On Apologies

I want to talk about apologies. And yes, there are a few actual recent events that have prompted these thoughts, but the thoughts are not directed at anyone in particular, or meant to be direct commentary on those situations.

So, let’s say a person does a thing or things, we’ll call them Person A, and Person B is hurt or offended by it. Or frightened, or upset, right?

And let’s say B calls A on their behavior, whatever it was that hurt, offended, frightened, or upset B.

We all know at this point (or we should) that the first thing A should do is apologize. A real apology, not a Sorry-If-You-Were-Offended-Why-You-So-Oversensitive Notpology, but a real one. “I’m sorry I hurt you. I will try to do better.”

Now, it’s true sometimes B doesn’t even want to hear that apology. They’re that upset. And sometimes, Person B will hear the apology but still be hurt and angry and want nothing further to do with Person A.

Every now and then, when this happens, Person A will react…unproductively. They will insist that it’s super important for them to make an apology! That’s all they want! Of course Person B said “don’t talk to me any more, ever again” but this is an apology!

Or Person B will hear the apology and then respond with some version of “Nice story, bro. We’re still done.”

And Person A–or possibly their friends, or onlookers who have not been party to the less public aspects of the situation–will cry indignantly “But Person A apologized! What more do you want?”

So, these reactions are coming from a set of assumptions that I think folks would do well to ponder. Here’s the question: Who is the apology for? Why does one apologize? Now, you probably instantly replied that the apology was for the person who was wronged, but why is it so often the case that when someone doesn’t react to an apology with public forgiveness, people ask that question, “What more do you want?” as though the automatic, proper response to an apology is to pretend the thing being apologized for never happened? That expectation, that having received an apology Person B is obliged to accept it and forgive Person A, that tells you right there that the apology was actually made for the benefit of Person A all along.

This assumption is more blatant in some cases than in others. The scale goes from a good apology and then a “wait why didn’t you hit the reset button on our relationship” reaction, to a long abject apology that’s still somehow all about the offender and how bad they feel and how they want you to take some action to help them keep from offending again so they can stop feeling horrible and you can hit that reset button, to the person who you’ve asked to please stay the fuck away from you but they keep getting up in your face because I NEED TO APOLOGIZE IT’S JUST AN APOLOGY WHAT KIND OF BITCH ARE YOU IF YOU WON’T EVEN HEAR MY APOLOGY LOOK HOW MEAN SHE’S BEING COMPLAINING ABOUT HOW I JUST WANT TO APOLOGIZE.

I think a lot of folks have this basic assumption about how apologies work and what they’re for–that having apologized, they’re due forgiveness, and the person they’ve apologized to should now stop being angry. Perfectly decent folks, who mean well. Onlookers who don’t recognize that the long apology email that is somehow all about how the offender is hurt by the situation is straight out of a habitual emotional abuser’s playbook and only see how abject it seems. Perfectly decent people, who may not even realize they have this assumption (so many of our assumptions are invisible to us, and yes, contradict the things we say and think we believe).

So I want to say this straight out–the apology is not for the apologizer. The person offended against has no obligation whatever to accept any apology at all, or to forgive, or to stop being hurt or angry, or to pretend they’re not hurt or angry any more. I mean, if they want to, if they can, if they think it’s proper, sure. But the apology is for the person who was offended, and they have no obligation to respond in any particular way. Or respond at all, frankly.

Of course, some folks aren’t well meaning. Some folks use the assumption about apologies to malicious advantage. Make your apology sufficiently abject and manipulative, and suddenly your victim is the bad guy here for being so unrelentingly mean and refusing to be understanding of your ordinary human frailties, your oh-so-kind-hearted inner soul. Most of these I’ve had personal experience with are expert in turning out an apology that makes the victim into the real offender, thereby eliciting reassurance from the person they’ve hurt, and making them feel guilty for attempting to refuse to be victimized again. (It’s not my fault I’ve had traumas that make me prone to thoughtlessly offend! I can’t help it! Do you want to be just like those people who made me into this pitiful creature who can’t help but offend you? What sort of terrible person are you, to speak up and hurt me this way? Really when you look at it, I’m the victim here!) It’s not always that blatant, but I’m going to tell you right now, folks, when you get the sort of apology that makes you feel bad for being hurt or upset, or that’s mostly about them and their feelings, you want to run from that apologizer as fast as you can. That’s a red flag.

So, but the well meaning offender does really want to do better going forward, and they’ve apologized, but lots of folks are still critical. What to do?

Well, do better going forward, for one. And no, that still won’t guarantee that everyone stops with the side-eye when your name comes up, or whatever. That’s the breaks. You’ve still got to do better going forward because it’s the right thing to do, because you really do regret the offense and don’t want to repeat it.

This isn’t always easy. It might mean stepping voluntarily out of situations in which you know you’ll be prone to offend. Say, places or positions where you’re going to run into a person who wants no further contact with you. Or positions of authority–official or otherwise–over people who you’ve had a habit of treating badly. And every day, trying to do better. All the time. You won’t get public rewards for it, and some people will never take you off their list of bad actors, but that’s not the point, is it? The apology wasn’t for rehabilitating your reputation or making you feel better about having treated someone badly. It was only the first step in your effort to be better to the people around you.

The apology isn’t for the apologizer, and it’s not going to magically wipe away your offense or repair your reputation. It’s only the simplest, most basic beginning. One you’ll need to make good on with your actions in the future.

6 thoughts on “On Apologies

  1. Someone who has been through this says:

    Word. So much word.

  2. Mishell says:

    I have been on both sides of this–been the bad self-serving apologizer and the terribad heartless person who isn’t moved by an apology–and I can only say that this is spot on, 100%.

    Biggest turning point of my life was when someone did not accept my apology and I just had to… carry on living my life. I spent a year not repeating the (minor, in this case) bad behavior and eventually that person got over it and we became friends again. This doesn’t always happen, but that wasn’t even the primary benefit. Forcing myself to wait it out, to just *keep being good* even though I wasn’t Getting Anything Out Of It, taught me what an apology really means, and taught me not to make them for any other reason than to indicate that I was about to make a Herculean effort not to screw up again.

    Having to actually change, even though there was no sign that I was going to hit that friendship-reset button, showed me why no one bought my apologies prior to that. Because I had never before been willing to make that effort for its own sake–only to try and get off the hook for what I’d done–and that unwillingness bled through in every word I said.

  3. J
    Joe S. Walker says:

    Heard of Peter David? Last week he made four public apologies, each more grovelling than the last, to an “injured party” who was quite plainly aiming to screw as much capital out of the situation as they could.

    1. Ann says:

      So, here’s the problem right here–the “groveling” apology is frequently a tool used by those who don’t really mean their apologies, but are attempting to hold onto whatever social capital they currently have at risk.

      And notice I do not say “apologize until someone stops criticizing you.” Critics gonna criticize. If you feel an apology is warranted, make that apology and then let that cookie crumble. Continuing to apologize is doing exactly what I don’t advise here–assuming that the purpose of the apology is to get you something back, get you forgiveness, get you restored approval.

      So, your example, even assuming I accept your framing of the incident in question, doesn’t actually contradict me.

  4. Subrata Sircar says:

    I was just re-reading John Scalzi’s thoughts on this:


    which makes some of the same points.

    Personally, I apologize when one of two things is true:
    a. I believe I have done something wrong
    b. I realize I have offended someone

    The hard ones fall into b) but not a), because that’s when I have to parse the “I don’t think I did anything wrong, but they think I did” question.

    The core of an apology is sincerity (you should actually be sorry for what you did, and not for how the other person feels) and a forward-looking action (how can I help? or I’ll try not to do it again). As you state, both of those are about Person A, not Person B. I’ve had some practice over the last few years trying to teach this to my child (who is considerably more empathic and kind than I was at their age) and that first distinction is hard to get.

  5. J
    Joshua says:

    I like to think of apologies as kind of a gift, and as with gifts, it’s always a good time to look inward and examine your own motivations. The first question I ask myself is “Am I doing this in an attempt to manipulate the other person?” If yes, then it’s back to the drawing board. Maybe rethink the nature of that relationship.

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