Social Minefield: Learning To Say You're Sorry

Even the most socially skilled among us screw up from time to time. But apologizing can be a minefield of its own. Here's how to smooth ruffled feathers — and when to stand your ground.

A lot of us are familiar with crappy apologies — "I'm sorry you're mad," "I'm sorry you feel that way," etc. But apologizing in a way that actually makes the situation better can be really tough. You're often reeling from shame, panicking about having offended someone — and, deep down, beginning to make excuses for yourself. Nobody likes to be wrong, and the temptation to explain how it really wasn't your fault can be pretty strong. However, trying to excuse or explain away whatever you did can be the exact wrong approach. Here's what actually works:

Think about it.

I talked to Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, who says, "There's no way anyone's going to deliver an effective apology to someone else unless and until they themselves have had a sincere reckoning with the mistake, and that's tough because really often we're called upon to apologize at the same moment that we ourselves have realized the mistake." She has a good point — often we don't know we've screwed up until someone else points it out, and we end up dealing with our own feelings about the misstep and trying to apologize to another person at the same time. But if there's any way you can decouple those two things, it's a good idea to do so.

Storytime: the Jezebel staff gets a lot of criticism from around the Internet, and my initial reaction is often to get mad right back. I think it's a knee-jerk response from childhood: Hey! I didn't do it! I'm the good kid! It was my brother! Mom!!! But just like in childhood, this response isn't terribly helpful, and I've noticed that if I sit for a minute with an angry email or comment or response, I'll often discover that I have in fact missed an important aspect of an issue, or neglected to consider an alternate view. I don't issue a formal apology every time that happens (I'd probably spend my entire workday apologizing), but I do take it into account and try to do better in the future.

There's not always time for extended reflection when someone calls you out — but often, you can check yourself and avoid just spewing the first thing that comes to your mind. It sounds corny, but if you can take a second to think about what the other person's objection can teach you, you'll be more likely to respond in a way that makes things better, not worse. Also, I've found that when I do this I actually feel better, because the whole encounter becomes less about me being a horrible person and more about how I can improve.

Start with a simple, "I'm sorry."

Lauren Bloom, business ethics expert and author of The Art of the Apology, told me,

Saying anything other than "I'm sorry" or maybe "I apologize" is going to be less effective. We've already heard the "we regret any inconvenience" statements that we hear from companies. That's not an apology.

So don't fuck around with caveats and excuses and euphemisms. A sincere, unqualified "I'm sorry" is really rare — and surprisingly powerful. Two words. Easy.

Take responsibility.

Everyone I talked to stressed the importance of actually taking blame in an apology. In I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies, Nick Smith calls this the part of the apology wherein "the offender accepts causal moral responsibility and blame for the harm at issue. We can distinguish this from expressing sympathy for the injury or describing the injury as accidental or unintentional. " Bloom calls "taking responsibility for what you did wrong" the second step to any successful apology (after "I'm sorry"), and adds "that's why excuses are such a bad idea." And Schulz says an apology "has to be caveat-free. We all have this really strong impulse towards [...] the 'wrong but' — 'well I was wrong, but there was xyz mitigating factor,' or 'I wasn't that wrong,' or 'you were wrong too,' or 'I was wrong but it was someone else's fault.' That kind of externalizing of responsibility is really omnipresent."

Point is, it might seem like explaining all the extenuating circumstances to someone is going to make you look less bad — but often, it just makes you look worse. And you'd be surprised at how much of a relief it is to just accept blame for something. Until you do that, you're in the position of defending yourself to someone, which is incredibly stressful. But once you just take responsibility, the worst is over, and you can start making amends. Speaking of which ...

Make amends.

Sometimes a simple apology is all that's required, but often, you need to right the wrong. Says Bloom,

Do something to correct the mistake and if possible even make it better. [...] If you spilled a glass of red wine on your girlfriend's favorite blouse at lunch, pay to have it dry-cleaned. If you broke her favorite vase when you were over for dinner, replace it. I'm not a great believer in apology gifts — I think they can come across as bribes — but do something to make things better that's appropriate so the other person ends up in at least as good a position as they were in before you made the mistake.

You can't always completely fix your mistake — there are some things you can't take back after you've said them, for instance. And sometimes the only amends you can offer is a promise not to make the same mistake again — as Smith says, "the apologizer will reform and forbear from reoffending over her lifetime and will repeatedly demonstrate this commitment by resisting opportunities and temptations to reoffend." Of course, this only makes things better if you actually do resist those temptations — says Bloom, "How credible are we finding Kanye West these days? He's made so many apologies for shooting off his mouth [...] that I've now come to the conclusion that he thinks it's easier to say, 'I'm sorry' than to think about how his words will hurt people." Don't let this be you.

If you're not really sorry, you can fake it (kind of).

Even after you've taken time to think it over, sometimes you'll conclude that you really, really didn't do anything wrong. But what if you have to apologize anyway? Bloom offers a sample scenario:

You have said something that offended your spouse's mother. You couldn't personally care less whether you ever saw her again, but your spouse is caught in the middle and is now feeling deeply distressed. You may not be sincerely sorry that you told your mother-in-law off, but you may be sorry that you upset your spouse. And so you can be sincere in that and from that, say to your mother-in-law, "Look, I was wrong. I am sorry. I shouldn't have said to you what I did. It's caused a lot of pain in our family, you are my husband's or wife's mother, you've given me gift of a tremendous spouse, I'm deeply grateful for that, and I will try to curb my tongue hereafter." [...] You're apologizing because you sincerely want to smooth things over — that doesn't necessarily mean that you truly believe you did anything wrong.

Schulz also points out that "the feeling of being right [...] is a pretty lousy guide to whether or not you're actually right." And just because you feel right doesn't mean you can't acknowledge to someone that you might be wrong. She explains,

You can check in with yourself and with this abstract knowledge that we are oftentimes wrong and we don't always know it. [...] Our own mental version of the experience can be really, really different than someone else's version of it. And if you can stay in touch with that reality, there is a way to say, "Listen, I'm so sorry. I had a really different experience of this than you, and I'm still pretty unsure about whether things unfolded the way you're saying or the way I'm saying, but you could be right here, and if so, I'm terribly, terribly sorry." [...] That is actually something that other people are really willing to hear.

What Schulz and Bloom seem to agree on is that apologies need to come from sincerity, but they don't have to come from the feeling that You Have Sinned. An apology can simply be a desire to heal — or an expression that you know you, like everyone else, are fallible.

Sometimes, you shouldn't apologize.

This is a tough area, because as Schulz points out, you can never be totally sure you're in the right. But sometimes you can be pretty sure — and sometimes apologizing too much can be just as bad as not doing so enough. Women especially are often called upon to apologize for things that aren't actually bad — or aren't our fault — and the result can be a feeling that our needs or desires or our very beings are things we need to be ashamed of. First of all, you don't have to apologize for stating your opinion in a respectful way. It's become pretty common to start a sentence with "I'm sorry, but" or "I'm sorry if I'm stepping on anyone's toes here" — but as long as the pending statement isn't malicious, you have nothing to apologize for. And if it is, you probably shouldn't be saying it. Second, you don't need to apologize for taking up space. Maybe I'm the only one who says "sorry" when someone else steps on my foot, but it's a stupid habit and I'm trying to break it. It implies that I'm at fault just for having a physical body in the world, a notion I ordinarily try to work against.

Relatedly, a lot of people use "sorry" as a sort of all-purpose social lubricant, saying it in lots of situations where they don't really feel bad at all. This has become so common that it often goes unnoticed, but I think when you're about to say "I'm sorry," it's worth thinking about whether you really mean "Excuse me," or "Hi," or "You're in my seat," or "I'd like to return this," or any of the zillion other utterances that might be kind of uncomfortable but certainly aren't immoral. Moving through the world unapologetically can be a source of confidence — and if you save "sorry" for when you really mean it, it will have more value.

Being Wrong: Adventures In The Margin Of Error
The Art Of The Apology
I Was Wrong: The Meanings Of Apologies

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