How do you apologize?
April 18, 2019 11:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious how people apologize, and I'm wondering, am I doing it wrong?

I'm a big fan of just straight out apologizing when I've done something wrong and resisting the urge to try to explain my reasoning. I feel like explaining why I did something, is really just shirking responsibility - whatever my reasoning was, it clearly was wrong, so who cares why I did it. So I apologize and then share the things that I am doing to ensure whatever it was doesn't happen again.

I find this though may be unsatisfying to people. Part of being mad at someone is having them apologize and give an excuse, and then either accepting or disputing that excuse.

So, two questions:
1.How do you apologize? Do you try to explain the reason you did what you did or do you just apologize, and say you won't do it again?
2. How do you like people to apologize to you? Do you want them to give you something meaty to explain their behavior or do you prefer someone to just say, "lord, I made a mistake, and I'm sorry. I won't do it again."
posted by Toddles to Human Relations (37 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I think all of this depends on context and the personalities of those involved BUT sometimes I have to teach my middle school students how to apologize effectively* and I tell them that their apologies should generally include

1) the words I’m sorry
2) ownership of actions- list specifically what they did wrong after the words I’m sorry (and without the words but or except).
3) empathy- it was wrong because it had X effect on others
4) the steps they are taking towards future better behavior/reassurance that it will not happen again (and why).

*For example- last week a class of mine unexpectedly went full Lord of The Flies when I had a sub for the day. They wrote apology letters to help right the community wrong when I got back and mostly they were along the lines of

Dear Ms. Ineffective Sub,

I am sorry that our class behaved so poorly last week. I apologize personally for hiding in the instrument closet, playing on the piano during the lockdown drill, and switching instruments with Jack. I should not have done those things because it was rude and disrespectful to you, and because it didn’t help me or anyone else around me learn. If I had been in your place I would have been angry and sad when you tried to teach us and we didn’t listen. If you ever come back to our school, I promise to focus on learning and doing my best, and will help remind others to do the same. Any guest to our room deserves a better welcome than we gave you last week.


Ridiculous 12 Year-Old

Basic, but effective. The important thing to me is owning your actions and not making excuses, and that’s what I teach my students...but it’s pretty personal and there’s no perfect solution that heals all wounds.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:24 AM on April 19, 2019 [91 favorites]

I think there is a difference between explaining your reasoning and making excuses. The first might sound like 'I did this because of a, b and c, but now I see that that made no sense because (reasoning), so that was wrong and I regret making that mistake' and the second goes more like 'I'm sorry I did this but I did it because of a, b and c'. It all depends on whether you take responsibility. If you do that, then an explanation can work and I personally like understanding why something happened.

So I tend to add some explanation to my apologies, but I know people might see them as excuses, and because of that I do my best to make perfectly clear that I do not think that the responsibility lies anywhere else but with me.
I also try not to make the explanation the biggest / most important part of the apology. The most important part is that I take responsibility for what went wrong, and express that I understand why it's a problem and should be avoided in the future.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:35 AM on April 19, 2019 [6 favorites]

The creator of the 5 love languages also came up with 5 apology languages, which has been less popular and successful as a framework but might give you a starting point to think about.

They are:

expressing regret.
accepting responsibility.
making restitution.
genuinely repenting.
requesting forgiveness.

Like the 5 love languages, I am dubious this works as a comprehensive list, but it certainly provides an interesting starting point to the conversation. Taking the free online (not great quality) test made it really obvious to me that people talking about bad they feel about hurting me makes me super annoyed, at least.
posted by Cozybee at 1:43 AM on April 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

The preceding suggestions are gold. I would add this: don't over apologize; it just opens up the wound and starts to make it about the offender. For something big, an immediate, sincere apology can be followed by a note. For everything else, get it right the first time face to face then drop it.
posted by Elsie at 2:15 AM on April 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

I give my reasons if otherwise the person might assume that my motivations were hurtful or upsetting. For example, if you were to be distracted during a date, you might let them know that you had something serious happen at work, because otherwise they might (incorrectly) think that you were uninterested in them.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 3:24 AM on April 19, 2019 [21 favorites]

Because I'm recuperating from hip replacement surgery, I am forced to spend all of my time watching "Real Housewives of New York," which everyone knows is Andy Cohen's Master Class in How Not to Apologize. Let me explain.

Dorinda's apologies fall into the "Drink was involved but that doesn't mean I have a drinking problem ANDHOWDAREYOUSUGGESTTHATIDO," camp. The other housewives get upset because they think alcohol is a truth serum and Slurring Intoxicated Dorinda speaks her truth only when drunk. Dorinda says this is not the case, and apologizes for things like calling Sonja a whore because she was tired and upset and hungry and had 2 glasses of wine (sure, Dorinda), but that doesn't mean she has alcohol issues.

Sonja's apologies are firmly in the camp of, "Everyone was talking about that guy Countess LuAnn brought back the room in Turks and Caicos; I'm just the one who mentioned it in front of the Page Six reporter. Sorry that it ruined your life."

Carole will apologize only if she's wrong, which she never is, and she has the texts to prove it. If you show her your texts, she says she can't deal with your micromanagement and to stop nitpicking.

But of course, the absolute Queen of Terrible Apologies is Ramona. Ramona is a shit-stirrer who says terrible things about the other housewives. At yet another brunch, Ramona was slamming Bethenny to Countess LuAnn and mentioned rumors of Bethenny's soft core porn, to which Bethenny has said, "I am literally sitting across the table and can hear you." Ramona stared blankly in return and said, "I'm sorry you're upset but someone needs to be concerned about your daughter."

This master class in How to be a Garbage Person has taught me that apologies:

1. Need to be sincere
2. Never include the words but or except
3. Need to refer to a thing that a person did once. Maybe twice. If this person (I'm looking at YOU, Ramona) does the same thing over and over and keeps apologizing for it, then they're not sorry.
4. Never include the actions of the other person to whom you're apologizing, i.e. "If you hadn't bought tequila for the house-warming, I wouldn't have gotten blackout drunk and tried to sex up your son."
5. "I'm sorry that I did that thing and I was wrong and it won't happen again" is all that matters. Anything else is a RHONY apology, and nobody wants to be like them.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:26 AM on April 19, 2019 [67 favorites]

I think there is a thin line between context and excuses. Context is fine. Context is brief and framed in a way that shows you know it’s not an excuse. “I’m sorry I forgot to call the electrician. I’ve been ridiculously busy during business hours this week, but I could have called them while eating lunch, and should have written a note in an obvious place to remind me because I could have found 5 minutes somewhere.” (Actual thing I apologized for this week! And then made it better by actually doing the thing.)

Less cool would have been “Ugh, I’m sorry, but [insert 30 minutes of work minutiae]” No reflection, making the apology a reason to get work sympathy instead of extending empathy yourself.
posted by tchemgrrl at 3:47 AM on April 19, 2019 [12 favorites]

I think it really depends on the person and the situation. If, for example, you failed to show up to meet a good friend for dinner and then don't explain, that doesn't give them the information they need - because the point is not to prove that you are appropriately sorry and understand how to apologize well, it's to help fill in the gaps in the knowledge they have. Whether you were in the ER, or you forgot, or you changed your mind and went to the movies instead, it makes sense to explain as part of the apology. Because if a friend just doesn't show up for you and won't tell you why, you start to question whether they're still a friend.

If you aren't sure whether an explanation is needed, you could offer to explain as part of the apology. "I'm really sorry I broke your guitar and I will pay to have it fixed. If it's important to you to know how it happened, I can explain, but it's up to you."
posted by bunderful at 5:09 AM on April 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think what a lot of people want to hear is some variation of "Our relationship is important to me." For me it sometimes helps to hear that there's a reason for whatever happened and whether it is one time or ongoing. Because another thing I like to hear is "I consider your time to have value and I will try not to waste it needlessly." I think excuses can be helpful with all of that and the reason they get a bad rap is that they can be empty or insincere or try to shift the blame to the other person.
posted by BibiRose at 5:12 AM on April 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

'1) Be careful with the word 'but'

'But' negates or cancels everything that came before it, causing listeners to focus on and hear only what comes (immediately) after.

Wherever you would say 'but' say 'and' instead. And connects before and after to the same degree that 'but' disconnects them

2) When apologizing, be at or below the listener's eye level

One ironclad rule of doctor-patient communication in emergency departments (I'm an ER doc) is that when delivering bad news or trying to communicate sympathy and sincerity to a patient or patient's family, a physician should never talk down (literally) to them

Think of the difference between a therapist and a cop, and how each uses physical positioning to prime a situation. Cops use height differences to communicate power differences; it's one reason they instruct drivers to stay seated in their cars before sidling up to write a ticket or question them.

A therapist generally sits at a patient's eye level

3) Before apologizing, remove any physical barriers between you and the listener.

Again, think of a therapist. He or she never sits behind a desk during a session for a reason

Admittedly, you're asking about apologizing, not breaking bad news or being a therapist. But in all cases, communicating sincerity is key to communicating effectively, so word choice and physical positioning/setting are relevant, IMHO.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 5:13 AM on April 19, 2019 [10 favorites]

Not knowing your specific circumstances, this is general advice: Your final words should be "Will you forgive me?" and, if your action or words caused harm to the other person, "What can I do to make things right?" An apology is not primarily for assuaging our own guilt, but to do what we can to repair damage we caused to the other person and our relationship to them.
posted by davcoo at 6:03 AM on April 19, 2019

Relevant: How to Apologize
posted by falsedmitri at 6:34 AM on April 19, 2019

For me, personally, an apology is ideally a way for the person apologizing to claim some ownership in what happened. That's why "I'm sorry but...." doesn't come across right, that "but" usually precedes a whole speech about "Why This Actually Wasn't My Fault". That's why it usually feels like lip service - they're treating the "sorry" part of their apology as if it were some kind of a magic word that's supposed to make you forgive them automatically.

And if you're the person that was wronged, that's not what you want. If you were the person who was wronged, you want the person who wronged you - even if it was accidental - to realize that "oh, shit, I did something that negatively affected you." You want to know that they have had the self-awareness necessary for them to realize "I had a pattern of behavior that negatively affected others and perhaps I should do something to fix that if I haven't already started."

Displaying that kind of self-awareness doesn't always need a lengthy explanation, either. If you're kind of distracted and accidentally kick someone in the knee, you don't need to give them the whole rundown of "the reason I was so distracted was because of this hard thing I'm working on" or whatever, all you need is "oh gosh, sorry I wasn't paying attention and kicked you" or something.

I have to disagree, however, with Davcoo's suggestion to ask "will you forgive me?" at the end. Forgiveness is a really personal thing, and I feel like that would put people on the spot; if it's a minor thing you did it feels super-dramatic, and if it's a major thing, it's asking a lot of the person. And - there's a huge gray area in between where you may think something is minor but they think it's major.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:45 AM on April 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

For the reason EmpressCallipygos stated above, "I hope you will forgive me" is far, far better than "Will you forgive me?"
posted by Dolley at 6:56 AM on April 19, 2019 [9 favorites]

Explaining why you did something can take additional time and attention, which is essentially asking more from the wronged person, but it can also help them understand you and your behavior better, which can help them:

a) see you as not totally unpredictable, so they will understand that you won't wrong them entirely without provocation in the future, especially with the "how I will do better in future" part of the apology, and

b) know that you do value them to the extent that it took X circumstances to be in place before you hurt them, and

c) you do at least recognize the chain of events enough that you should be able to address them in the future.

I'm not saying you should always spend five minutes of your wronged party's time explaining stuff, but that letting them know you better in this way could help them see beyond "this person randomly ignores my needs".
posted by amtho at 7:15 AM on April 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think "will you forgive me" is a really presumptuous thing to say when you're apologizing. That is the wrong time to be making demands.

I had a family member who used to do this and it was the most passive-aggressive thing in the world. She'd do some awful thing and then come to me crying, so not only had I absorbed the original hit, but then I'd be the bad guy if I didn't immediately tell her it was ok. [NB - this was not a child. Children get a pass.]

Say your piece and leave the forgiveness timeline up to them.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:25 AM on April 19, 2019 [9 favorites]

John Scalzi has a widely linked piece on the what, when, and how of apologies that I think resonates pretty well.
posted by uberchet at 8:02 AM on April 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

in a rush so apologies (lol) if this is already mentioned in the comments. but my strong two cents as both giver and receiver of apologies is not actually providing a reason or excuse by itself. it's providing clear concise info about what you will do differently next time so that it won't happen again. this may merit explaining the reason, or it may not. but this to me is the only thing that really makes an apology more than just empty words.
posted by seemoorglass at 8:06 AM on April 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Really good suggestions here, and from what you wrote it seems that you are already on a good track.

Keep in mind that there is a contingent of people who were not raised with healthy practices around apologies; they were taught that an apology must include groveling, and begging for forgiveness, and that the person apologising much be subjected to shame for their mistake, and finally that they do not deserve to be forgiven afterall.

As long as you are genuine and sincere, I don't think you need to accept responsibility for another person's unhealthy attitude in the exchange. No, not even if they are close to you, or a person that you want to maintain a relationship with. You get to have boundaries too, even when you fuck up.
posted by vignettist at 8:09 AM on April 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

cozybee, upthread:
expressing regret.
accepting responsibility.
making restitution.
genuinely repenting.
requesting forgiveness.
Making restitution is not always possible but when it is, I believe it's important to try. And I agree with those who would leave out mentioning forgiveness in the apology.
posted by kingless at 8:16 AM on April 19, 2019

Interestingly enough, there's a scene from the show Taxi that may illustrate apologies pretty well.

The episode is about how Elaine has discovered that there's a hole in the wall between the womens' and mens' restroom at their garage, and that their boss Louie has been using it to spy on women as they get changed. She and the other women in the garage file a complaint, and ultimately Louie gets fired. He desperately goes to Elaine to beg for his job back, and Elaine makes him a deal - she will withdraw her complaint if he makes a sincere apology.

The scene goes through a couple of Louie's different attempts at an apology - including one where he finally seems to get why what he did was wrong. And it may be an interesting thing to watch - because Louie's first few attempts you can tell that he's saying sorry but he isn't really getting it that he did something wrong. He's going through the motions because society expects it of him, and that's it. But just before the final apology he thinks up a personal story that helps him realize just how he made Elaine feel, and realizes that "oh, now I get why this was bad". And that's the apology where he seems to mean it. (Becuase this is a sitcom, it does end with one last moment of him being a naughty scamp, but that's a sitcom for you.)

This scene was something I saw when I was about eleven, and even there it was clear enough for me to get the difference between Louie's first apologies and the final one. It may be an interesting thing to watch and compare the apologies Louie makes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:17 AM on April 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

The apology we use in our family is:
I'm sorry that I ______________________.
It was wrong because __________________.
What can I do to make it right?
posted by medusa at 8:29 AM on April 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

it's a case by case judgment call each and every time. explanations are useful when without them you don't know what the other person is apologizing for or why. if it's a big thing and not an obvious accident, yeah, sketch an explanation. if someone said they were sorry for something big and just left it at that, I'd say: If you're SORRY then what the fuck did you DO it for?

so like

I'm so sorry I didn't meet you when I said I would, I overslept and then I couldn't find my phone for ages, so I couldn't call until now.

I'm sorry I didn't meet you when I said I would, I was still angry about our fight and I wanted to make you worry and wonder if I was dead.

I'm sorry I didn't meet you when I said I would, I didn't really want to go out today and I was hoping you'd call it off so I wouldn't have to, and then I was going to pretend I forgot about it, but I can see you wouldn't believe that.

or: I'm sorry I hit you, I didn't see you there! are you ok? vs. I'm sorry I hit you, I got mad and when I get mad I do that.

etc. etc. it makes a huge difference.

but I can't imagine sitting still for an "it was wrong because" oral presentation, or what would impel someone to deliver one. that sounds cruel or obtuse or both.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:03 AM on April 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

We follow a guideline in our household about making apologies.

1. Saying I'm sorry. (just those words, end sentence. Like others have covered, anything after that, such as "but" takes away from it.

2. It was wrong, and I realize you were hurt. (this shows remorse by recognize damages were done, it takes ownership of actions and consequences).

3. Starting now, I'll make (whatever changes in my attitude or behavior).

we also talk about real remorse, vs. imitation remorse. Imitation remorse and fake apologies is all about looking better, and image management. it shifts blames, and gets angry if the other party doesn't get over it if we "apologize". Real remorse makes amends, realizes forgiveness is earned, and doesn't have to be given, is respectful of boundaries, and makes us realizes we have to learn and improve from our actions.
posted by alathia at 9:39 AM on April 19, 2019

I know this is the third comment I'm making in here; apologies, I just keep thinking further.

I was raised Catholic, and we know a thing or two about apologies. :-) In fact, apologizing to God for one's sins is a major thing, to the point that there's a sacrament about it. It's an aspect of Catholicism that some non-Catholics give the side-eye to - the idea that you could be a total shitbag and then go to church and say "sorry" to God and you're back in God's good book again, and theoretically free to go out and be a shitbag again only to go get the slate wiped clean again a couple months later, only to go be a shitbag again, lather, rinse, repeat.

But that's actually leaving out a major element of what that sacrament requires. The idea is that not only do you have to apologize, but that you genuinely have to commit to not doing the same bad stuff again. In fact, technically the priest isn't supposed to absolve you if he suspects you're just gonna go out and be a shitbag again, because you're not making a sincere apology and confession if that's the case, you're just trying to play a "get out of jail free" card.

That bit about "you have to be sincere about not doing it again" is an element of Confession that gets overlooked a lot - and I think that's because that calls for some ownership of what you did wrong. That's the part of an apology that God - and people - want to hear, not just the saying "sorry" part.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:58 AM on April 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Explanations of how it happened can help the apology go down better as long as they don't stray into being excuses. Motivations do matter.

For example, unbeknownst to me, my husband moved the keybox from its designated spot to another location that was hard to find. I could not foresee that when we went out of town, the petsitter would come to our house before it was light out and have an extra hard time finding it and we would not be awake when it happened because we got in late and it was only 3 a.m. where we were. When I woke up to 5 texts and two missed calls, I apologized profusely and explained what happened (so she would know I did not do it on purpose and was not ignoring her) and promised that we would put the key back where it usually was as soon as we got back. Had I just said I was sorry without explanation, especially over text, I'm not sure the apology would have seemed as sincere or complete.
posted by *s at 10:07 AM on April 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

or I guess another way to say it is you can either refine the formula until you turn yourself into something as much like a human scantron sheet with all the right ovals filled in as possible, or you can say what you mean and what you think, running the risk that your true meaning will not perfectly please.

the point of an apology is to communicate to someone that you're sorry for something. it is not to pull off a 10/10 performance ritual and avoid breaking the salt circle so as not to let the demons in. it is just working out what you mean, and then saying it. and an overly stylized apology loses the appearance of sincerity very quickly.

being angry about apology style serves as a weird substitute for being angry about the offense, a lot of the time. and I call it weird because there's no need for a substitute, you're not obligated to stop being angry just because an apology was issued to you in the correct five-paragraph-essay/three-volume-novel format, with the wicked taboo words "but" and "if" redacted, and all that. you don't have to find fault with the apology to justify your emotions; if somebody does something bad enough, you can say Fuck your apology, no matter how good it is.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:20 AM on April 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think it's going to be different each time. Really depends on whether the wronged person wants an explanation, wants to talk it through or not, how big of wrong it was, what your relationship is. You can always give them the option (something like "I won't go into the whys unless you'd like me to.")

Your no-excuses method seems appropriate in most cases but I could also imagine some situations where it could have the appearance that you're letting yourself off the hook before they're ready.
posted by kapers at 10:59 AM on April 19, 2019

I think there are definitely times where it is worth providing some background explanation. To me, this is especially true when there is a more interpersonal focus to the apology.

For example, let's say I was being short or dismissive with a friend but it had nothing to do with them. I was actually preoccupied/pissed off about something work related. I might say, "I'm really sorry for being short with you. I'm stressed out about something work-related. It has nothing to do with you, and I shouldn't have taken it out on you."
posted by litera scripta manet at 11:43 AM on April 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, I just want to nth that I would not include any asking for forgiveness or can you forgive me in an apology. Even the more neutral "I hope you can forgive me" is better left unsaid, I think. An apology should not be a demand.

And if you are providing an explanation, or even if you're not, it's important not to go overboard on the self flagellation. It's one thing to admit you screwed up and to apologize, but you don't want to turn the focus to how you're the most awful person in the world, etc, etc. That just puts the burden back on the person you're apologizing to.
posted by litera scripta manet at 11:48 AM on April 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

A former partner of mine had a hard time apologizing without making excuses or casting blame: "I'm sorry for my behavior. I had legitimate frustrations because you did x, y, and z, but I'm sorry."

It wouldn't have taken much for it to be a better apology: "I'm sorry for my behavior. I was frustrated and not in full control of my emotions, and I overreacted. I should have paused rather than doing z."
posted by bluedaisy at 4:18 PM on April 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

In addition to “sorry but,” avoid “sorry if,” as in:

I’m sorry if I upset you
I’m sorry if you were offended
I’m sorry if I came off like a jerk
I’m sorry if I hurt you

“Sorry-if,” seldom accompanied by eye contact, tends to abdicate responsibility, or to put it on the other person. The subtext is,

You overreacted
You took offense for no reason
How can I be expected to consider others?
You are unreasonably sensitive

posted by armeowda at 4:44 PM on April 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

whatever my reasoning was, it clearly was wrong, so who cares why I did it.

So I know a guy who does that, and far from make people feel like he gets it, it makes people feel like he DOESN'T get it. He does this thing where he falls on the sword while simultaneously making it seem like he's graciously accepting someone else's blame. Like, X happened, I'm responsible for making sure X doesn't happen, ergo I accept all the blame for that. I'm sorry.

But he apologizes way too fast and easily. I guess that might not make any sense, but if someone indicates that he might have done something wrong, he immediately apologizes. It's like he's decided that whether he's right or wrong, it doesn't matter, just apologize and the other person will be happy, problem solved. It's reflexive, and doesn't give the apologee any sense that it won't happen again or that he even understands what the issue is. It's like teaching your dog to apologize on command.

So I do tend to give some indication of how I came to do the thing that requires an apology, if only to reassure them that it wasn't malicious. I either didn't foresee the negative thing to them (and should have, or at least now I know) or didn't think through what I was doing, or didn't have the guts to do what I knew was the right thing, as the case may be. Sometimes I DID foresee the problem and I still think I made the right choice, but instead of "I'm sorry BUT..." it's "I'm sorry I didn't talk this over with you ahead of time and find a way to make it affect you less". Even if I think I was justified, there's usually a way I could have done the whole thing better, and I can apologize for that without a BUT. Even beforehand, I can be sorry I'm not smart enough to think up a way for everyone to be happy and ask for suggestions to make it lower-impact.

(This one is timely, because I have to force someone to go on a 2-month job across the country nobody wants to do. Which sucks, everyone's got family, plans, etc. No matter who I decide on, they're going to be unhappy, and I'm genuinely sorry for that. BUT, someone's got to; it's part of the job description.)
posted by ctmf at 6:48 PM on April 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

1. I will almost always include an explanation in my apology unless the reason for the error is personal or confidential, or when there's no explanation I can give that will help the other person feel better or repair the relationship.

2. I usually want explanations from people who apologize to me. Often understanding why they did the thing that they did is more important to me than the actual apology. The explanation can help me understand what happened, get an idea of whether it's a one-off or a pattern, and help me decide what the incident means to the relationship, to alleviate my worry (because situations that demand apology can also be situations that make you concerned).
posted by bunderful at 7:14 AM on April 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I was going to TRY to stay out of this thread, but... *sigh*

whatever my reasoning was, it clearly was wrong, so who cares why I did it.

I agree with this, but I think it's a depends on situation. Sometimes at least a bare minimum explanation of why you oopsed is a legit thing to do. Trying to excuse yourself to get off the hook, on the other hand, is not what people want to hear.

So I know a guy who does that, and far from make people feel like he gets it, it makes people feel like he DOESN'T get it. He does this thing where he falls on the sword while simultaneously making it seem like he's graciously accepting someone else's blame. Like, X happened, I'm responsible for making sure X doesn't happen, ergo I accept all the blame for that. I'm sorry.
But he apologizes way too fast and easily. I guess that might not make any sense, but if someone indicates that he might have done something wrong, he immediately apologizes. It's like he's decided that whether he's right or wrong, it doesn't matter, just apologize and the other person will be happy, problem solved. It's reflexive, and doesn't give the apologee any sense that it won't happen again or that he even understands what the issue is. It's like teaching your dog to apologize on command.

I do do this at work. Probably not in the same way as in the rest of my life, though. Work apologies to one-off clients can be quite a different thing than say, wronging your best friend when you were an asshole. Also, I can't promise that "it will never happen again and here is how I will make sure that doesn't happen."

For example, most of my work apologies are because I mailed someone something and they did not receive it. Most of the time this is categorically beyond my control. International mail doesn't work, people put down wrong addresses or typo'd or left off their apartment number, people did NOT specify that they wanted it delivered here instead of to the address they wrote down, they did not specify they wanted 20 copies, etc. Or alternately, I or someone else typo'd. And even if you did everything right, sometimes you still won't get your mail and I don't know why.

I definitely can't promise this won't happen again. I can't explain why that was your correct address and it never arrived and/or the post office refused to deliver it there. Unless I typo'd, I can't explain why you didn't get it, all I can say is that I mailed it out 2 months ago and I tried. What it boils down to is, it's my responsibility and/or fault (whether or not it's my actual fault, it's my job so it kind of is my fault no matter what), so I feel obligated to apologize for it. Doesn't matter on explanation or fault, I was wrong because you didn't receive it and/or aren't happy with me. Being wrong/"the customer is always right" is a requirement of the service industry.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:15 AM on April 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

(There are tiny apologies for, e.g., being 5-10 minutes late to a dinner appointment -- I'm not talking about those here. I'm talking about apologies for "I completely dropped the ball" or "I really hurt you" mistakes. Also, things can vary a lot in text versus voice, synchronous versus asynchronous communication, etc.)

Some people I know (or have known) seem to believe that the formula for the apology should be "I made x mistake and I am sorry and here's what I am doing to fix it" but they don't want to hear anything about the mistake-maker's feelings beyond something terse like "I'm sorry" or "I regret that." I gather that they think that such explicit expression of guilt or remorse within an apology is unnecessary at best and manipulative at worst. And I'm reasonably certain that they think "Will you forgive me?" is over the line and "I hope you will forgive me" is barely better.

I think that sort of prohibition on feelings in apologies is pretty off-putting. If someone is apologizing to me, but I do not sense the emotion of remorse, then I feel like they're not treating me like a person; I feel bad when I have hurt a person, and so I want confirmation that the other person feels bad. Sometimes I care more about that than I do about "and I have done [thing] to make sure it won't happen again" -- hell, once I know that they care and feel bad, maybe I can help my friend or colleague figure out how to make it not happen again! And maybe I want to, and will like doing it, and it'll be a way for us to help each other! And I have rarely heard anyone explicitly ask request my forgiveness, but most of the time I'm strong enough (internally and in the relationship with the other person) that I believe I'd like hearing "Will you forgive me?" or "I hope you will forgive me," and would genuinely consider the question and potentially say "No" or "Not yet". (Of course my perceptions and reactions in all this depend on context, on the general personality and emotional expressiveness and willingness to be vulnerable of the person I'm talking with, on whether I'm an I-will-never-meet-this-person-again contractual counterparty/customer/something or a friend/family member/colleague/neighbor/someone, whether I already like or trust the other person, etc.)

In synchronous communication with someone who trusts you, it's potentially possible to say something like "I'm sorry for [x]. Can I talk with you about why it happened or would that make it worse? ... I'm doing some stuff to cut down on the chances it'll happen again; may I tell you?" (And some people will welcome that choice, and some people will feel that's Such An Imposition!!)

You might also like to skim SorryWatch which highlights and discusses good and bad apologies.
posted by brainwane at 5:47 AM on April 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Piggy-backing on brainwave, a lot the stuff I've needed to apologize for has been stuff I could not promise to do again and could not explain even if I wanted to (I could theorize, but that's not the same thing). For example, I struggle with punctuality because I have ADD and without specific techniques will lose track of time. Now I know there are strategies and meds for me, but for years I thought I was just a horribly inadequate person who could not manage the most basic elements of adulting. It is very hard to apologize effectively for something that you are ashamed of, do not understand and do not know how to fix.

That was a long way of underlining that every apology is different because every offense is different - the people, the context, the relationship, the event meriting apology. Life is messy, there's no single formula.
posted by bunderful at 7:30 AM on April 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

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