The Thorny Question of Apology

When the fight breaks out on the playground, an adult intervenes. The children are dutifully pulled apart, a cursory trial may take place. The children are still angry, still inflamed, still convinced of the injustice of it all, when the adult concludes with this pronouncement: “Say you’re sorry.” This may be met with protest. “She started it!” or “But I didn’t mean to…” Nonetheless, “Sorry” it must be. So the child delivers the line grudgingly, looking at the ground, maybe dragging their toes in the dirt. “Soooory.” Just enough sing-song to register a protest, but close enough to satisfy the adult. Maybe a tiny malicious grin is shot over the shoulder, a reminder that the apology was coerced, and that retaliation is coming after school.

I’m sorry. It probably doesn’t mean what you think it means.

For a long time, I belonged to the group that thinks that a conditional apology doesn’t count. The most obvious example would be, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” but these also include, “I’m sorry if…” and “I’m sorry, but…” This is a recurring theme in the circles I frequent on the internet. “People need to learn to make a real apology. Just, I’m sorry. No caveats.”

Only it doesn’t seem to work that way. There’s so much going on in an apology, and there are so many ways for the interaction to go wrong, it just isn’t as simple as all that. Let’s go back to the example on the playground… there is a lesson going on here, but the experiences of the actors are all necessarily subjective. I *think* that we’re trying to teach about respect and acknowledgment of the other, but it seems to come out as a convenient social smoothing instead. It’s the same as obligated gratitude; it may reflect genuine connection, but is also likely to be purely ritualistic. “Oh, thanks for that ceramic Three Little Pigs montage. I know just where I’ll put it.”

Even as a purely ritual offering, an honest “I’m sorry” is an attempt to reconnect, to fix a broken interaction. Perhaps a foot has been stepped on, perhaps an appointment has been forgotten, and perhaps the apologizer genuinely feels at fault… but perhaps they don’t, and perhaps they aren’t. Maybe the offer means the same thing that it does when we say, “I’m sorry about your cat dying.” Maybe it is simply an expression of sadness that the other person is upset, without an accompanying offer to take responsibility for that. Maybe it means something else entirely. And maybe they are just saying it to smooth things over. Two little words, so very, very overloaded.

The problem, it seems to me, is that the person hearing “I’m sorry” often considers it an admission of fault or blame. Remember that example at the beginning? The passions are inflamed, everybody is still angry, the apology is given grudgingly, and everybody knows that it a ritual, not a genuine attempt at reconnection. The apology is meaningless, its acceptance is meaningless, and both parties come away with a distorted idea of what this action is all about. This is where we learned about apologies, so it is no wonder that we struggle so much with them.

Let’s flash forward to a very simple example between adults: The foot stepping incident. Let’s assume that it is completely accidental.

“Oh, I’m sorry!”

There are so many ways that this can go at this point, and I’m afraid that many people are profoundly ungracious at accepting the apology.

“I certainly hope so!”

“Well you should be!”

“Look out the next time!”

“I can’t believe you’re so clumsy!”

The simple placing of the foot is recast as a profound moral failing. For some reason it gets even worse when words are involved. “I can’t believe you wouldn’t have known that I would be upset by that!” Not only the words, but the motive behind them can be called into question. “You said that to hurt me!” (Could be true… I’m not saying that all apologies are heartfelt.)

This is no longer about social connection, it is ego butting up against ego, each insisting on the rightness of their side of the story. It quickly can become about control over the situation, and the right of the “wronged” party to get the apologizer not just to apologize, but to do so in a way that the recipient gets to cast the story in whatever light they choose. In fact, sometimes it sounds like the person wanting the apology wants the other person to actually feel a certain way, or it doesn’t count. (I may have been guilty of this last one in the past.)

In the face of all this complexity and potential for confusion, the person uttering the apology feels the need to explain exactly what they mean by it. Because the attempt at reconnection is so often rebuffed, because they are apologizing from a sense of obligation, or because they genuinely want to be heard… whatever the precise reason, they stammer out the (by now trite) “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way! That’s not what I meant at all.” Arguments generally ensue at this point. They do at my house, anyway.

Oh, the difficulties of being human and hanging out with other humans! Best to stick with cats, I start to think. They’re small and you can put them outdoors when they sit on your computer with muddy feet, apology or no.

This recurring argument is about so many things: boundaries, responsibility, emotions, trust, and agreements. Ego and control. Arguments that you had with somebody else 20 years ago. You know. The usual crap. So the next time that somebody offers you a conditional apology, and you find yourself getting angry, let me suggest that you look them in the eye. Take a breath. Consider reaching back across this thread of connection (however tenuous) to see whether there is more going on. They might mean more than you think they do, even if they don’t mean what you think they should.

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5 thoughts on “The Thorny Question of Apology

  1. Sometimes, we end up apologizing while we’re still freshly processing the news that what we did hurt the person we are apologizing to, so that we don’t even know how we are going to be sorry or how sorry we are going to be.

    Sorry sometimes just means “Look, I screwed up somehow, and I want you to know that I realize that, even if I’m not quite sure how what I did was wrong yet.”

    And then, once we figure it out a bit better, we’re hesitant/embarrassed to bring the subject up again. (And if we’re still wrong? Well, no one wants to go there.)

  2. So true. I’m guilty of this. Another thing is apologizing when we are uncertain about something. as in prefacing an idea we’re about to present with ” I’m sorry” or “I don’t know but”. I still struggle with this one.

    With me it’s a buffer. Like ” I know everyone is smarter than me so please excuse my stupid idea”. This really pisses me off but It’s something I’ve not yet been able to break myself of.

  3. I think genuine regret is such a powerful emotion, and that can be why kids struggle so much with it.
    They realize its immensity. If they really are sorry, it’s incredibly difficult to express. If they really aren’t sorry, it’s incredibly difficult to pretend to be. Eventually, after so much socialization,playground apologies can become the obligatory sing-song ‘saaahh-reee,’ and we (and they) stop thinking about why it was so hard to say. It’s hard to apologize, because if you really hurt someone, it hurts yourself, too, to admit it.

    But I think the worst part is the trivialization of regret that comes in the form of insidious politeness. Rejection letters are one such culprit. For example, ‘I regret to inform you that you were not selected for xxxxx.’ When I am so informed, sure I’m disappointed, but I’m also skeptical – is secretary to person X really feeling sorrow that I, a complete stranger, will not be partaking in the mundane water cooler conversations in their office? Is this enough of a niggling, agonizing regret that he/she needs to make a written record of the contrition?

    This post has made me think about how social niceties, while smoothing over some kind of surface, can eat away at possibilities for real communication and honesty. Ouch! You made me think – did you mean to do that?

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