I'm sorry.
July 14, 2009 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Disagreement filter: Do you apologize when you inadvertently say something that hurts someone else?

A friend and I disagree on whether saying something that results in a hurtful misinterpretation is worthy of an apology. On the one hand: The other person misunderstood! How am I responsible? On the other: If someone is your buddy, aren't you sorry when they are hurt?

Note: I am not trying to prove one of us is right; I think it is a valid enough disagreement. I do want to see how other people arrived at their position on the issue.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (50 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Of course I do. I'm sorry that I hurt them.

And it might make them feel better. Well, provided you don't go for one of those passive-aggressive 'I'm sorry that you misinterpreted my perfectly-innocent remark' deals.
posted by box at 3:44 PM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

This question baffles me. Why WOULDN'T you apologize? Are you (or your friend) so concerned with keeping score and saving face that an apology is a big deal?

If something I've done hurts someone's feelings, I apologize -- regardless as to who is the greater contributor to the hurt feelings. I care more about making the other person feel better than I do about schoolyard face-saving maneuvers and score keeping about who is at fault.
posted by grumblebee at 3:45 PM on July 14, 2009 [23 favorites]

Would you apologize for accidently stepping on someone's foot? I mean, their foot was in the way and you didn't have control over that.
I see no harm in apologizing for hurting someone's feelings, even if it was a misinterpretation. It's easy to do and makes everyone feel better.
posted by idiotfactory at 3:45 PM on July 14, 2009

I arrived at my position via observation - people apologise when they bump into each other on the street! Why get precious about responsibility when you can use such an easy and routine social lubricant as an apology?
posted by By The Grace of God at 3:45 PM on July 14, 2009

Yes of course I do. As someone who puts her foot in her mouth a lot, I think a ready willingness to apologize is what keeps my friends tolerant of my obtuseness.
posted by peacheater at 3:46 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I do, but I'm Canadian.
posted by fish tick at 3:47 PM on July 14, 2009 [21 favorites]

It's one of those "mutual apology" situations. The one who hurt the other should apologize. Then again, it was an accident, and the offended may have over-reacted, or otherwise knew that hurt was not the intention. Thus the offended should also, not quite apologizing, but gracefully deny the need for apology.

The lack of intention to hurt does not absolve one of the need to apologize. If you hit your friend with a hammer by accident, you apologize. If you say that you got "jewed" or "gypped" in front of your Jewish or Roma friends (respectively), you apologize. It's their place to acknowledge that you didn't mean harm, not yours.
posted by explosion at 3:48 PM on July 14, 2009

Yes, I apologise, just like I do when I accidentally physically hurt someone. Words in a conversation mean something, but it's not like any sentence is so completely perfectly unambiguous that it is impossible to hurt someone, and of course people have their own histories. Intent matters -- I'm going to be more hurt if someone tries to do it deliberately -- but it's only part of the story.
posted by jeather at 3:49 PM on July 14, 2009

No matter where the blame truly lies, polite people assume that they have failed to express themselves clearly if someone else misunderstands and accordingly they say sorry.

(Note: sometimes I fail to be polite).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:50 PM on July 14, 2009

Some people consider apologies to be only appropriate for situations in which the apologizer is at fault. Consider the following exchange:
Person A: I just totalled my car.
Person B: Wow, I'm sorry...
Person A: It's not your fault.

I personally apologize when I am sorry that someone is unhappy, whether it's my fault or not. If it's my fault, whether intentional or not, all the more reason to apologize.
posted by emilyd22222 at 3:54 PM on July 14, 2009

Always. I am not personally diminished by apologizing to someone and sometimes it can make the situation better.
posted by jessamyn at 3:56 PM on July 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

If there is a misunderstanding, of course you apologize- you didn't mean to say anything hurtful. Refusing to apologize because the other person misunderstood seems churlish, and, well, makes me wonder how much of a misunderstanding it really was.

But don't do the fake apology "I'm sorry that you feel I said something hurtful." That's bad too. A genuine apology makes amends for having expressed yourself carelessly.
posted by ambrosia at 3:58 PM on July 14, 2009

Absolutely. I generally think of an apology as one of those things that's costless to the giver and extremely valuable to the receiver.
posted by ninotchka at 4:03 PM on July 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

I have to disagree with the consensus here. It really depends on the situation and the comment made, but sometimes other people have to be accountable for their own feelings and how they come to them. If you always apologise to someone when their feelings are hurt by how you said something or what you said, then you only reinforce their justification in feeling hurt.

Sometimes friends need to know that apologising takes something from you too: grace, courtesy, conscientiousness. Perhaps these qualities are lacking in the person who always needs apologies.
posted by fantasticninety at 4:05 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Who cares which one of you was right? Be gracious, be the bigger person, and apologize. The only outcome you will potentially regret is not apologizing.
posted by halogen at 4:10 PM on July 14, 2009

There is such a de minimis cost of saying you're sorry, and it's worth so much to the other person when you're sincere. The point of apologizing in this case isn't admitting to evil intent, it's simply acknowledging that what you did caused pain to someone else and you wish that it hadn't.
posted by Happydaz at 4:13 PM on July 14, 2009

Some people consider apologies to be only appropriate for situations in which the apologizer is at fault. Consider the following exchange:
Person A: I just totalled my car.
Person B: Wow, I'm sorry...
Person A: It's not your fault.
I personally apologize when I am sorry that someone is unhappy, whether it's my fault or not. If it's my fault, whether intentional or not, all the more reason to apologize.

I had a friend who didn't like how often I would say "I'm sorry" when I didn't do anything wrong. I then started to say "my condolences," which sounded overly formal, but amused my friend and got the point across - I feel bad for your experience.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:17 PM on July 14, 2009

Seconding joe's spleen. An apology in this situation would mean "I am sorry that I chose words that could be misunderstood." Don't actually say that, but think of that the reason for your apology. And don't get hung up on who's right or wrong. This type of situation happens to everyone and it can be easily smoothed over by an apology that costs you nothing.

Disclaimer: this advice applies to normal, healthy relationships, not emotionally manipulative ones.
posted by dosterm at 4:17 PM on July 14, 2009

Do you apologize when you inadvertently say something that hurts someone else?

Honestly, it depends. If it was based on poor communication on my part, then probably yes. If the other party was making assumptions based on a bad faith interpretation, though, then I'm just as likely to look for the other party to acknowledge that they need to stop doing that.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:18 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

By an "emotionally manipulative" relationship I mean one in which someone is constantly asking you to apologize to them to exert control or something. That's a different issue.
posted by dosterm at 4:21 PM on July 14, 2009

Yeah, absolutely. 'Oh, I'm so sorry--I didn't mean it that way' is probably my knee jerk response.

I think this hinges on your (you the speaker) understanding genuinely how and why it was misinterpreted, and feel ultimately maybe you could have chosen your words better, and even if not, you say sorry anyway.

If I step on someone's foot, I'd say sorry. It wasn't intentional, but intent isn't the be all and end all of what warrants an apology.

I hate it when I say jackass things that hurt people's feelings and unfortunately, it's not an infrequent occurrence.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:24 PM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Person A: I just totalled my car.
Person B: Wow, I'm sorry...
Person A: It's not your fault.

Just to clear something up: Saying "I'm sorry" does not always constitute apologizing. In the case above, it means something like "that's bad news- you have my sympathy". It's a different meaning of the same phrase. If someone says "my grandmother just died" you might say "I'm sorry" ("You have my sympathies") but not "I apologize".

That causes some confusion. If someone says "You hurt my feelings" and you feel you didn't mean to hurt them, and you say "I'm sorry you're hurt", you can mean either
a) I apologize for my role in your hurt feelings, even though I did not mean to hurt them
b) Your hurt feelings are in no way my fault, so while you have my condolences, I'm not apologizing.

If you can only say the words "I'm sorry" and not "I apologize", you're not reall apologizing.
posted by ManInSuit at 4:26 PM on July 14, 2009

Once in a while there is a situation in which the "plaintiff" is so prone to overreacting or overinterpreting or whatever that apologizing ALL THE TIME becomes tiresome, but this is a problem with my relationship, not with apologizing. The other 99% of the time the benefits (increased trust, goodwill) so outweigh the costs (breath? time? imaginary chits?) that apologizing is far better than not. For example, if I drink a glass of wine at a party in front of someone who is in recovery, and he takes offense*, I might apologize for making him uncomfortable. I might also add that I think his expectation that I not drink in his presence -- if he's going to attend parties with booze -- is unreasonable, and suggest some other options.

All this assumes I care about the relationship. If not, whatever, dude.

*based on an actual situation. [NOT RECOVERY-IST]
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:31 PM on July 14, 2009

And- while it's obvious that, in general, it makes sense to apologize when you do something by accident (would you withhold your apology for breaking a friend's vase just becuse you didn't mean to break it), hurt feelings are a little different, because really it takes two people to generate them - you and the person who's feelings are hurt. That is - when you accidentally break a vase, the vase is objectively broken. Hurt feelings are different.

If you knew someone who was constantly hurt by remarks you constantly felt were inoffensive, I can see why after a while, you might not want to apologize anymore.
posted by ManInSuit at 4:34 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think apologies must be one of those areas in which the unspoken rules by which your parents raised you are extremely difficult to think outside of. I've known people who apologize dozens of times a day, and I've known people who can count on one hand the number of times they've apologized for anything.

I've occasionally gotten into scuffles with people I've known in the latter group. I'm thinking of one friend in particular with whom I got into some pretty bad fights. Every time, I'd apologize and he wouldn't. A couple times, when we were both calm a few days later, I asked him why he hadn't apologized. I'd obviously been upset, and a simple "I'm sorry" would have been the obvious key to diffusing the situation. He always replied with a simple, non-emotional explanation of what type of instances deserve an apology and what ones don't. I slowly started to piece together - and meeting his parents and sibling sort of confirmed it - that these were the rules his family had passed on to him little by little over 20 years.

But here's the thing: these groups are not the same. With few exceptions, the yes-apologies people in my life are happier, healthier, and more relaxed than the no-apologies people. Like brushing your teeth, apologizing is an activity whose health benefits become more obvious the longer you spend avoiding it. Start while you still can.
posted by roll truck roll at 4:35 PM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

If I say something that gets misunderstood and someone's feelings are hurt, I feel genuinely bad even though I intended no harm. I apologize sincerely.

If I say something and an already drama-prone person decides that I have deeply offended him or her, I apologize because I think it's polite (and to diffuse the drama) and make a mental note to avoid the person.
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:26 PM on July 14, 2009

There's a meta-message that rides piggyback along with an apology. Since it's subtext, not all people will intend its meaning as I'm about to explain it -- or interpret it that way when it comes from someone else. But it's pretty common. I'd bet most people get it on some level.

In addition to the surface meaning, which is something like, "I take responsibility for hurting you, and I wish I hadn't done it," there's a meta-meaning of "as a friend of yours, I care more about your feelings than I do about who is right and who is wrong."

By apologizing, you're saying, "let's stop keeping score and make sure we're still friends. I am willing to give up claims to being right -- even if I think I am right -- because my friendship with you is more important than being right."

This is why it's possible to SINCERELY apologize, even if you think you are right. You are saying, "I am going to make a sincere effort to stop caring about who is right, and I am going to take responsibility for causing hurt. I am going to do it for the sake of our friendship."

The other party also has a role to play. He needs to gracefully accept your apology. Not apologizing is rude. But it's equally rude not to reply to an apology with something along the lines of "forget about it," "that's okay," or "no hard feelings." The point of this two-way conversation is for both parties to let bygones be bygones. (It's important to be sincere. If you really can't accept an apology, it's okay to say, "I'm sorry, but I can't accept that apology right now. I'm too pissed off." At least you've acknowledged that the apologizer made an effort.)

For me, apologizing sends one more message: "I am fallible when it comes to judging who is right and who is wrong. It would be hubris to assume I'm infallible, especially when it comes to misunderstandings. So since it actually MIGHT be my fault -- even thought I don't think it is -- I owe you an apology."

In a misunderstanding, I might mean A, but you interpret what I say as B. If you're hurt by B, why should I assume I communicated A clearly? Because I'm 100% sure I'm an ace communicator? That's bullshit. If I meant A and you heard B, that cause may have been my misspeaking, your misunderstanding or some combination of the two. It's unlikely the truth will ever be known, so there's a possibility it's my fault -- or partly my fault. Because of that, I should apologize.

Too many arguments take this form:

me (Intending to say A) : blah blah blah
you: Why did you just say B to me?

I think I'm right because of my INTENT (and I assume that what come out of my mouth always matches my intent). You think you're right because of your INTERPRETATION, and you think your interpretations always map onto reality.

In such cases, if there is a "reality," it's unknowable. The only way out of a fight is for one of us to man up enough to take responsibility for POSSIBLY causing a misunderstanding. In a perfect world, I say, "I'm sorry if I misspoke" and you say, "I'm sorry if I misinterpreted." But I can only be responsible for myself, so I'm going to apologize regardless of what you say.

At least once a day, I see someone on Metafilter write, "You misunderstood me." I always wonder what makes the writer so sure of that. MAYBE he was misunderstood. Maybe he wasn't clear. Since it's really hard to be sure, why blame the other person?
posted by grumblebee at 5:28 PM on July 14, 2009 [11 favorites]

Apologizing does not always mean admitting you're wrong.
It's just something nice to say. It can lose its meaning if it's an apology for the same thing all the time without a change in behaviour, but other than that, it's nice to be nice and apologize.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 5:51 PM on July 14, 2009

I apologize and I actually mean it. To me, I feel I'm apologizing for failing to word things unambiguously, or carelessly enough that they could feel that I meant something offensive.

I think if someone does not apologize in that situation, they have no humility or think they're infallible. Not to mention nothing is smoothed over if you don't apologize, whereas everything can seriously be completely okay if you apologize profusely and explain what you meant instead.
posted by Nattie at 5:55 PM on July 14, 2009

I would apologize because I caused someone harm, whether that's what I intended or not. I could see how pride might get in the way of an apology, but I would never mean to hurt my friend and take it as a lesson to express myself better.
posted by katemcd at 5:55 PM on July 14, 2009

posted by disclaimer at 6:02 PM on July 14, 2009

Of course not! Life is tough and if they can't handle it, then damnit that's on them. Yield nothing to your enemies and show them nothing but the point of your sword!

Oh wait, you're talking about civilization? Then yeah, you apologize.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:06 PM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

"I'm sorry if I was unclear," or some variation on that.

I think that apologizing for something means you're taking at least some responsibility for it. That said, I don't see any reason to be stingy with apologies, as long as they're sincere; it's not like you have a limited supply. On the other hand, if you're worried about becoming someone who tends to hiccup apologies for trivial things due to insecurity or whatever, I can understand carefully assessing what you want to take the blame for. But those types of apologies aren't really apologies anyway, they're scapegoating yourself for effect. That's why I think "I'm sorry if i was unclear" or "I'm sorry if I misspoke" are good - they're precise and sincere.

(an aside: "I'm sorry" doesn't always indicate an apology - it can mean you're expressing condolences, as mentioned above. That's why I think "I'm sorry you got upset" is so condescending and bitchy - it's disguised as an apology, but what it really means is "I'm expressing my condolences for the discomfort you've caused yourself by overreacting to my perfectly clear and innocent remark; I, however, explicitly take no responsibility for this misunderstanding, which I am demonstrating by offering this perfectly clear and innocent fake apology.")
posted by granted at 6:36 PM on July 14, 2009

The only time I might refuse to apologize for "hurting someone's feelings" is what I had said was totally innocuous and they were therefore out of line in their accusations of me. But then that's a moot point, because it's best to avoid such a person completely.
posted by orange swan at 7:07 PM on July 14, 2009

Yes, I will apologize. I do feel genuinely bad if I hurt someone's feelings, especially if it is because of a simple misunderstanding.
posted by SisterHavana at 7:25 PM on July 14, 2009

Mostly yes, unless I think someone was actually being ridiculous in their offense.
posted by rodgerd at 7:25 PM on July 14, 2009

"I think I might owe you an explanation here. . ." Oh wait, that's too hard to say. Roll over and apologize.

I wouldn't dignify the decision not to apologize as a pride issue, I'd call it an issue of co-dependence. By apologizing for a misunderstanding (and the words are less important than the sentiment here) you disrespect yourself and the other person.

Imagine this: Ambiguous thing happens, leads to misunderstanding. Your apologizing can only be because you don't respect the person enough to explore what happened together or you don't think they could handle that exploration because of their fragility, etc.

Did that come across as harsh? Well, I won't apologize, but I'd be glad to tell you more about my thoughts and would like to hear some of yours. :)
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 9:09 PM on July 14, 2009

At the risk of sounding patronizing, this very debate is indicative of male maturity to me. When I was younger I would have said, "Why should I apologize, I didn't mean any harm?" because I found it hard to apologize because I saw apologizing as a weakness. A few years on I've got over myself and realize that there is something to apologize for and, that rather than it being a weakness, admitting being wrong shows strength of character.
posted by ob at 9:54 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

You only apologize if you are a sentient, caring being.

Otherwise, not.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:12 PM on July 14, 2009

Your apologizing can only be because you don't respect the person enough to explore what happened together or you don't think they could handle that exploration because of their fragility, etc.

I think we've outlined lots of reasons why one might apologise other than the reason you propose.

In any case, very often I would not be keen on exploring what went wrong -- I want to move on to whatever business is at hand.

However, if I were keen on "exploring what happened together", my experience is that a polite apology first is much more likely to create an atmosphere where such explorations have a chance of being productive.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:19 PM on July 14, 2009

Depends how extreme and wilfull the misinterpretation is. anonymous may be thinking of dialogues like this...

"That's a nice dress."
"Nice? How much did this cost? And you tell me it's 'nice'?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that, I just meant you look good today."
"Oh what, I look good today - because normally of course I look like shit?"
"No, I'm sorry, I didn't mean that."
"But today, exceptionally, with a special effort and huge expense, I've hit the top of my personal scale at fucking 'nice'?"
"I'm really sorry if it sounded like that, but that wasn't what I meant at all."
"Oh, it's my fault for misunderstanding is it?"
"No, really, I'm sorry if I gave that impression."
"I'm stupid? I don't understand English? That's it, is it?"
"No, I really do apologise if that's what you thought I meant."
"Because you know I really am sick of this passive-aggressive campaign to undermine my self-esteem. That's what it's really all about, isn't it?"
"No, not at all - sorry."
"Oh it's not? So you mean I'm an irrational whining bitch who's just putting words into your mouth for the hell of it, am I?"
"No, I would never say that and I'm really sorry if that was how I came across."
"Sorry, sorry sorry? Is that all? Is that the best you can do? 'Sorry'?"
"Well... actually it sort of is. Sorry."
posted by Phanx at 3:26 AM on July 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

That all depends. Because when I misunderstand someone I apologise. You can't go around not listening to people and clearly showing that by taking offence to positions they have not even indicated they hold. What kind of rubbish is that?

Having said that, I generally have no hesitation with smoothing things over with people I care about regardless. But an apology is hardly my priority.

"What! Wait, I'm sorry you're hurt by this thing that I didn't say. What I said was..."
is total BS when you could say something like
"What! Omg no - I would never say that to you. What I said was..."
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 3:34 AM on July 15, 2009

What's needed here is a not-too-formal way to tell someone "I wish you didn't feel bad, and I care about your feelings" without implying "I was at fault and you are not at all at fault". Unfortunately, in English, the phrase "I'm sorry" is used for both things.

So, if you can think of something appropriate and sympathetic to say other than "I'm sorry", that should help a lot.

Here are some candidates:

"Oh, I didn't want to make you feel bad! I meant [rephrase original statement]"

"If I'd been able to take more time to consider your feelings, I hope I would have phrased that differently"

"I wish I'd known you'd hear it that way. That's not what I meant at all."

"I absolutely didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
posted by amtho at 5:28 AM on July 15, 2009

Yes. But the apology has to be genuine.

"I'm sorry you're offended," or "I'm sorry you feel that way," is not an apology, is not an admission of having made a mistake, but is rather an accusation under the guise of apology, a lie, false, a dig, denied.In other words, "I take no responsibility - nor blame - for your feeling that way. Your pain is still hypothetical to me, not something I'm convinced of." It's sometimes meant to call your perceptions into question, and to suggest that maybe you're "overreacting".

"I'm sorry you feel that way"... that’s the speaker feeling a certain regret you are feeling a negative emotion which you have irrationally tied to something they did. If I drop a bowling ball on my foot and start screaming atsomeone for having caused that by merely being in the same house as I am, he or she would be well within her rights to say “I’m sorry you feel that way”.

"I'm sorry if I've hurt you" is not an apology, since what it really has attached is "and, if you weren't hurt, I stand by my statement." There's no IF there-- you've already been told that what you said hurt or was inappropriate.

Any blaming of the receiver's perceptions: "I'm sorry you perceived that I ____." Calling someone delusional is a tactic, not an apology.
posted by ShawnStruck at 5:41 AM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

You wouldn't apologize if you INTENTIONALLY hurt their feelings, would you?

So if you also wouldn't do so when you ACCIDENTALLY hurt their feelings, then when--exactly--would you apologize?

posted by General Tonic at 7:10 AM on July 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

One of my worst and confusing interactions with a former friend revolved around apologies of this kind. I did something without realizing that hurt her feelings, in response she went way the hell overboard and did something worse. Once we got to the talking about things phase and she explained why she went so far beyond the realm of sane, I realized I had hurt her and felt bad about it. I thought at that point that she realized it was unintentional and would understand that. So I offered an apology.
Me: "I'm so sorry that I hurt your feelings. I never intended to, nor did I realize that. I'm very sorry and will make every effort not to do that again."
What I expected to hear from her: "Thanks, and I'm sorry for going absolutely insane and causing so much trouble in response. I should have known you didn't mean to hurt me. I overreacted, forgive me."
What I got from her: "You should be sorry. You hurt my feelings. Don't do it again. I mean, you should be really freaking sorry."

Needless to say, we didn't remain friends.
posted by teleri025 at 7:54 AM on July 15, 2009

I would apologize. It's a low-cost way to help resolve a misunderstanding.
posted by Citrus at 7:56 AM on July 15, 2009

The older I get the less resistent I am to just making a short and brief apology with zero explanation of why or how or when or what exactly i mean by it. Just: Hey...I'm really sorry. and that's it.

This tendency is counterbalanced by my increasing tendency to immediately defriend anyone who makes a big deal out of mistakes and apologies, particularly if I'm dating them. As has been illustrated above--healthy people give each other the benefit of the doubt, and when they receive sincere apologies, they say thanks and forgive and move on.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:30 PM on July 15, 2009

Depends how extreme and wilfull the misinterpretation is. anonymous may be thinking of dialogues like this...

"That's a nice dress."
"Nice? How much did this cost? And you tell me it's 'nice'?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that, I just meant you look good today."
"Oh what, I look good today - because normally of course I look like shit?"

That was funny (and I favorited it), but it's an unfair example (unless I completely misunderstood the OP.). He wasn't talking about what to do if you DO apologize and then someone refuses to accept your apology. I'm definitely in the pro-apology camp, but I don't think you have to flagellate yourself when someone won't accept your apology.

What's needed here is a not-too-formal way to tell someone "I wish you didn't feel bad, and I care about your feelings" without implying "I was at fault and you are not at all at fault". Unfortunately, in English, the phrase "I'm sorry" is used for both things.

That's only "needed" if it's really, really hard for you to say a simple "I'm sorry." It's needed if you're constantly worried about one-upmanship, looking weak and saving face. For some of us, it's really not that big a deal if we say, "I'm sorry" and the other person thinks, "Aha! He is ADMITTING that it was ALL HIS FAULT!" Although, to be honest, I don't hang around with people who gleefully wait for me to apologize so that they can take a point away from me and give one to themselves.

Around most mature adults, the main message of "I'm sorry" is "I care about you and the fact that you're hurting. In fact, I care enough to take the blame." And most mature adults respond to that by saying or implying some form of "Thanks. That means a lot to me. Now let's forget it ever happened."
posted by grumblebee at 2:16 PM on July 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

In my experience, the people who don't apologize when "it's not their fault" are the same people who never apologize. They may truly intend to apologize when they are at fault, but, as it happens, they never are. Whenever these people are involved in a misunderstanding, it's ALWAYS the other guy who got it wrong.

I don't think these people are necessarily arrogant -- at least not in a simple way. Many of them are very logical thinkers and expert speakers. They have been praised for their clarity. They think carefully about what they say before they say it. So, having put that much time and effort into communicating, it surely MUST be the other guy's fault if he misunderstands.

After the misunderstanding occurs, speakers may even go back over what they said (or wrote) and check it to make sure it wasn't misleading or open to interpretation. They ARE ready to apologize if they find any mistakes, but they don't find any, so they don't apologize. They are now even more secure in their decision to not apologize.

(How many times have you seen this on Metafilter? "I went back over what I wrote and... You clearly didn't read what I wrote... You are willfully misunderstanding me...")

These people often have a very hard time getting past what their gut tells them. If sometime seems right -- really, really RIGHT -- then it must BE right. "I can't see ANY way what I said could be misunderstood, therefor the 'misunderstanding' is not my fault." These people also believe that their senses are infallible: "Look, it clearly says, right there on the paper, that..."

I am writing all this from experience. When I was younger, I used to be one of those people. I lived in a world full of "morons who just wouldn't LISTEN!"

Added to this, I AM a logical thinker and a clear speaker. I've had tons of praise on these traits from other people. I work as a writer and teacher, and I continually hear people say that I'm genius at making difficult concepts clear. And I DO work really hard at thinking about what I say and write.

And there ARE a lot of morons out there who don't listen. And there are people who DO listen but pretend to misunderstand for nefarious reasons. So it's easy to feel like a misunderstanding is never my fault.

Strong as that feeling is, it is not based in reality. Just as I've never met a writer who doesn't need an editor, I've never met a speaker who never causes misunderstandings. And -- and here's the sucker punch -- good speakers are the WORST people to judge whether or not they're being clear. We all have blind-spots, prejudices, and fragile egos. We don't notice every i we forget to dot and t we forget to cross. No one can notice all their mistakes, because the human mind isn't constructed to make this possible.

(When I teach computer programming, it's always the "good typists" who have the most trouble. They are SO sure that they don't make mistakes. They are sure of this because they DO make fewer mistakes than most people. Also, the mistakes they make generally aren't caught, because they are rare and subtle. But computers are unforgiving. They crash if you omit a single comma. Since these people "never make mistakes," they are horrible at finding the mistakes that they DO make. And when you point out their bugs to them, they get pissed of, because you've shattered their pictures of themselves. One student said to me, "No way! I NEVER forget to type commas when I'm supposed to. The computer must have deleted it.")

Added to this, I can't get inside your shoes. Doing so means more than seeing the world the way you do. It means NOT seeing the world the way I do. It means discarding all my baggage -- all the stuff I take for granted and that is the framework for my conversation. I can't do that. I'm stuck with my baggage. So it's literally impossible for me to know how my utterances will be received.

So when someone "misunderstands" me, is it my fault? In my favor, I am a good speaker and many people are bad listeners; Against me is the fact that I can't hear myself the way others hear me. So I don't know whose fault it is, but it MAY be my fault. That's right, if I say something and someone gets hurt, it's possible I might have caused that hurt -- even if my gut screams at me that I didn't. My gut can be very, very, very wrong. So can yours.

Nowadays, when someone misunderstands me, I realize I have three choices:

1) "It's your fault! You don't LISTEN!"

2) "We're having some sort of communication problem here. I don't know whether I misspoke or you misheard. Let's see if we can clear it up."

3) "I'm sorry. I wasn't clear. What I meant was..."

Option two is tempting, and I sometimes take it, but it's a lot of verbiage and it doesn't really move things forward. Most of the time, I opt for three. Since I'm aware that ANY time I talk, there's a chance I'm unclear, I can say it sincerely -- even if it goes against my gut. And my hope is that it communicates my awareness that I am fallible, that even if I didn't intend harm, and even if I don't see how I possibly could have caused any, I might well have done so anyway. The conversation has taken a bad turn, and for my part in that happening, I am truly sorry.
posted by grumblebee at 2:51 PM on July 15, 2009 [6 favorites]

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