Tuesday, August 05, 2008

How to Apologise

I was recently in the position of having to apologise to a colleague who I had offended. I felt guilty about what I had done, but I am nervous about confrontation so I wrote a note. While writing it down I felt an enormous temptation to justify myself - why couldn't they see how difficult it was for me? - but I realised that excuses like that were not only meaningless, but might easily make me seem insincere in my apology. Fortunately I was able to apologise briefly and (it appears) successfully.

What surprised me was how hard I found it to apologise - not for lack of remorse, but just the complexity of the actual apology, and the struggle against self-justification. A month later I spotted Aaron Lazore's "On Apology" in my local library. Lazore studied historical and personal apologies to try to discover what makes a good apology, and why so many apologies fail. The book is an excellent read, with many examples of successful and unsuccessful apologies in private and public life. Here is a brief summary of Lazore's conclusions about how to apologise, how apologies heal, why apologies fail, and when to apologise:

What makes a good apology

Lazore suggests that there are four ingredients to a good apology. You must:
  1. Acknowledge the Offence: Without admitting that we have done something wrong, our apology is useless. The offended party must know that we understand how (and against whom) we have trespassed. This is the hardest part, because it involves an admission of culpability - something most people feel as harrowing. Some people see it as a weakness, and in litigious cultures it is often (misguidedly) discouraged if it is felt that it might encourage lawsuits.
  2. Explain: The offended person needs to know that there was a reason for your behaviour. It can be important to them to understand how things happened - partly so that they can satisfy themselves that it was not their fault (see below), and partly because it allows them to judge whether they can expect the same behaviour from us in future. It is important not to mistake an explanation for an excuse - this isn't about vindicating ourselves or absolving ourself from responsibility (which would prevent us from acknowledging the offence), but about helping the offended party to understand.
  3. Show Remorse: It is important to show that the injury has hurt us as well as the victim. This reassures the offended party that they are not alone, and that we are unlikely to repeat the offence. It implies some justice in the world - although most people aren't obsessed with revenge, they may receive some satisfaction in the idea that those who offended against them have been punished.
  4. Offer Reparation: If the apology deals with a loss which can be fixed or replaced, we should make an effort to do so. An apology shouldn't be used as a way to weasel out of obligations of this nature - and indeed, often apologies are trivial in such situations. Break a friend's mug? Replace it and apologise, and that easily ends the matter with no bad blood. Of course, there are some things that simply can't be replaced or fixed - but not as many as we might think.
Not all apologies require all four of these parts, but any apology should at least consider them all, and there should be a good reason for the absence of any of these factors. These four parts of the apology between them assist the important function of the apology - to heal the relationship between the offender and the offended party.

How apologies heal
  1. They restore respect and dignity to the victim: The simple fact that an apology was made helps show that the offended party is worthy of consideration.
  2. They assure shared values: By explaining and apologising, we can show that we also think that what we did was wrong, and that we are part of the same society, with the same values. This is important to help rebuild the relationship.
  3. They assure the victim that the offence is not their fault: Part of the shock of an insult, assault, or other offence can manifest itself in self-doubt on the victim's part. To avoid similar events in the future they search for a meaning in what happened - and for some people it is easier to see a cause in themselves than to seek it in other people: "what did I do wrong?", "If only I'd...". By taking responsibility for the offence, we show the offended party that they are not to blame, and allow them to restore some of their self-image.
  4. They assures safety in the relationship: By showing that we consider what we did to be wrong, they help assure the victim that this is not likely to be a regular feature of our behaviour, and that we can be trusted not to do it again. Of course, for this to be meaningful in anyway, we cannot repeat the offence! Anyone would be forgiven for mistrusting the apology of someone who had offended them the same was multiple times in the past.
  5. They shows that the offender has suffered: As mentioned above, it is pleasing and comforting to know that those who insult or harm us are punished in some way, either by society or by their own conscience. It reassures the offended party that people cannot go around insulting them free from all repercussions, and it tells them that we are less likely to offend in the future even if it is only to save ourselves from harm.
  6. They offer reparation for harm: If the offended party has been materially disadvantaged, adequate reparations remove that disadvantage, in effect nullifying some of the hurt.
  7. They allow a meaningful dialogue: Often, the victim just wants to be heard. By admitting responsibility and laying out the facts we can help them to understand what happened and why it happened, and also allow them to explain to us how it affected them and what they expect of us in the future. Without this, we cannot negotiate past the injury itself.
Given that everyone is taught to apologise from a young age, why is it that so many apologies seem to fail at their task? The simple fact is that apologies are hard, since to apologise properly involves what some people might see as an admission of weakness. It is often too tempting to excuse ourselves, or weasel out of the apology in a way that makes it seem as though we are apologising but maintains our self-image of being in some way in the right.

Why apologies sometimes fail
  1. We apologise for the wrong offence: The correct offence to apologise for, of course, is the one we are responsible for. Apologising for the effect our actions have on others rather than the actions themselves (see item 6) is failing to admit culpability for the actual offence.
  2. We make vague apologies: By apologising for "whatever I may have done", we fail to take responsibility for a specific act and may in fact imply that it never happened.
  3. We make passive apologies: A favourite of politicians ("We apologise for mistakes that were made"), passive apologies fail to acknowledge the offence by casting it as a causeless event - not the responsibility of any one person, but just something that happened.
  4. We make our apologies conditional: "If I offended anyone, I apologise". By hinting that the offended party might not really have been offended at all, we make light of their suffering and try to put the blame onto them - for being "too touchy", for instance.
  5. We question the damage or minimise the insult: When we suggest that something is "hardly worth apologising for", we are setting ourselves up as arbiters over our victims. Most people know when something isn't worth apologising for - and that boundary is extremely low in most societies. It's worth apologising for accidentally bumping into someone on the tube - an accident that is common and rarely causes any harm - so how little would an offence have to be to be hardly worth apologising for?
  6. We use the empathic "sorry": The empathic sorry ("I'm sorry to hear that") is all very well when the circumstances are beyond our control - if we're sympathising with someone's mourning, for instance. But it must not be used as a way of avoiding responsibility, or to underhandedly insult those we have wronged (as in "I'm sorry you found that offensive").
  7. We apologise to the wrong party: The proper person to apologise to is the victim. It can be tempting to apologise to parties that aren't offended, but who hold some kind of power us - perhaps the power of punishment. But this shows a lack of remorse towards the victim, and can be a somewhat cynical attempt to avoid censure.
The final thing Lazore stresses about apologies concerns their timing. It is natural to think that we must apologise as soon as possible - and that is right. But no sooner. An apology for any offence that is not trivial should be considered, not rushed into. The timing of an apology is almost as important as the apology itself.

When to apologise
  1. Do not apologise "in advance": An apology in advance is not an apology - it is an excuse for behaviour which we know might offend. If we understand in advance that our behaviour might hurt someone, it is usually better to reconsider what we are about to do than try to get forgiveness.
  2. Do not (always) apologise immediately: Insults and injuries often take some time to sink in - an immediate apology often does not address the real hurt caused, simply because that hurt is not apparent yet. An immediate apology can also seem rather callous - some people by apologising quickly seek to forestall the complaint against them. This way they do not have to experience as much of the suffering of the offended party. Such an apology is self-serving and unhelpful.
  3. Do not expect immediate forgiveness: The script that we have learnt from childhood is that we apologise and then we are forgiven. But it isn't always possible to make a perfect apology the first time - we may not understand quite how we've affected the offended party, and what would be appropriate in terms of remorse and reparation. It is important above all to remember that in the real world forgiveness is not usually unconditional. It requires an adequate apology and reasonable reparations. An apology relies as much on negotiation as anything else, and that negotiation may have to be a long and careful process.
References: "On Apology", Aaron Lazore (Oxford University Press, 2004)