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The Art of the Apology

Shannon and I had a long talk today and worked things out, so we're good again. What a relief! It's so rare that we really disagree. I hate how it feels. Anyway, the whole experience got me thinking about apologies and my opinions about how they work. So I wrote up a my own little personal guide to apologies. I'm sure it has stuff in it that's completely wrong (and most of this stuff varies depending on the people and the relationship), but it's a collection of my own thoughts off the top of my head. Without further ado ...

The Art of the Apology

Making an Apology

  1. Be Sincere: Only apologize if you really mean it, if you are sincerely sorry for what you did. An insincere apology will only lead to further disingenuous interaction and dishonesty. Is that really what you want to bring to your relationship?

  2. Be Calm: If you are still feeling resentful, defensive, or otherwise upset, wait until you feel calmer and more able to engage in honest, constructive conversation about whatever happened. Otherwise, the apology is likely to come out in a way unlikely to be helpful, and might possibly just make things worse. If possible, go off on your own somewhere until you are able to handle the situation calmly.

  3. Clear Up Confusion: If you actually don't understand what happened and just have a vague feeling that an apology is required because the other person is mad, don't just apologize to get it over with. Again, this just fosters a relationship of miscommunication. Instead, acknowledge that you are confused, that you want to understand, and then ask respectful questions about the other person's feelings. For example:

    • I'm sorry I upset you so much. I'm not sure exactly what I did wrong, but I really want to understand so I can avoid doing it again. Will you help me?

  4. Be Specific and Don't Exaggerate: Avoid hyperbole, exaggeration, self-pity, and vagueness. Instead, try to focus on a realistic and specific approximation of what you actually did wrong. Exaggerations and vague generalizations put the other person in the position of defending you instead of accepting an apology, which isn't fair to them. It's a way of (consciously or unconsciously) weaseling out of actually taking responsibility for your actions. For example:

    • I'm sorry I was such a pain in the ass. (self-pitying exaggeration)
    • I'm sorry I yelled at you. (better)

    • I'm sorry I ruined our whole day. (vague exaggeration)
    • I'm sorry I lost my temper in front of your friends. (better)

    • I'm sorry. I just suck at this stuff. (vague self-pity)
    • I'm sorry I wasn't communicating with you very well about how I was feeling. (better)

    • I'm sorry I can't do anything right. (self-pitying, vague exaggeration)
    • I'm sorry I ruined your shirt by drying it on "Hot". (better)

    These kinds of pseudo-apologies often work to inspire in a caring person the desire to comfort you, to say that it's really not all that bad, etc. Miraculously, you are relieved from actually have to talk about what you did do, because you've redirected the conversation toward things you didn't do. Sneaky. Manipulative.

    Note: I personally tend to fall into exaggerated self-pity apologies when I'm not watching myself and being careful to be honest and specific. I start beating myself up, blowing things out of proportion, and by the time I go to apologize, I feel like Hitler and Bill Gates rolled up into one. I grovel and whine such that I usurp the roll of injured party. Bad me!

  5. Take Responsibility: Talk about what YOU did, instead of adding on any qualifiers that blame the other person. Keep the apology itself as brief as possible, remaining focused on your own behavior. Unless absolutely necessary, do not quality your apology with references to the other person's behavior. For example:

    • I'm sorry that I snapped at you. (good)
    • I'm sorry I snapped at you because you were talking so much. (not so good)

    • I'm sorry I was being so impatient with you. (good)
    • I'm sorry I was being impatient with you when you were being so indecisive. (not so good)

    • I'm sorry I spilled milk on the counter and didn't clean it up. (good))
    • I'm sorry I spilled milk on the counter, but you shouldn't have startled me like that. (not so good)

    The italicized portions are actually attacks on the person to whom you are supposedly apologizing, and they are (consciously or unconsciously) attempts to abdicate responsibility for your own actions by blaming them on someone else. Also, they will often cause the other person to become defensive and less likely to listen to you, as they feel (quite rightly) that they are being subtly blamed.

  6. Don't Take TOO Much Responsibility: On the other hand, if you take too much responsibility ("It's all my fault!"), then you start either (A) leaning toward the self-pity situation that pressures the other person to comfort you or (B) fostering an unhealthy relationship in which the other person has no need to take responsibility for anything. In most relationship problems, both people played a role, and so it is unlikely that you did everything all by your lonesome. Everything in the world is not your fault ... you just need to figure out which things are, and only apologize for those.

  7. Invite Discussion: After your brief, specific, sincere apology, open up the conversation so that you have an opportunity to truly clear up the problem through discussion of what happened. Still stay focused on your own behavior as much as possible, so that your apology doesn't seem like an attack. For example:

    • I'm sorry I snapped at you. I was getting impatient and probably wasn't listening as well as I could. What was it you were trying to tell me?

    • I'm sorry I was being so impatient with you. I know you sometimes have trouble making decisions; was that what was going on tonight?

    • I'm sorry I was being so impatient with you tonight. I wonder if there's some compromise we could reach that would allow me to help you when you have trouble making decisions.

    • I'm sorry I spilled milk on the counter and didn't clean it up. Did you feel like I was being irresponsible, or was it something else?

Accepting an Apology

  1. Acknowledge the Apology: In the past, whenever I apologized to my husband Shannon, he had one stock response:
    K: I'm sorry I threw that Carcassonne tile. It was childish of me.
    S: Yep.
    No matter how carefully I crafted my apologies, they were met with an abrupt response of either "Yep" or "Yeah" ... both of which, to me, felt like my wrongdoing was being acknowledged, but communication was being cut off without any real acknowledgment of what I'd just said. It was like apologizing to a brick wall.

    On the other hand, from what I have seen in the world, the most common response to an apology is something along the lines of "That's okay". Well, often, this response is a lie. Whatever the person did isn't okay, and you saying that it is doesn't help anyone. When it comes to apologies and responses to them, there are no good stock answers you can just trot out whenever necessary, because both should be tailored to the specific situation for optimal communication and benefit. Don't ignore the apology, and don't brush it off. If you are still angry, ask to continue the discussion after an hour (or whatever period of time seems best). Wait until you can listen calmly and respond constructively.

    When someone makes an apology, the most constructive response is one that addresses the actual content of the apology. As with the apology itself, the response should be sincere, calm, and specific. For example:

    • A: I'm sorry that I snapped at you.
      R: It really hurt my feelings. Why were you so upset?

    • A: I'm sorry I was being so impatient with you.
      R: I know I was being indecisive. It seemed like you were getting really frustrated with me.

    • A: I'm sorry I spilled milk on the counter and didn't clean it up.
      R: I understand you were busy, but I just want us each to do our own share of the cleaning.

  2. Encourage Conversation: Ask questions. Invite communication. Say and ask things that encourage the other person to tell you how they were feeling, why they behaved as they did, how you might both understand each other better in the future. Avoid comments that cut off discussion.

    • Yeah, well, you always do things like this.
    • I wish you'd stop always trying to make it all about you.
    • Fine. I forgive you.

    Basically, what these sorts of responses really say is, "I don't want to understand this better. I just want you to shut up about it." While you might feel that way sometimes, it isn't a healthy way to behave in a relationship, regardless of whether it's with a romantic partner, a family member, a work associate, or a friend. Instead, actively encourage them to talk more with you, so that you can both maybe do things a little better next time around. Take this as an opportunity to learn.


( 48 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 21st, 2003 01:25 am (UTC)
As far as I'm concerned it's a great guide and one that I would benifit from following, especially after arguments with my boyfriend. So . . .thank you *g*
Dec. 29th, 2003 01:23 pm (UTC)
Wow ... livejournal is a small world. :-)

Dec. 21st, 2003 05:31 am (UTC)
This is such an incredibly good article!! I think you could sell this to magazines or newspapers!

May I have permission to post it to my journal and/or to my mailing lists? If for the latter, would you like your real name listed?
Dec. 22nd, 2003 12:16 am (UTC)
Feel free to re-post this, as long as you ascribe it to me (Kimberly Appelcline) and link to this journal. :)
Dec. 21st, 2003 10:03 am (UTC)
That was awesome. What a good analysis!
Dec. 21st, 2003 11:54 am (UTC)
I will read this at length later, but I can tell that it is The Real Stuff. I'd like to link to it, if I may.
Dec. 22nd, 2003 12:17 am (UTC)
If only I'd written this in time to make it part of a zine for the APA! Alas.

But, yes ... please feel free to link if the mood so strikes.
Dec. 21st, 2003 02:15 pm (UTC)
A big Hurrah! for this post.
Dec. 21st, 2003 08:14 pm (UTC)
When i do things wrong i have a tendency to just say "i'm sorry" to my husband. This really frustrated him because i would do the same thing over and over again. He has me saying "i'll do better next time" now, which sort of sets me up for improvement rather than constant apology for broken rules or lateness or whatnot.

This is a great guide to apologizing, though. There's a lot of common sense in here that's often lost in the heat of the moment.
Dec. 22nd, 2003 01:39 am (UTC)
Re: apologies
Thank you for posting this. I know that I tend to over-explain what went wrong and why I did what I did rather than move on and focus on what can be done better next time. I suspect that I want the reasons understood so I won't be viewed as stupid but my overexplaining is wearying at times.

I'm going to try to remember to post this to my journal but without my own box running, I've been reading and posting less.
Jan. 2nd, 2004 04:19 pm (UTC)
Re: apologies
I have that tendency too, though I think I'm moving past it. Also thanks to this entry, though, I suddenly realize I've been letting someone in my life get away with vague apologies and that's probably why the situation generating the apologies never seems to change. Now I know what to work on.
Jan. 2nd, 2004 04:31 pm (UTC)
Re: apologies
Neat! I never expected this post to touch so many people. :)
Jan. 2nd, 2004 05:23 pm (UTC)
Re: apologies
Blame kest for sending me here. :-)
Jan. 7th, 2004 07:30 am (UTC)
Re: apologies
And still the people affected grows. :)

I will also steal a link, for my 'philosophy' section of my memories :D
Dec. 29th, 2003 12:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this; I wandered over from a link in wild_irises LJ.

From my own experience one thing I would add to the "Acknowledging the Apology" are words along the line of "Thank you" or "I appreciate that." To wit:

A: I'm sorry that I snapped at you.
R: Thank you. The snapping really hurt my feelings. Why were you so upset?


A: I'm sorry I was being so impatient with you.
R: I appreciate that. I know I was being indecisive. It seemed like you were getting really frustrated with me.

Otherwise, the response sounds to my ear less like it is a conversation between equals but rater the opening of an exchange where the respondent has an upper hand.
Dec. 29th, 2003 02:27 pm (UTC)
Good point!
Dec. 29th, 2003 01:22 pm (UTC)
This is wonderful. (I came over here from wild_irises' journal). Thank you for sharing it!

Dec. 30th, 2003 05:58 am (UTC)
I might as well say hi while I'm here. Good post, this is :)
Jan. 2nd, 2004 02:37 am (UTC)
I came to this, oddly enough, through it being linked on BoingBoing.net, which I read through boingboing_net.

The Internet is beautiful. So is this post. Thank you.
Jan. 2nd, 2004 06:56 am (UTC)
I found it through boingboing, too.

Wow. This is incredible. I'm making it a memory, and posting the link in my own journal.
Jan. 2nd, 2004 02:13 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the compliment! And, strangely enough, just yesterday I had noticed and admired your icon in a comment in maida_mac's journal. Small world. :)
Jan. 2nd, 2004 02:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks for telling me ... I had no idea I was famous!
Jan. 2nd, 2004 09:08 am (UTC)
That's a darn good list. I found it through http://boingboing.net, so undoubtably you are going to get a ton of hits on this post.
Jan. 2nd, 2004 11:14 am (UTC)

Another boingboinger hoping that I can keep close to this list the next time I do something incredibly insensitive and/or stupid.

Thanks a lot for this.
Oct. 13th, 2005 11:54 pm (UTC)
*taps you gently on the shoulder*

Perhaps we (you and I) could use this list, as a reference point?


(It'd be nice to have my friend back.)
Oct. 15th, 2005 10:19 pm (UTC)
You presume that I have anything to say to you.

You further presume that I have any interest in anything you may have to say to me.

You're wrong on both counts.
Oct. 16th, 2005 05:15 am (UTC)

I thought that, perhaps there might be something left of a 10 year friendship that we could try to salvage.

I'm sorry I bothered you.
Jan. 2nd, 2004 04:05 pm (UTC)
what a great guide... now i have to remember to use that the next time i appologize.;)
Jan. 2nd, 2004 06:16 pm (UTC)
And MetaFilter found you too!
Jan. 2nd, 2004 06:54 pm (UTC)
Yeah, totally weird. I'm clicking through my livejournal feeds, and one minute I'm on MeFi, the next I'm back on lj!

I have nothing useful to add.
Jan. 2nd, 2004 09:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the pointer. :)
Jan. 2nd, 2004 11:56 pm (UTC)
Wow. This rocks. My husband is very good at this kind of communication, and I think this will help me get better at it. Thank you!

(I found it because Patrick Nielsen Hayden linked to it from his blog, Electrolite. You're getting famous!)
Jan. 3rd, 2004 12:26 am (UTC)
Thank you! I can't believe how many people are linking to this!
Jan. 3rd, 2004 10:55 am (UTC)
Five Minutes
This looks like a great detail piece. It spells out more clearly some things I heard said in a June 10, 2003 "Five Minutes with Moira Gunn" on NPR. The short transcript can be found here.

I found it incredibly inspiring at the time, and it was a great tool to just begin more productive conversations between my husband and I.

Got your link from syntheticnature.
Jan. 4th, 2004 02:55 am (UTC)
re: the take responsibility part..
there is a thing called "i statements" (we had to do them in our fruity women's studies courses when I was in college). They do say what the other person did to start the trouble and it's more discussion that apology but it works well.

I feel
When you
and then..

Like I feel really hurt when you call me fat because it makes me feel inadequate and then I hold back my feelings from you
or something like that. it puts the focus on the feelings not the act of what happened without completely taking the catalyst out of the picture either.

Jan. 4th, 2004 04:23 pm (UTC)
got this through a friend.

i must say, good stuff. you'd think a lot of this would be common sense, but in the heat of the moment, common sense just goes out the window doesn't it?

thanks for putting it into words :)
Jan. 4th, 2004 06:17 pm (UTC)
This is an awesome guide, and one I've been sorely needing for a few days. Thanks so much.
Jan. 4th, 2004 07:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the compliment. :)
Jan. 5th, 2004 11:46 pm (UTC)
this is amazing... thanks!!!
Jan. 7th, 2004 01:53 am (UTC)
more praise
I really like this guide, thanks for posting it... I think sometimes people respond to advice like this by saying 'why is that better than what i'm doing?' or 'what do you even mean?' but the examples make both really clear. I wish lotsa people I know followed this.
(I got here from kest's link.)
Perhaps www.heartless-bitches.com would post it, if you wanted them to.
Jan. 7th, 2004 09:50 am (UTC)
Awesome guide. Thanks for posting it. =)

- E!
Jan. 26th, 2004 05:26 am (UTC)
that was amazing. may i add you?
Jan. 26th, 2004 10:09 am (UTC)
Feel free, though most of my entries are much more casual.
Mar. 10th, 2004 10:08 am (UTC)
Hi! I was directed here by a friend and I was wondering if I could have your permission to post this (crediting you) in my own journal?

And, if not, may I have permission to link?

Thanks :)
Mar. 10th, 2004 11:38 am (UTC)
As long as you credit me by my LJ username, I'm fine with you reposting it.
Mar. 10th, 2004 11:39 am (UTC)
Thank you!
Jul. 15th, 2004 09:08 am (UTC)
I like those guidelines. I especially like the idea of only taking responsibility for what you've done without manipulating the other person into caretaking/forgiving because you're flagellating yourself, and of sticking to one point at a time.

I'm adding this entry to my memories. Well done!
Jan. 17th, 2006 02:58 am (UTC)
thanks for the great advice. I'm trying to find the right way to (sincerely) apologize to my ex-girlfriend, and this has helped me brainstorm. thanks again!
( 48 comments — Leave a comment )

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