurt or alienate someone: ask. Don’t offer a vague, blanket apology “for anything I may have done” or peremptorily insist that the injured person “forget about this; it isn’t important.”  These tactics show greater concern for yourself — and your need to “get past this unpleasantness” with transparently empty, unfeeling words — than for the person you’ve hurt.

A real, rather than a pro forma, apology also expresses genuine remorse.

What doesn’t constitute an apology is a one-word, “Sorry,” except for minimal inconveniences. For anything serious, “sorry” is a brush-off masquerading as an apology. If you seek to minimize the gravity of the harm you inflicted, then “sorry” will convey that. Like a shrug accompanied by “Whatever,” it expresses casual dismissal.

As is often noted, an apology is invalidated by the weaselly word “if” — as in, “I’m sorry if I did anything to offend you.” Nor should an apology blame the injured person for being hurt, as in, “I’m sorry you were upset.” Both forms of pseudo-apology fail to take responsibility for causing the other person’s distress and implicitly criticize the victim for his or her reasonable response to mistreatment.

It takes a mature and psychologically secure human being to offer a genuine apology. Far from being a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. An employer who apologizes for an unfair outburst to an employee will gain greater respect, not lose face.

It also takes a decent person to forgive. Indeed, there’s a moral imperative to forgive if you believe the apology is genuine, if you can forgive in good faith, and if the offense is, in fact, forgivable — which not all are.

You don’t have to stroll arm-in-arm into the mist with the person who’s apologized to you, although a genuine apology can be the beginning – or the continuation — of a beautiful friendship.  If not, it will at least put an honorable end to a relationship, like a firm period instead of an emotionally irritating semi-colon.

— Belladonna Rogers

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