How to Apologize and How Not to Apologize: When “Sorry” Isn’t Enough

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Is saying that you are sorry the same thing as making an apology? Indeed, many of us have said “I’m sorry for your loss” too often to keep track: to relatives, friends, business associates, and acquaintances. Were we trying to apologize or attempting to provide a consoling message? Were we admitting guilt for what happened or expressing sympathy?

The answer should be easy. When we say that we are “sorry for the loss” we are voicing concern and attempting to comfort, not taking responsibility for the death. Unless, that is, we specify that we caused the demise of the loved one. But ordinarily, we are communicating that we are sad that it happened, not culpable.

When a person is, in fact, blameworthy, he has not necessarily done something terrible. Accidents do happen and sometimes injuries are very small. But, surely the most difficult apology to make must be to acknowledge one’s part in the death of a child. I bring this up because George Zimmerman, the man whose gun shot killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin following a conflict with him in February, is widely reported to have “apologized” to Martin’s family when he said the following in court at a bond hearing:

I wanted to say I am sorry for the loss of your son. I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not.

Yet, whatever his intention, Zimmerman did not actually apologize. Leaving aside the legal wisdom of making such a statement in court, I’d like to discuss what would have been required for Zimmerman to apologize rather than simply express sympathy, which is what he accomplished.

According to Aaron Lazare’s book On Apology, one must:

  1. Acknowledge the harm that you inflicted — for example, “I broke your toy” or “I shoplifted the purse” or “I shot and killed your loved one.”
  2. Say that you are sorry for what you have personally done, admit that you should not have done it, and express remorse; not simply that you are sorry that a loss occurred.
  3. Attempt to compensate the injured party or parties in some way. In the case of public humiliation caused by a cruel joke, for example, it would be appropriate (although perhaps impractical) for you to make a public admission of your foolishness in front of the same people who were present when you embarrassed the other person. Similarly, if you broke his window, you would need to repair or replace it, or get someone else to do this.
  4. You must do your very best to make sure that your behavior isn’t repeated.

Simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient to state, “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” a turn-of-phrase we hear from public figures, but one that is absolutely inadequate. According to Lazare, it is crucial that the transgressor be precise in admitting what exactly he did that caused harm, making no excuses that diminish his responsibility. This is the same sort of thing that happens in court, when, after a plea bargain, the accused admits exactly what he did without justifying it, and recounts the consequences that followed from that behavior. In legal terms it is called “allocution.”

Although George Zimmerman didn’t apologize to Trayvon Martin’s family, he did try to explain away his (unspecified) action when he stated, “I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not.” If we look at the requirements of an adequate apology listed above, we can see that Zimmerman met none of them. He did not state that he was responsible for the death of the teenager and the pain that the family is suffering, he did not say that he was sorry for taking the action, he offered no compensation to the family, and he said nothing about changing his behavior (such as trying to avoid future conflicts or deciding not to carry a gun, for example). I understand that the legal process made some of this inadvisable, but that fact does not alter the definition of what an apology is and what it is not.

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Clearly, we cannot and do not apologize for everything. But, if we spill some milk, it really is nice and proper for us to say that we are sorry for what we’ve done and try to clean it up. Most of us do, except for those times when we blame the other by saying “You shouldn’t have put the milk there” or expect someone else to mop the floor.

Apologizing can be surprisingly rewarding, even if difficult. It can help to repair injuries and improve relationships. Apologies can sometimes provide closure to those parties who have suffered significant losses, where adequate compensation is not possible. They can contribute to mutual understanding and lead to forgiveness and letting go.

An example of an attempt to produce such reconciliation between perpetrators and victims was the Republic of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created after apartheid was ended in that country in 1994. Apartheid was the white government’s policy of racial segregation, denial of human rights, discrimination, and mistreatment of blacks. The Commission included public hearings in which some of the victims testified to their experience. Perhaps more significantly, perpetrators of violence were also permitted to make public statements of their responsibility for wrong-doing and to request amnesty.

There is quite a distance between spilled milk and spilled blood, no question about it. But the possibility of reconciliation, however remote, can only come with a properly voiced apology and the expressed regret that should come with it. Life is full of disagreements, differences, and damage, in addition to unintentionally hurt feelings. Those who are able to feel remorse and admit wrong doing set the stage for the possibility of some amount of healing. Indeed, the perpetrator and the victim are very occasionally bonded together more strongly by the experience.

I hear you saying, “That’s a lot easier to say than to do.” True enough. As one of the members of the comedy team Cheech and Chong used to say, “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” Self-interest often recommends denial of fault, as in the case of a trial in a court of law. And yet, sometimes common decency, conscience, and a caring heart dictate that we try to repair what we have broken.

The first image is St. Francis in Meditation, a painting by Francisco de Zurbaran from 1635-1639. It is followed by an 1885 Caricature of a Marriage Proposal by H. Schlittzen. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Forgiveness: If and When?

Much is made, especially by the religious, about the importance of forgiveness. But the topic is worthy of some discussion before one gives a blanket endorsement to forgiveness of everyone and everything. Should all acts be open to forgiveness? Is apology essential before there is any forgiveness? Are some offenses unforgivable? Are some people permitted more leeway to act inappropriately and exempt from the expectation of apology?

First off, who has the right to forgive? Only those who have been injured. I have no right to forgive your mistakes unless you have done me harm in some fashion. Certainly, this right might include an injury done to someone I love, if I too will have suffered pain due to the harm done to the other person. The idea that I can’t forgive you for an injury you did to someone I don’t know, for example, is allied to the notion of legal standing. I can’t bring a law suit against you unless the court agrees that I have a stake in the matter. As the old saying goes, “I don’t have a dog in this race.” That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about what happened; rather, it means that in matters of injury, compensation, or apology, I’m not directly involved.

Another consideration is whether the injury is ongoing. If someone is in the process of playing practical jokes on you day after day, to take an example that is relatively small, would you forgive his poor taste or judgment? He’d probably laugh at you if you did, because that individual sees nothing wrong with what he has done. Better to get him to stop or get out of his way, than to consider any generosity of spirit on your part that is likely to go unappreciated.

Then there is the question of apology. Let’s assume the joker just mentioned has a moment of self-awareness, or perhaps has been persuaded that his actions are rude. What must he do to apologize? According to Aaron Lazare’s book On Apology, he should acknowledge what he did to hurt you, say that he is sorry, and attempt to compensate you in some way. In the case of public humiliation caused by the practical jokes, for example, it would be appropriate (although perhaps impractical) for the prankster to make a public admission of his foolishness in front of the same people who were present when he embarrassed you. Moreover, he must do his very best to make sure that his boorish behavior isn’t repeated. Simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient to state, “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” a turn-of-phrase we hear from public figures, but one that is absolutely inadequate. According to Lazare, it is crucial that the transgressor be precise in admitting what exactly he did that caused harm, leaving no ifs, ands or buts, and making no excuses. This is the same sort of thing that happens in court, when, after a plea bargain, the accused admits exactly what he did without excusing it away, and recounts the consequences that followed from that behavior. In legal terms it is called “allocution.”

With respect to the question of some offenses being unforgivable, that is for the injured party to decide. Murder, rape, torture–all terrible–still permit the possibility of forgiveness if it is in the capacity of the afflicted to give it. The same answer would apply to the question of having a different standard for the behavior of one person than for another. We all do this in practice, accepting the failures and misbehavior of those we love when we aren’t so generous with a stranger who does exactly the same thing; and we often let things go without apology.

Forgiveness, however, is not the same as forgetting. If you have been injured, it is most often worth remembering who did what to you, lest you put yourself at risk of being hurt once again. Nor does forgiveness require that you continue your relationship with the person who harmed you; it is sometimes good judgment to forgive the person at the same time that you end the relationship with him.

Relationships are messy and we all can do better and be kinder. Many people have trouble telling others when their actions have caused an injury. The victim can suffer silently or in grumbling discontent, and passive-aggressively try to pay-back the injurer in some indirect fashion. Often, the hurt that the injurer caused is inadvertent and might be easily remedied if the one who has done the harm is told gently but firmly that he caused unhappiness.

Of course, some relationships, if they regularly cause injury, can be quickly dispensed with at little cost. But for those closest to us, we usually will suffer more and longer before limiting contact or severing the bond with that individual. And contact with parents or siblings, for example, cannot be replaced. So, for most of us, we will usually put up with some measure of unhappiness in order to keep a place in our lives for even the unrepentant relative. And, in part, it depends on how much one is willing to put up with.

There is at least one additional very important and useful reason to forgive. It follows from the old Italian expression, “If you want revenge, you should dig two graves (one for yourself and one for the object of your revenge).” The point here is that carrying anger is costly and letting go of that anger might allow you to be happier and more at ease in the rest of your life.

But, be careful not to let go automatically and too soon. Anger is often a necessary part of getting over an injury. While it doesn’t always have to be expressed at someone else, neither is turning the other cheek invariably the best policy for your psychological well-being. Writing about your feelings will oft-times help, and talking to a friend or counselor can be useful. But once you are through the stage of anger, forgiveness is at least a possibility.

Still another reason for accepting an apology and forgiving is that the relationship can be continued and sometimes improved by the act of mutual understanding that is involved. Life is full of disagreements and differences, in addition to unintentionally hurt feelings. Those parties who can survive conflicts, communicate about them, and come to a point of acceptance, understanding, and appreciation often are bonded together more strongly by the experience.

It takes maturity to know when to ignore something and when, instead, to confront the person who has injured you. Most things probably aren’t worth the trouble of a conflict, lest one always be fighting and accusing others. Best to wait for a cool and calm moment to decide whether confrontation is worth it, than to act in the over-heated instant. That is nothing more than common sense.

But, as a wise man once said, common sense is rather uncommon.