Office apology: I shouldn't have said that out loud edition
October 1, 2018 1:21 AM   Subscribe

Whilst talking with some colleagues this morning I voiced my opinion of a co-worker. I was not very complimentary. Turns out that said co-worker was in the office at the time, and potentially in earshot. Should I apologise if this doesn't come up — I don't know for certain that they heard — or should I just shut the hell up and be ashamed in silence?

Said co-worker and I have never got on for a number of reasons, and I've called them out on their behaviour to their face, both in private and in a group setting. It's not news that I think this person can be a prick. However, I shouldn't have said it in the open office, and I'm angry and ashamed that I did.

If I knew for sure that they'd heard me, I would immediately apologise. That I don't know is what's stopping me — I don't want to cause hurt just for the sake of immediately apologising for it.

So, MeFites, how do I approach this?
posted by six sided sock to Human Relations (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
An apology is something that you do, not something that you say. If you sincerely regret something that you did & are prepared to stop doing it, then you should apologise in order to commit publicly to that change.

So, what would you be apologising for? For thinking that your co-worker is a prick, or for saying so to others?

If it's the first - you should apologise to your co-worker, whether or not they overheard you - but, only if you want to clear the slate, set aside whatever reasons you have for not getting on, & start afresh with them.

If it's the second - you should apologise if you want to stop gossiping in the office. But in this case, you should apologise to the people you were talking to, for being rude about your co-worker.

Possibly, you might want to make both apologies? Only if they're both sincere, though. A fake apology is such bullshit.
posted by rd45 at 1:49 AM on October 1, 2018 [17 favorites]

Honestly it seems to me that whether they heard it or not, an unsolicited apology is very likely to make things worse and not very likely at all to make things better.
posted by Segundus at 5:23 AM on October 1, 2018 [23 favorites]

Silent shame.

You wouldn’t be apologizing for what you said, you’d be apologizing for them having heard it, which isn’t the same and wouldn’t be helpful at all.
posted by mpbx at 6:23 AM on October 1, 2018 [12 favorites]

You could tell your coworker: "I know we don't always get along but I want to be part of an office where everyone is respected, and going forward I'm going to do my best to be that kind of colleague."

If they heard you, you've apologized for this morning. If they didn't, you've apologized for your general attitude. Of course, either way, it does mean changing your behavior going forward.
posted by bunderful at 7:29 AM on October 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

You could tell your coworker: "I know we don't always get along but I want to be part of an office where everyone is respected, and going forward I'm going to do my best to be that kind of colleague."

posted by bunderful

If some one I worked with and who had had disparaging words to me said this, I would immediately presume they were doing a mean-girls two sided sort of ploy, saying one thing to me and completely other things in private, and trying to set me up as the villain, since they could claim to have been trying to make peace and be reasonable.

If I had heard them earlier in the week saying something uncomplimentary about me, I would be even more sure that they were a nasty manipulator trying to play me for a sucker.

It's not entirely the message, it's largely the phrasing. If you do say something like this you may need to show an earnest - make a commitment to do something specific "I won't call you a prick, in public or in private anymore," and then get back to them on it later. "Have you noticed that i didn't call you a prick to your face for two weeks? I almost called you a prick when i was talking to Lydia in the break room on Wednesday, but I didn't do it then either. Has this made things any better for you?"

I strongly doubt that you can say anything to this person that will reduce the tension between you. Presented with the option I gave you, they would probably still despise you, in part because you would be seen as asking them to validate or reassure you.

I'd go with "I let my mouth run away with me and said some stupid stuff - I was upset about something else and it came out as crap about you and this job. I am sorry. That was stupid of me."

And then over the next three months and in future think of all the ways this person's prick like behaviour makes the job go smoothly and provides benefit to the team. Keep looking for value in them. Glad mouth them deliberately to your co-workers, repeatedly as often as you can. Glad mouth them about their prick tendencies and how that helps all of you. "Peter doesn't waste time in small talk - he's always very focused." "Peter lets you know what he thinks, immediately." "Peter is very frank - doesn't sugar coat anything." "Peter has strong boundaries. You always know where you are with Peter." etc.

The hard part would be doing this, and knowing that Peter still hates you, will still continue to hate you, and will still continue to work against you. But you do it anyway, because it's the mature way to be.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:33 AM on October 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

Another option is to go to your manager, explain what happened, express your remorse, and commit yourself to better behavior as one of your personal development objectives.

This has the added benefit of getting ahead of any discipline that might be coming your way. It may also increase your manager's trust that you are honest and proactive.
posted by argonauta at 8:54 AM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I guess if someone said something like my suggestion to me I'd take a "wait and see" attitude. The apology-words are important only to the degree that they set up your follow-through. If there's a solid change in behavior and I stop hearing trickle-down gossip and start seeing a change in behavior - in private and in public - great.

If not then yeah ... I'll retroactively assume it was some mean girl B.S.

Only try it if you are willing to tolerate some skepticism and stick with a commitment regardless of how they respond.

(I am - and am generally known as - earnest to a fault, so I tend to see the world through that lens. I could give that apology and expect to be taken seriously, because there's no way I could pull off that level of b.s. YMMV.)
posted by bunderful at 9:46 AM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Don't apologize unless you know they heard you, it just stirs up drama.

Do immediately stop shit-talking and shift your behaviour to civil, sincere, but unenthusiastic support (bc your enthusiasm isn't sincere so it will read as manipulative).

Sample phrases:

"I really appreciated having Drew's insights on this one, he added a lot of detail that was very valuable."

or, to the specific people you shit talked him to, a mild form of damage control would be a sincere compliment that briefly acknowledges the previous gossip:

"In the past I haven't always gotten along with Drew but I gotta say, he did an excellent job on X."
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:26 AM on October 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I came to echo what pseudomstrabismus said, if you apologize and they didn’t hear you, you will just be stirring things up unnecessarily.

Frankly, there are very few people who have not experienced some variation on this. In most office situations, especially those where the tension is open and visible to all parties, it’s better handled like the verbal equivalent of accidentally passing gas in public.

Just resolve to go forth and do better, young sock!
posted by rpfields at 12:29 PM on October 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Said co-worker and I have never got on for a number of reasons, and I've called them out on their behaviour to their face, both in private and in a group setting.

So there’s likely no harm to remedy with that coworker even if they did hear you. They’re a red herring here.

You screwed up. You did something both unprofessional and dumb — you bitched about someone in a space where they could possibly overhear you. I don’t blame you for feeling bad about it, but there will be no absolution from anyone but you.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:59 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure there's any point to apologizing. The coworker already knows you can't stand him. You're only sorry you might have gotten caught. Unless he calls you on it and you can confirm he heard it, stay quiet.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:29 PM on October 2, 2018

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